On Wednesday, the House of Representatives will hold a vote on whether or not to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress. These charges stem from Barr’s refusal to comply with House Democrats’ subpoena for the full, unredacted Mueller Report. Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have also accused Barr of lying to Congress about the nature of the Mueller Report. Attorney General Barr, however, is not the only one in the Trump Administration seeming to run interference into attempts at oversight.
On Tuesday, President Trump intervened and stopped former White House Counsel Don McGahn from complying with a subpoena from the House Judiciary Committee that required him to turn over documents potentially related to instances of obstruction of justice that Special Counsel Robert Mueller laid out in his report. The White House has indicated that it may want to invoke executive privilege for these documents. Additionally, after reports indicated that a tentative date had been set for Mueller’s Congressional testimony, President Trump tweeted that Mueller should not testify.
The Trump Administration has largely refused to comply with efforts into investigation of potential crimes and wrongdoings. President Trump claims “I have been the most transparent president and administration in the history of our country by far,” simply because he allowed Mueller to conclude his investigation (though it’s not for lack of Tweets railing against the Special Counsel). This blatant refusal to accept the validity of oversight efforts and the apparent desire to prioritize self-preservation over the preservation of democratic institutions is occurring in plain sight. And it represents a dangerous threat to democratic norms and a trend towards authoritarianism. Congress has Constitutional authority to conduct oversight investigations into the Executive Branch. By assigning motives that are less than legitimate to his opponents, President Trump is seeking to undermine institutional mechanisms of accountability.
In Varol’s article, he argues that stealth authoritarianism “erodes mechanisms of accountability, weakens horizontal and vertical checks and balances, allows the incumbents to consolidate power, exacerbates the principal–agent problem by curtailing the public’s ability to monitor and sanction government policies…”  President Trump and his cabinet officials are engaging in these practices by refusing to comply with subpoenas, refusing to give testimony, and claiming that these investigative efforts are a continuation of a partisan witch hunt. The Trump Administration continues to do so with vague claims of protection from the law, like invoking executive privilege. Stealth Authoritarianism as Varol defines it relies on these political actors engaging in authoritarianism practices under the guise of existing law .
It’s very unlikely that President Trump and his administration will have a change of heart pertaining to the House’s investigations and the Mueller Report. However, politicians and the media need to pushback on this behavior of skirting oversight whenever possible. They must counter these stealth authoritarian practices and expose them. Otherwise, institutional norms and mechanisms of accountability will continue to erode away and lose their effectiveness. The documents requested in the subpoenas must be provided to Congress. Or, at bare minimum, the White House and William Barr must provide legitimate legal reasoning as to why they cannot comply. Robert Mueller must be allowed to testify before Congress. The American people have a right to the results of these investigations.
In short, Donald Trump and his administration should not be allowed to skirt investigations and oversight and engage in activities amounting to stealth authoritarianism. Doing so would pose a very real threat to democracy in the United States. Merely claiming to be transparent does not make it so. Real transparency and accountability requires complying with subpoenas and participating in investigations when asked.
Academic Sources: Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review. 100(4): pp. 1673- 1742. Part II.  Varol, Ozan. 2015. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review. 100(4): pp. 1673- 1742. Part II.
Photo by Evan Vucci, AP. “Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell.” Creative Commons Zero license.