Advocates of good government generally agree that when the three branches are in relative balance, American democracy has a better chance to thrive. President Trump is aggressively challenging that notion, and this week he's opened several new fronts in his campaign to bolster executive power at the expense of Congress:
- He declared he does not want any current administration officials to testify on Capitol Hill about anything to do with special counsel Robert Mueller's report.
- He also signaled he may put presidential lawyers to work to prevent former officials, especially former White House counsel Don McGahn, from appearing before any congressional committees. ("There is no reason to go any further, and especially in Congress where it's very partisan — obviously very partisan," Trump told The Washington Post on Tuesday.)
- His Treasury Department flatly defied a deadline set by the House Ways and Means Committee for turning over six years of Trump's tax returns, which the panel seems entitled to see as a matter of law.
- The Trump Organization sued House Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah Cummings to block a subpoena that seeks several years of the president's financial documents.
What this amounts to, in every case, is the leader of the executive branch counting on the judicial branch to step in and prevent the legislative branch from conducting the oversight that's at the core of constitutional prerogatives.
"This completely comports with Trump's approach to business and life," was the analysis Axios was given by Bloomberg's Tim O'Brien, who described Trump as not even close to being a billionaire in a 2005 biography and won a subsequent lawsuit filed by his subject. "Roy Cohn taught him how to weaponize the legal system when he was still in his late 20s — nearly 50 years ago."
The president is clearly aided in this approach by the political realities of the moment.
He is combatting a power-split Congress, where virtually any assertions of power by the Democratic House will be ignored or even repudiated by Trump's fellow Republicans in the Senate.
And he is relying on winning his battles with the help of a federal court system he's already succeeded in pushing to the right, with a conservative Supreme Court majority and plenty of appeals court judges now inclined to back his views of executive power. (Tuesday's strong signals from the high court that it will defer to him on the census citizenship question is just the latest evidence of that.)