Eugene Robinson: Congress does not have the option to shrug and look away

Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., joined at left by Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., counters a Republican statement during the markup in the House Judiciary Committee to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress after last-minute negotiations stalled with the Justice Department over access to the full, unredacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller's report, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 8, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Washington • The escalating war in Washington is not between the White House and “Democrats,” despite what President Trump may claim. It is between an arrogant, out-of-control executive and the people’s duly elected representatives in Congress, whose sworn duties transcend politics. There’s a big difference.

Trump tries to drag everyone and everything down to the basest, most transactional level, which is the only level he knows. In his telling, it’s “Democrats” who are demanding to see his tax returns, “Democrats” who want public testimony by special counsel Robert Mueller and former White House counsel Don McGahn, “Democrats” who are holding hearings and issuing subpoenas for the sole purpose of persecuting Donald J. Trump.

The president cynically tries to paint the whole thing as pure politics, as if it were all some kind of game. But it is not. An adversarial foreign power, Vladimir Putin's Russia, maliciously interfered with our presidential election in 2016. Trump campaign officials and advisers had scores of unusual contacts with Kremlin-connected Russians, then lied about those contacts. Trump tried repeatedly to thwart any investigation of those contacts and lies, engaging in conduct that many legal experts believe clearly amounts to obstruction of justice.

None of this is normal or acceptable, none of it, and Congress does not have the option to shrug and look away. Acting in the name of the nation, the House Ways and Means Committee has the statutory authority — and good reason — to look at Trump’s tax returns. Acting in the name of the nation, the House Judiciary Committee has the duty to read Mueller’s entire unredacted report and hear from Mueller and McGahn. Acting in the name of the nation, the speaker of the House must decide whether Trump’s conduct was so egregious that impeachment hearings should be held.

The fact that the House of Representatives is presently controlled by the Democratic Party instead of the Republican Party does not alter its responsibilities — or mitigate its powers.

Most congressional Republicans, shamefully, are shirking those responsibilities — but not all of them. According to published reports, the GOP-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee, led by Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, has subpoenaed Donald Trump Jr. in an attempt to determine whether he lied in a previous appearance before the panel. Lying to Congress, as former Trump attorney Michael Cohen unhappily learned, is a federal crime that can get you sent to prison.

The Washington Post quoted a source familiar with Trump Jr.'s thinking as saying he is "exasperated" and "thinks they just want a PR stunt." Assuming everyone has the most venal motives is apparently a Trump family trait. Perhaps it genuinely would never occur to the president's son that a Republican senator, of all people, might take his constitutional duties seriously.

It is astounding that more Republicans have not dared speak a word, let alone take any action, to assert the authority of Congress as a coequal branch of government in the face of a presidential power grab. Trump's defiance of wholly legitimate requests for information and testimony is the kind of thing that normally would spark bipartisan fire and brimstone. Instead, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., obediently follows Trump's lead and declares: "Case closed."

In truth, though, the case is still very much open. Last week, Trump had a telephone conversation with Putin during which, Trump said, the two leaders briefly discussed the "Russian hoax." Trump did not take the occasion to cite Mueller's voluminous, detailed findings about Russian election interference and warn Putin not to dare do it again. Why on earth not?

Do Republicans in Congress think it's just fine for Putin to try to influence our elections as long as he favors Republican candidates? Or are they so frightened of Trump that they're afraid to say anything? History's judgment will be brutal.

The dereliction of Republicans, however, does not obviate the duty of members of Congress who happen to be Democrats. I'm not naïve enough to think the House will proceed with no regard whatsoever for politics and the coming election. But I guess I'm idealistic enough to believe that most members of both chambers — and, I used to think, both parties — do take seriously the fact that they have been entrusted to do the people's business and defend the people's democracy.

The framers of the Constitution clearly envisioned a Congress that would stand up to an overbearing, overreaching president. Trump is cheapening and defiling his office. Members of Congress — not "Democrats" but representatives of the people — must not follow suit.

Eugene Robinson

Eugene Robinson writes a twice-a-week column on politics and culture and hosts a weekly online chat with readers. In a three-decade career at The Washington Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper’s Style section.