No. More than Nixonian. Nixon eventually admitted that even he had to obey the law.
Bush administration officials unveiled a bold new assertion of executive authority yesterday in the dispute over the firing of nine U.S. attorneys, saying that the Justice Department will never be allowed to pursue contempt charges initiated by Congress against White House officials once the president has invoked executive privilege.
I’m not even sure this is a smart move tactically. By taking the courts entirely out of the picture, Bush is daring the Congress to use its powers of self-help: arrest of individuals and seizure of documents by the Sergeants-at-Arms. Of course, Reid and Pelosi will have to pick their shots; the last thing you want is prisoner who could be made into a sympathetic victim. But that’s not true of Rove or Gonzales or Cheney..
Even without a physical arrest, issuing an order to one of the Sergeants-at-Arms to arrest any of those figures would make him into a sort of fugitive. Cheney, for example, could not preside over the Senate.
If that’s too radical a step, what’s Plan B? Congress could use the power of the purse to bring the Bush machine — but not the government — to a grinding halt.
Defund the non-essential (and dangerous) parts of the Executive Office of the President: the press office, the political office, the White House Counsel’s office. None of those has any Constitutional standing; they exist only insofar as Congress appropriates money for them.
Cut the immediate office of the Attorney General back to one secretary. Forbid details.
Clinton won his confrontation with Gingrich because Gingrich tried to shut down the government. Punishing and crippling Bush doesn’t require shutting down any activity the public cares about.
And since this is all part of the appropriations, the relevant provisions are (1) not subject to filibuster and (2) subject to veto only by vetoing the appropriation itself. If Bush vetoes the General Government appropriation (which includes the appropriation for the Executive Office, then it’s Bush, not Congress, who is shutting down pieces of the government. (And Congress could fund the essential bits, like the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, either in a separate bill or as part of some other appropriations measure, and dare Bush to veto that.)
I haven’t used the term before, but this is really a Constitutional crisis. If the Democrats handle it correctly — which means, above all, stressing the insult to the rule of law and the threat to the Constitutional order — they’ll have the public on their side, along with the bulk of elite opinion. (Who knows? Maybe even the editorial page of the Washington Post.)
And I suspect that a combination of institutional self-respect and electoral self-preservation will lead a substantial number of Republicans to desert the President. They’ve been looking for an excuse, and he just handed it to them.
What will be really delicious is watching the Republican Presidential candidates squirm. The bulk of the remaining Republican primary electorate is effectively royalist, but it’s hard to see how a candidate who promises another term of a lawless executive is going to carry the independent vote in the general.
Footnote Whatever gun they’re hiding must be really and truly smoking. What Bush and Fielding have been smoking is a different question.