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Here's What Congress Can Do When a President Ignores a Subpoena

Get ready to learn all about the sergeant-at-arms.

by James Surowiecki
May 8 2019, 12:57pm

Tensions between the White House and congressional Democrats hit a new high Tuesday, after Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the IRS would not turn over Donald Trump’s tax returns to the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who requested them last month.

A 1924 law requires the IRS to obey the request, but Mnuchin said he would defy the subpoena because it wasn't made for a "legitimate legislative purpose."

This isn't a one-off. It's part of a bigger pattern of Trump rejecting congressional oversight of all kinds. Today, for instance, the White House said it had instructed former White House counsel Don McGahn to ignore a congressional subpoena for documents related to the Mueller report. And just last week, Attorney General William Barr refused to show up to testify before the House Judiciary Committee and ignored a subpoena requiring him to turn over the full and unredacted Mueller report.

Congressional Democrats are fulminating in response. But the tools they have to compel the president to cooperate with their investigations are pretty limited. Here's what they can actually do:

1) Vote for contempt-of-Congress charges against Trump officials who ignore subpoenas. Criminal contempt charges can result in jail time. But the catch is that any such charge has to be referred to a U.S. Attorney for prosecution. And since U.S. Attorneys work for Trump's Justice Department, there's almost no chance that those charges will ever be prosecuted.

2) File suit against the administration in court, which could result in a court order requiring the administration to obey the subpoena. But that process is a long and drawn-out one, and there's no guarantee, in the end, that the administration would even follow the court order.

3) Take the direct route, and order the sergeant-at-arms to arrest recalcitrant Trump officials. This sounds bizarre, but the Supreme Court has held that Congress has the authority to use its own police to enforce its dictates. The problem is that the last time Congress did this was back in 1935, and trying to arrest someone like the Secretary of the Treasury would leave the Democrats in completely uncharted waters.

In short, what we're likely to get is what we've been getting: Democrats complaining, and Trump stonewalling.

This segment originally aired May 7, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.

Cover: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin testifies before a House Appropriations subcommittee, Tuesday, April 9, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)