Imagine for a second that it’s 2014. Barack Obama is president of the United States. The attorney general is Eric Holder, and Republicans control Congress. Republican leaders have called on the attorney general to appoint a special counsel to investigate the IRS’ alleged targeting of conservative groups.
Now imagine what Republicans would have done if a special counsel had been appointed and the president had ordered his removal. Imagine what Republicans would have done if instead of releasing a full and complete copy of the special counsel’s report, the attorney general instead provided Congress and the American people with a four-page summary document. Imagine how Republicans would have reacted if they issued a subpoena for the report, and the attorney general responded by calling it “premature and unnecessary.”
Somehow, I don’t think Republicans would have exercised any form of restraint or encouraged the country to move on. And yet that’s exactly what they are doing right now, when the president happens to be Donald Trump.
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Hours after Attorney General William Barr released a redacted version of the Mueller report, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, called on Democrats to “read the special counsel’s report before jumping to conclusions,” and he declared that there was “no collusion” and “no obstruction.” Jordan further accused Democrats of “trying to get the president at all costs.”
As I read Jordan’s statement, I couldn’t help but think of the many times I heard him talk about the importance of vigilant presidential oversight when Obama was in office, Republicans controlled the House, and I was an adviser and spokesperson for Republicans on the House oversight panel. During this time, we issued more than 100 subpoenas to the Obama administration, held the attorney general in contempt of Congress, filed a lawsuit challenging the president’s use of executive privilege, and formed a special select committee to investigate what happened in Benghazi, Libya.
All the while, Republicans like Rep. Jordan defended and championed our aggressive brand of oversight. Speaking at a contempt hearing of an Obama administration official, Jordan boasted, “The only route to the truth is through the House of Representatives.”
GOP would be building an impeachment case
The Democrats who now run the House agree with 2014 Jim Jordan. They issued a subpoena on Friday “to the Department of Justice for the full version of the Mueller report and the underlying evidence.” Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, predictably declared the subpoena “wildly overbroad.”
Collins must have conveniently forgotten the 2012 words of Jordan, his Judiciary Committee colleague. While voting to hold Holder in contempt of Congress, Jordan asked, “How can you ignore the facts when you don’t get the facts? That’s what this is all about. … I just want to get the information.”
For anyone wondering how Republicans would have handled this kind of conflict when Obama was president, you don’t have to wonder; just review recent history. House Republicans spent two years investigating the terrorist attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi in 2011 and then saw fit to form a select committee, in part, because “the administration still does not respect the authority of Congress to provide proper oversight.”
I have no doubt that if Republicans had a Mueller-like investigation to work with, they would have unleashed dozens of hearings and subpoenas to examine every potential thread of wrongdoing and unethical conduct with the goal of building to impeachment proceedings of the president.
Hearings would be just the beginning. When the Obama administration defied a congressional subpoena, Jordan and other House Republicans filed a lawsuit and ultimately — more than three years later — won in federal court. Should Attorney General Barr now refuse to comply with the subpoena for the full, unredacted Mueller report and supporting documents and evidence, House Democrats should follow the same playbook their Republican colleagues used just a few years ago.
Republicans used to back checks and balances
Former Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy once said, "The notion that you can withhold information and documents from Congress no matter whether you are the party in power or not in power is wrong. Respect for the rule of law must mean something, irrespective of the vicissitudes of political cycles." Former Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith once argued that “when the administration repeatedly ignores constitutional and legal limits on the president’s power, it undermines the rule of law, with very real consequences.” Darrell Issa, my former boss and another former chairman of the Oversight Committee, released a report stating explicitly that “Congress is constitutionally obligated to provide thorough oversight of the executive branch.”
Should those statements by Republicans apply only when Republicans are overseeing a Democratic president? Obviously not.
What is happening now is bigger than obtaining a single document or report. The Trump administration is driving us toward an unprecedented constitutional showdown that threatens the very system of checks and balances Republicans used to champion. This is a battle to protect the constitutional right of Congress to exercise its oversight vigilance over the executive branch. It’s about protecting the foundation of our democracy and ensuring that no president or political party can willfully abandon the system our governance was built on. If we allow this bedrock of our Republic to crumble, then we are on the way to completely undoing our democracy. There will be no going back.
Kurt Bardella, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, was the spokesperson and senior adviser for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee from 2009 to 2013. Follow him on Twitter: @kurtbardella
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What would Republicans do with a Mueller report? Build an impeachment case.