Thursday, October 10, 2019

A stonewall looks like obstruction -- Oct. 10, 2019 column


Echoes of Watergate -- now he’s building a stonewall.

You’d think the border wall with Mexico would be wall enough for President Donald Trump, whose promises to build it helped him get elected.

But now Trump has erected a metaphorical wall against impeachment which, perversely, may help him get re-elected. Trumpian defiance plays well with his base, if not with most Americans.

Even a Fox News poll reported Wednesday support for Trump’s impeachment and removal from office has reached a new high of 51 percent of voters.

“One of the main things Americans are now considering is the fact that the White House is trying to stonewall and not provide adequate information,” former President Jimmy Carter, still sharp at 95, said Tuesday on MSNBC.

The New York Times summed the situation Wednesday: “The White House intends to formally stonewall Congress, setting up a constitutional clash.”

Carter and the newspaper were referring to the political screed in the form of a letter the top White House lawyer sent Tuesday to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and three Democratic committee chairmen. 

The White House will not cooperate with the congressional impeachment inquiry, the letter said, claiming it’s an attempt to overturn the results of the 2016 election.

Trump refuses to comply with subpoenas from Congress for documents and testimony from government officials about the July 25 call with the president of Ukraine.

That’s stonewalling -- “a policy based on resistance to revelation” – a word popularized during the Watergate investigation, according to “Safire’s New Political Dictionary.”

“As transcribed from the Nixon tapes, White House counsel John Dean assured the president on Feb. 28, 1973: `We are stonewalling totally,’” William Safire writes.

A few weeks later, President Nixon directed: “I want you to stonewall it, let them plead the Fifth Amendment, cover up or anything else . . . ”

Thus Trump has latched onto a tactic that worked so well for Nixon that he was forced to resign to avoid the shame of impeachment. One of the three articles of impeachment the House Judiciary Committee had drawn involved stonewalling Congress.  

Safire traces the word’s roots to the First Battle of Bull Run War when Confederate Gen. Thomas Jonathan Jackson held his position, and a Southern officer was said to have cried, “There stands Jackson like a stone wall . . .”

Hurling verbal grenades and threatening his adversaries are classic Trumpian business tactics, but he’s not calling the shots from Trump Tower anymore.

The president doesn’t get to decide if he will be impeached. The Constitution gives Congress impeachment power.

”Despite the White House’s stonewalling, we see a growing body of evidence that shows President Trump abused his office and violated his oath to `preserve, protect and defend’ the Constitution,” Pelosi said in a statement responding to the letter.

And, in case Trump didn’t get it, Pelosi warned: “Mr. President, you are not above the law. You will be held accountable.”

Democrats continued pushing for documents and testimony in their evidence-gathering phase. If Trump continues his defiance, it could lead to an article of impeachment charging Trump with obstructing Congress.

Chinks appeared in Trump’s stonewall almost immediately. Just a day after the letter, Trump said he would cooperate under certain conditions, including the full House taking a vote on beginning the impeachment inquiry and allowing his legal team access to documents and the ability to call and cross examine witnesses.

It’s worth remembering no vote is required under the Constitution. Trump wants a vote so Republicans can use Democrats’ votes for the inquiry against them in their campaigns for re-election.

Unlike the impeachment inquiries for Nixon and President Bill Clinton, the current hearings are behind closed doors so that classified material could be discussed.

Nixon’s stonewalling ended in July 1974 with the Supreme Court’s 8-0 ruling to  turn over the White House audio tapes. Three were Nixon’s nominees to the court -- Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, Justice Harry Blackmun and Justice Lewis Powell. Justice William Rehnquist recused himself.

One wonders whether Trump nominees Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh would rule similarly and how Trump would react.  

But we can be sure even if the House accedes to Trump’s current demands, he will make others. No one expects Trump to live up to his word. Nor, to his peril, is he likely to listen to sage advice from a former president.

Jimmy Carter advised Trump: “Tell the truth . . . for a change.”

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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