After years of attack, Attorney General William Barr and President Donald Trump landed the final blow on congressional oversight on Tuesday, eliminating it as we know it.
The Department of Justice sent a stunning letter to the House Judiciary Committee, refusing to bring the assistant attorney general and Bureau of Prisons director to testify as the committee had requested, because—according to the department—when Barr testified in July the committee used its time to “air grievances.” Since the Democrats did not stick to the script, the DOJ argues, the hearing did not serve a “legitimate legislative purpose,” and DOJ decided it was within its right to ignore any future request.
That’s not how oversight has ever worked. Barr’s unilateral declaration—that any attempt by Congress to question him or his officials is illegitimate—is just the latest effort to place the executive branch above its constitutional obligations. The administration has spent recent years refusing to comply with congressional subpoenas for executive documents, most notably during the impeachment inquiry, but the refusal to even appear is a complete rejection and dismantling of oversight altogether. This latest effort calls for the only possible proportionate response: William Barr should be impeached.
Under standard congressional oversight, as it has gone for generations, witnesses appear before the committee and then—for better or worse—they are left to the whims of whatever Congress wants to discuss. Just ask former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who testified for 11 hours in 2015 while Republicans demanded she respond to inquiries about their latest conspiracy theories. Or look at the recent hearing with large tech companies, which Republicans used to float wild accusations about censorship of conservatives in social media.
In this period in American history, though, oversight only goes one way—and it’s never toward Donald Trump. This president has completely walled off his administration from the public eye.
As all of America saw during the impeachment trial, the Trump administration obstructed Congress at every turn and produced not one document, not one witness.
This would be troubling in its own right, except even more alarming is the way the Trump administration at the same time has begun using the power of the federal government to conduct oversight essentially as an opposition research arm of the Trump campaign. The executive branch is open for business if the oversight at issue involves Trump’s political adversaries—particularly Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden.
After Trump’s definitely not-perfect phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky came to light in a whistleblower report last September, House investigators asked for transcripts and records related to the call from the White House and State Department. Over the 12 months since the call came to light and the transcript was made public, not a single document has been produced from the administration to the House. (The only documents that came out, aside from the transcript itself, are the ones that my organization, American Oversight, was able to wrest from the State Department through the federal courts.)
On the other hand, when Republican Sens. Ron Johnson and Chuck Grassley asked the State Department for records pertaining to Joe Biden, over 9,000 documents appeared almost immediately, skipping the long line of other congressional requests, along with promised witness interviews. On Wednesday, Johnson and Grassley released the fruits of their labor, an interim report recycling the very disinformation campaign about Ukraine that Trump was impeached over. As long as it can bolster opposition research against Democrats, Republicans are happy to go along with oversight requests.
It’s not just the State Department. From the very beginning of Trump’s presidency, Congress has asked the U.S. Secret Service for records related to the cost of protecting Trump on his golf trips, his Mar-a-Lago stays, and his sons’ trips for the Trump Organization. The Secret Service wouldn’t budge. But when the same agency was asked by Johnson and Grassley for records related to Hunter Biden’s trips, the Secret Service produced the documents, with record-breaking speed, just four months later.
And before you think, sure, but this is just how Congress works, and the Obama administration did the same, ignoring request from the Republicans, no, they didn’t. When Republicans investigated the deaths of four U.S. service members at Benghazi, Libya, the executive branch turned over more than 75,000 documents. The Obama administration initially turned over more than 6,000 documents related to the DOJ’s Fast and Furious operation, and later turned over 64,000 more following a lawsuit. And then there are Hillary Clinton’s emails. Despite all Trump’s bellowing, the State Department publicly released more than 35,000 records.
Congressional oversight is meant to shed light on the inner workings of the executive branch, but Republicans learned an important lesson in 2016 when they used it against Clinton and very likely won Trump the election. The power of using investigations not for the sake of transparency, but for the sake of political opposition work, was clear. We’re seeing that now in Johnson’s efforts to smear Biden for his work on behalf of the United States to fire a corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor during his time as vice president, despite a complete lack of evidence.
Democrats in Congress must not let them get away with it. They must pass contempt charges against Barr and begin impeachment proceedings against him now. The same obstruction of Congress charge, for which Trump was impeached by the House and which Richard Nixon faced before he resigned, applies to Barr for refusing to come before or respond to Congress. No, he won’t be removed from office. But that’s not the only purpose of impeachment.
Congress is an institution that leans heavily on precedent and tradition. Even without removal, impeachment matters. It sets a precedent for future sessions of Congress and future generations of Americans that this sort of behavior is not acceptable and Congress takes obstruction seriously. It takes the stand that Congress must take action when someone attempts to shatter our democratic institutions—especially if that person is the attorney general. And it may not result in a new attorney general now, but it may result in better and more compliant attorneys general in the future.
The complete rejection of congressional oversight should be troubling to all Americans. In an election year with historic stakes, the American people won’t have the benefit of seeing what their president and his Cabinet are doing in order to make an informed decision on Election Day. Instead, they must watch their executive branch agencies working for the Trump campaign.
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