This morning’s Wall Street Journal editorial page carries a cautionary tale concerning the recently appointed FBI Director, Christopher Wray’s refusal to answer congressional questions during five hours of grilling before a congressional committee. Mr. Wray, a Trump appointee selected to replace the fired Director James Comey, spent his time testifying by explaining why he could not answer the committee’s questions. His reasons? That the congressionally authorized Justice Department Inspector General had an ongoing investigation, as if Congress, which had created the Inspector General’s office, had no entitlement to seek answers in its own right. It’s hard to shake the notion that our bureaucrats, no matter who has appointed them, see themselves as a law unto themselves.
But what happens if a bunch of federal agencies go rogue and decide not to cooperate with Congress in its constitutionally authorized oversight role? Do heads roll or are the bureaucrats untouchable because of political considerations. If sacked for a failure to cooperate with Congress, would a media firestorm ensue and do we tear ourselves apart as a nation trying to sort it out? We have already seen agencies of the executive branch play the stone wall game with Congress (see Lois Lerner and John Koskinen at the IRS) for starters. Are we to watch it become the standard in this current age of Trump?
Donald Trump is already a uniquely divisive president whose support is incredibly thin nationally. He holds his office by the will of a large minority, not by the majority nor by broad consensus. In fact he has regularly (one wants to say systematically but it’s hard to credit him with that kind of approach) undermined any chance of broadening his own national support as he pursues his personal vendettas and wields his presidential power like a blunt instrument.
This encourages high level bureaucrats — and not just career civil servants but even those he has appointed as well — to defiantly chart their own course and close ranks with their career staff to thwart the constitutional authority of Congress. Should Director Wray now be sacked for his willful refusal to answer Congressional questions? Would that not prompt a further firestorm and still more disruption in a uniquely disrupted administration?
Yet it’s hard to justify allowing this kind of congressional stonewalling to go unanswered. But who can bring these willful agencies to heel and, if we try, would it nor result in further damage the national political fabric with the media and the opposition party closing ranks to support revolt in the agencies? Surely the possibility of such result is a last barrier to a collapse of our democracy in the event of an overreaching, dictatorial president. But short of that, it is itself a threat to national stability. The problem is that our current president fails to understand the need for outreach and consensus building in a democracy, imagining he can simply have his way with the country by force of his will alone. Nor does he seem to even have the sense to try to finesse it. He just believes that if he wants something it must happen. What happens to the nation, though, if it doesn’t?
My instinct is here is to say that Mr. Wray should be charged with contempt of Congress if he persists in resisting answering legitimate congressional questions and that he should be summarily dismissed and replaced by his boss, the president, if he cannot bring himself to do his constitutional duty and respond to Congressional oversight. However, given today’s viciously divided political atmosphere, what are the chances of that happening without causing still more national grief? And isn’t THAT the very reason willful bureaucrats like Wray feel empowered to do these kinds of things?
Trump may be no more than a symptom of our own national political failure, but the collapse of bureaucratic accountability, from Justice and the FBI to the State Department and lord knows how many other federal agencies in this age of Trump, is clearly the result of a president who doesn’t know how to reach out and heal, how to pull Americans together. A president who lacks broad national respect and support cannot govern from strength — or keep rogue agencies and their bureaucratic leaders in line. Only democratic disarray and worse can follow.