On Friday, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, called for “post-Watergate reforms” in response to President Donald Trump’s pushback against multiple congressional subpoenas surrounding his family finances and the report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Schiff suggested that Congress should fine people $25,000 per day until they comply with a subpoena to restore Congress as a “co-equal branch of government,” even though the current subpoenas are petty political posturing.
Axios’s Mike Allen asked Schiff about the process of prosecuting subpoenas when a person refuses to comply. The Democrat noted that “there’s no guarantee” that the courts would uphold a subpoena. “It is a process that is designed to take time, and we are already thinking of what are the post-Watergate reforms that will need to be enacted when this ugly chapter is over,” Schiff said.
In this one sentence, he compared Trump’s stonewalling on petty political subpoenas to former President Richard Nixon’s responses during the Watergate scandal, and called for radical constitutional reforms just to back up these recent political attacks.
“We will I think undoubtedly have to enact a swifter process to enforce congressional subpoenas,” Schiff argued. “But one thing we are considering in the absence of that is whether we need to revive Congress’s inherent contempt power, such that we would have our own adjudication in the Congress and we would levy fines on those who are not cooperating until they produce what they’re compelled to produce.”
Allen noted that “this is news,” and indeed it is. He then asked, “So you don’t think people should be put in jail, but you are considering what?”
Schiff suggested “levying individual fines on the person — not on the office — until they comply. Courts use that practice, I think it’s quite successful.” Specifically, he suggested, “You could fine someone $25,000 a day until they comply and that will probably get their attention.”
He justified such radical changes as somehow less drastic than impeachment, the process by which Congress could — even now — demand an entirely unredacted version of the Mueller report. “Look if we’re going to consider other big steps like impeachment, we ought to consider steps like inherent contempt that will allow us to get the information we need,” Schiff said.
The Democrat again resorted to grandiose claims of separation of powers and Congress’s power under the Constitution, arguing that Trump’s stonewalling has created a constitutional crisis.
“If there is going to be this across-the-board stonewalling, we’re going to have to consider extraordinary remedies because at the end of the day, this isn’t just about this president, it’s not just about these documents. It is whether Congress is a co-equal branch and a co-equal power and we can enforce oversight because if we can’t, it means that any future president can act as corruptly or as malfeasant as they want and there is simply no accountability,” Schiff concluded.
— CSPAN (@cspan) May 10, 2019
Schiff’s hyperbole is extremely rich, coming from a hyper-partisan Congressman pulling a grandiose political stunt.
Trump has pushed back against multiple subpoenas from Congress, mostly petty attacks on his person. In April, President Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump, and Ivanka Trump filed a lawsuit against Deutsche Bank and Capital One to block those institutions from complying with congressional subpoenas. That lawsuit followed multiple subpoenas from Schiff and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) — chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee — seeking records on Trump’s personal finances.
Democrats are trying to acquire the president’s private financial records by any means possible, and acting as though Trump is in the midst of Watergate every time he complains about the release of his private information. Trump may have gone too far in this lawsuit, but the blitz for his private records is clearly a political tactic.
“The subpoenas were issued to harass President Donald J. Trump, to rummage through every aspect of his personal finances, his businesses, and the private information of the President and his family, and to ferret about for any material that might be used to cause him political damage. No grounds exist to establish any purpose other than a political one,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit came days after it was reported that Deutsche Bank had started turning over Trump’s financial documents to the New York state attorney general’s office in response to a subpoena. A judge fast-tracked the lawsuit on Thursday.
Schiff’s major move was a subpoena forcing Attorney General William Barr to turn over a completely unredacted copy of the Mueller Report. If Schiff goes to a court to enforce the subpoena, the court would refuse, because under the D.C. Appeals Court ruling in McKeever v. Barr, a court has no authority to order disclosure unless it is pursuant to an exception to grand-jury secrecy explicitly spelled out in Rule 6(e) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, as former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy explained.
Furthermore, Rule 6(e) is a law passed by Congress. Congress could repeal it, but good luck convincing Republicans to change the law in service of a Democrat political stunt.
As McCarthy noted, “Nadler & Co. do not really want the grand jury material. They want to try to make Barr’s refusal to disclose it look like Watergate.”
Furthermore, Congress isn’t just a co-equal power with the president — Congress is the power under the Constitution. Unfortunately, Congress ceded a great deal of its legislative prerogative to regulatory agencies, and in many ways, the rise of the Executive Branch is Congress’s doing.
Trump’s refusal to play along with these subpoenas is not a constitutional crisis. If National Review‘s David French is correct that Trump’s lawsuit is wrong-headed and the president will have to turn over his tax returns eventually, that will happen. Even so, his lawsuit is clearly a response to a blatantly political attack from Democrats.
Schiff’s call for radical “post-Watergate reforms” is nothing more than political posturing. This is no constitutional crisis. It is a highly annoying political sideshow, tying Trump down and preventing him from acting as the duly elected president he is.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.