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Week In Politics: Congressional Democrats Vs. The White House


Another week of standoffs between the executive and legislative branches. House Oversight, Judiciary Intelligence and Ways and Means Committees have all found themselves in dispute with the White House as they struggle to get hold of testimony, evidence, the Mueller report unredacted and the president's tax returns. NPR's Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Here's a really original question, my friend - where do you characterize where we are right now?

ELVING: Scott, we are in an early phase of a constitutional confrontation; some are calling it a crisis. But whether a crisis or not, we have two coequal branches of government in conflict, posing the excruciating question, whose authority prevails? That will probably have to be decided by a third coequal branch of the government, the court system. But the president has taken the view that he can deny the Congress access to documents and people from the executive branch of government, whether they still work there or not. He says it's all subject to executive privilege, including the whole Mueller report, which he once said was fine with him making public.

SIMON: And speaking of that report, we've seen media reports that the White House, which I guess means President Trump or someone speaking in his name, asked the former counsel, Don McGahn, to say the president did not obstruct justice and he refused.

ELVING: The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and CNN and others are reporting that the White House, persons unnamed, asked former White House counsel Don McGahn to put out a statement this spring - now, this is just a matter of weeks ago - in response to the Mueller report, which the White House got an early copy of, saying that he did not think the president obstructed justice back when he was trying to control the Mueller probe and Don McGahn was working for him as White House counsel and apparently, according to his account to Robert Mueller, refused when the president asked him to see to it that Robert Mueller was removed from the investigation. Now, according to these sources, McGahn refused, again, this spring and the president was quite upset, immediately talking about McGahn's so-called notes and sending Rudy Giuliani out to question McGahn's credibility. So this adds fresh urgency to the Democrats' case in all of this. And it makes it all the more imperative that Robert Mueller testify in public on the obstruction issues and perhaps that Don McGahn do so as well. And certainly the House wants to hear from both.

SIMON: Politically, is there a point where there are diminishing returns for each side?

ELVING: Yes. And indeed we may already be there. The risks are far greater than anything either side might gain at this point, or so it seems. We have already gone probably too far to go back, though, Scott. The House Democrats know they have a stronger case to get these documents and this testimony if they seek it in connection with some kind of a legal proceeding other than just a hearing, and that would probably have to be impeachment. Rather than just the kinds of questions they are asking in the subpoenas they're putting out right now, the courts have shown more respect in the past for what Congress tries to learn in the course of an impeachment proceeding.

SIMON: Senate joined the fray this week, or a Senate committee. Richard Burr, Republican senator from North Carolina, heads the Judiciary Committee, and they have subpoenaed the president's son, Donald Trump Jr. This is a Republican senator who is not up for reelection from North Carolina where the memory of Sam Ervin is venerated. Does his call signal any kind of movement on the Republican side?

ELVING: It signals the potential for such a movement, Scott. There have been other such signals, brief statements or even facial expressions on a talk show. These indicate some kind of real support for the president is not really there in the hearts of these Republicans in the Senate. It's neither deep nor unconditional, but they know that the furies of hell or at least the furies of Twitter are being unleashed on Richard Burr right now at what some people are calling his disloyalty. So they don't want that kind of fate for themselves, yet we must keep an eye on this space next week and after.

SIMON: Ron Elving, senior Washington editor and correspondent, thanks so much for being with us.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.