Why you should care
Because permanent panic is no way to live.
A look at Google Trends for the term “constitutional crisis” is a revealing window into the American psyche over the past few years. The term makes nary a blip during the Obama years, then we see a spike right before the 2016 election. You’ll recall the hand-wringing over whether or not Donald Trump would accept a loss. Funny, right? Then there have been periodic spikes throughout the Trump era at moments of norm-breaking and drama.
The highest point for “constitutional crisis” searches came around the end of January 2018. That was when, after much executive branch debate, Trump authorized the release of a classified memo authored by Republican Rep. Devin Nunes accusing the FBI of malfeasance in launching its initial investigation into Trump’s 2016 campaign. It was mostly a dud but did prompt a proper freakout.
Another search surge is gathering, courtesy of House Democrats. Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler this week called our current moment a “constitutional crisis.” Speaker Nancy Pelosi agreed. Which memo are we lighting our hair on fire over this time? The Mueller Report. The public has seen the majority of it. Congress has access to some of the redacted classified material but wants a look at the pieces redacted to protect grand jury proceedings. Lawmakers also want the underlying evidence gathered by Robert Mueller’s team, which they presumably hope will have more damaging goodies to extend the news cycle.
Democrats are reaching deep into their rhetorical arsenal to get the public interested.
After Trump exerted executive privilege over it all, in the face of a subpoena, the Judiciary Committee voted to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt, and we heard a lot about what a crisis this is.
But Democrats’ crisis crowing is about far more than simply this report. Trump has taken the extreme step of saying he’ll refuse any and all subpoenas, pushing Congressional-executive branch warfare to a new level. Even some Republicans have lost their patience: North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr signed onto a subpoena for Donald Trump Jr. as part of his Intelligence Committee probe of Russian election interference — reportedly examining whether Don Jr. was less than truthful in prior testimony. Junior is resisting, naturally.
These disputes (don’t forget Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s refusal to hand over Trump’s tax returns) will all play out in the courts. Squabbles between the executive and legislative branch have rarely been this bad, but a constitutional crisis?
Democrats are reaching deep into their rhetorical arsenal to get the public interested. But while the Republicans have spent the past two and a half years crying “witch,” Democrats have been crying wolf. Democrats and cable TV news have been in crisis mode since November 2016, and Trump sometimes eagerly fans the flames — such as the “national emergency” on the border. Constant panic diminishes actual crises, dulling our collective senses.
The Mueller Report is a helpful reminder of this panic syndrome. Much of the alleged obstruction of justice happened in those heady days of early 2017. Trump’s madcap governing style — with little interest in niceties, precedent, norms and laws — completely unnerved Washington when he first arrived. Every tweet and news alert sent shudders through the body politic. Behind the scenes, it was worse.
For example, when Trump called Adm. Mike Rogers, the head of the National Security Agency, on March 26, 2017, to complain about the Russia investigation and ask him to refute damaging news stories. “Deputy Director of the NSA Richard Ledgett, who was present for the call, said it was the most unusual thing he had experienced in 40 years of government service,” Mueller’s team writes. “After the call concluded, Ledgett prepared a memorandum that he and Rogers both signed documenting the content of the conversation and the president’s request, and they placed the memorandum in a safe.” Think about how panicked you’d have to be about a conversation to write up a memo and put it in a safe.
A few weeks later, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, causing another “constitutional crisis” search spike. Thursday marked two years since the Comey firing, and yet the Constitution still stands, even as the president has made his dislike for key parts of it known.
Start with Article I, which gives Congress vast power. If the courts side with the Democrats, and Trump resists a court order, then we’d have a constitutional crisis.
Given how these legal battles go, by then we’ll likely have gone through the 2020 election. Pelosi recently raised the concern again that Trump would refuse to accept a close electoral loss. Let’s panic some more, shall we?