Against the backdrop of this long history of congressional oversight—and case law’s recognition of its validity—the president has promised to block oversight completely, tweeting that the requests constitute “Presidential Harassment,”as he renders it, and calling for an end to “partisan investigations.” As Representative Elijah Cummings put it earlier this year, the administration “is engaged in an unprecedented level of stonewalling, delay, and obstruction,” refusing to comply even with routine oversight requests.
And now President Trump’s lawyers are doing their part, making arguments in court that, if accepted, would significantly limit Congress’s oversight authority going forward. Consider, for example, the arguments that the president’s lawyers have been making in cases involving the House’s efforts to obtain documents related to the president’s and his businesses’ finances. The House is seeking those records to determine whether and how to legislate on financial-disclosure requirements and presidential conflicts of interest, as well as on issues not specifically related to the president at all, such as lending practices, money laundering, and fraud at financial institutions. The White House has refused to comply and, stunningly, the Department of Justice has echoed the president’s tweets, arguing that a “congressional demand for the President’s personal records raises the specter that members of the Legislative Branch are impermissibly attempting to interfere with or harass the Head of the Executive Branch.” Its brief reads as if congressional oversight of the president should be viewed with great suspicion—rather than as an essential congressional tool, one that the Supreme Court has long and consistently recognized.
The president’s personal lawyers have argued, among many other things, that Congress lacks a valid legislative purpose because, in their view, Congress is actually seeking this information to engage in “law enforcement.” This, despite the fact that there is no law-enforcement action pending against the president—and there could not be given that Department of Justice guidance prevents one from being brought. (There is, of course, an impeachment investigation, but remember that Congress can engage in oversight in furtherance of its constitutional powers, including the power to impeach.) The fact that Congress might uncover crimes committed by the president or his associates does not invalidate an otherwise lawful investigation.
President Trump seems to think that the normal rules don’t apply to him—and his lawyers are asking the courts to change the normal rules that have long applied to congressional oversight to protect him. If the courts were to agree, the consequences wouldn’t be limited to the fights between this president and this Congress. Rather, they would do serious damage to Congress as an institution, hindering its ability to do its job and to serve as an effective check on the executive branch. And that, in turn, would do serious damage to the country.