An imperial presidency?

We watch daily as the constitutional and conventional fabric of this country is clawed at and unraveled by President Donald Trump, while those with any power to prevent or punish his actions are suspended in a state of listlessness, making political calculations rather than performing constitutional duty.

We are drifting dangerously close to an imperial presidency that exists above and outside the rules we thought were designed to prevent such an occurrence.

There is no doubt that Trump broke the law by obstructing justice, as he sought to end investigations into him, his campaign and his administration. The Mueller report makes that abundantly clear. Special counsel Robert Mueller refused to state declaratively that Trump committed a crime because of Department of Justice guidelines issued by the Office of Legal Counsel that are against indicting a sitting president.

As the report made clear, however, “A President does not have immunity after he leaves office.” The report continues:

“And if individuals other than the President committed an obstruction offense, they may be prosecuted at this time. Given those considerations, the facts known to us, and the strong public interest in safeguarding the integrity of the criminal justice system, we conducted a thorough factual investigation in order to preserve the evidence when memories were fresh and documentary materials were available.”

Indeed, a letter posted online and signed by at least 800 former federal prosecutors states:

“Each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting President, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice.”

That leaves the option of action up to Congress, the only avenue left by which a sitting president can be punished. That punishment is impeachment.

Republicans in Washington have similarly written off any rebuke of Trump whatsoever because they know Trump has a stranglehold on the Republican Party and therefore their base of power.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted after the Mueller report was released found that 90% of Republicans approve of Trump’s job performance, 75% agree that “Trump has been honest and truthful when it comes to the investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election” and 8 in 10 Republicans believe that “Congress should not hold impeachment hearings and that Trump should finish his term as president.”

Republicans have declared Trump their king and bowed to his maleficent majesty.

That means the only people left to prevent horrendous precedent, to make any attempt at presidential accountability, are the Democrats in Congress. And, they are scared witless.

Democrats are operating from the Richard Nixon impeachment playbook, only this isn’t the 1970s, before cable news, the internet and social media. They think it’s somehow possible to overwhelm the public with evidence, to turn Trump’s devout base against him, to pressure the president himself into submission.

Wrong on all counts. None of that is going to happen. This is a new day. Democrats are trying to flex their muscle, to slowly build a case, but the cast is already being set.

They have opened a raft of investigations and even issued subpoenas, but Trump and his allies are executing a strategy of wholesale obstruction, refusing to comply in any way on any front. This is a severe challenge to Congress’ constitutional role of oversight.

As Kerry Kircher, former House general counsel for the last Republican majority, told The Washington Post, the confrontation is “a complete breakdown and complete obstruction of Congress’ role.”

He continued: “If the court signs off on this stuff, then we’ll have an imperial presidency,” and added, “We’ll have a presidency that will be largely unchecked.”

And yet, the overly cautious speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, said recently:

“Trump is goading us to impeach him. That’s what he’s doing. Every single day, he’s just like taunting, taunting, taunting, because he knows that it would be very divisive in the country, but he doesn’t really care. He just wants to solidify his base.”

But Democrats aren’t being taunted, they’re already at war. The country is already divided. Trump’s base is already solidified. Democrats are bringing their letter openers to a gunfight.

Consider this: In a letter from the House Judiciary Committee chairman, Jerrold Nadler, to Attorney General William Barr, the chairman offered to resume negotiating with Barr about releasing the full Mueller report, as his committee had voted to hold Barr in contempt. Nadler wrote: “The committee stands ready to resume the accommodation process to attempt to reach a compromise.”

Compromise isn’t in this administration’s DNA; annihilation is.

These court battles about witness testimony and document production could last for months or years. Trump could simply run out the clock. And, the closer we get to the election, the more afraid Democratic leadership will be to opening an impeachment hearing.

Trump may well become the first American king, lawless and unaccountable, by default, by an overall political paralysis.

Charles Blow is a columnist for The New York Times.