Trump maneuvers limit congressional inquiry into assault on US Capitol

Several close associates of former US President Donald Trump have refused to appear before the House commission investigating the Jan. 6 coup against the Capitol, limiting the ability of senior officials to be held accountable.

Steve Bannon, a former adviser to the Republican billionaire, and former security adviser Kash Patel were due to appear Thursday, while former chief of staff Mark Meadows and Dan Scavino, a former head of social media, were scheduled to appear the next day.

However, none came forward after Trump invoked the right of the executive branch to keep certain information secret to prevent them from testifying, highlighting the limits of Congress to conduct investigations when leaders refuse to be held accountable.

Critics of the investigative commission argue that Congress failed to stop Trump from obstructing the investigation.

Repeatedly, the commission has vowed a heavy hand on those who fail to show up for subpoenas and announced charges against Bannon.

But so far the commission has only achieved small victories. Former Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, for example, testified that Trump lobbied to involve the Justice Department in the former president’s disinformation campaign about alleged electoral fraud.

– "Hit in slow motion"

Fiona Hill, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former adviser to the former president, said Wednesday that Trump’s defiance of Congress and his lies about electoral fraud are a "slow motion coup".

Congress has several legal avenues to prevent maneuvers by the Trump camp. But the once-TV star also has several options.

The Supreme Court ruled that presidents have the right to keep certain documents and conversations confidential, and Trump is by no means the first to hide behind that.

The first time he invoked these executive prerogatives was in 2019, to deny Congress access to the full report of former special prosecutor Robert Mueller on Russian interference in the US elections.

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But it is the current White House tenant who decides when this right applies, not its predecessor. And Joe Biden has so far rejected Trump’s claims.

This fight could last months, even years, if the 75-year-old former president remains determined to reject all subpoenas and if necessary to reach the Supreme Court.

– Congress blocked
Historically, Congress has bypassed the courts by using recourse against "obstruction of Congress" to enforce subpoenas, which allows you to order your police force to arrest and imprison witnesses who refuse to appear.

This method has not been used against the executive branch in more than 80 years.

Steve Bannon is on trial for obstructing the work of Congress under an 1857 law, which makes it a federal crime punishable by up to 12 months in prison.

For that to apply, the House needs to vote to refer the matter to the Department of Justice.

But in 1984, the Justice Department said it would not prosecute executive branch officials for obstructing the work of Congress when they allege the executive branch’s right to keep certain information secret.

Even when this is not the case, the authorities rarely prosecute executive officials. Since 2008, the lower house has subpoenaed at least six officials or former White House officials, but no action has been taken.

"Due to this discretion, (appealing to) congressional obstruction has become almost ineffective"said the Congressional Research Service in a report last year.

Even if Attorney General Merrick Garland approves the charges, it could take months.

There is a third option: Congress can ask a federal judge to enforce its subpoenas: witnesses who challenge them would be obstructing the course of justice. However, this process would also take a long time.

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