Congress Russia Probe

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., talks to reporters after leading his Democratic majority to vote to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress, escalating the legal battle with the Trump administration over access to special counsel Robert Mueller's report, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 8, 2019. The committee voted 24-16 to hold Barr in contempt after the Justice Department rejected House Democrats' demands for the full Mueller report and the underlying evidence. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON — Democrats call it a “constitutional crisis.” But is it?

Stunned by the extent of the White House’s blanket refusal to comply with oversight by Congress, the Democrats warn that the Trump administration is shattering historic norms and testing the nation’s system of checks and balances in new and alarming ways.

It’s not just the House’s fight with the Justice Department over the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report. The standoff involves President Donald Trump’s unwillingness to engage with dozens of Capitol Hill probes of his tax returns, potential business conflicts and the running of the administration — from security clearances for his family to actions he’s taken on his own on immigration.

It’s a confrontation that’s only expected to deepen now that Mueller’s work is finished and the investigation focus shifts to Capitol Hill.

Trump derides the probes as “presidential harassment.” But Democrats warn that without the legislative branch staying on the case, keeping watch, any executive becomes more like a “monarchy” — or “tyranny” — that doesn’t have to answer to the representatives of all Americans.

“Will the administration violate the Constitution and not abide by the requests of Congress in its legitimate oversight responsibilities?” asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday.

“Every day they are advertising their obstruction of justice,” she said. “We’re not talking about isolated situations. We’re talking about a cumulative effect of obstruction the administration is engaged in.”

Struggles between the executive and legislative branches are nothing new. The House voted to hold George W. Bush administration officials in contempt over an investigation into the firing of U.S. attorneys. Barack Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, was found in contempt over an undercover gun-running operation.

But those were specific cases. The difference, say historians and legal scholars, is that Trump has announced he will essentially ignore all oversight requests from Congress.

Congressional experts say a big risk is setting a precedent that goes way beyond Trump. What happens, for example, if an administration stonewalls Congress on information it wants for an investigation of air or water quality rules — or anything else? Can the White House just say no?

“We have a big problem,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a Princeton University professor who studies history and public affairs.

Zelizer said with Trump “aggressively flexing power to shut down oversight capacity of another branch,” it’s “unclear who and how this is resolved, especially with Senate Republicans standing by their man.”

Asked if this is a constitutional crisis, Zelizer said, “I think we are looking at one.”

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