In mid-19th century New York City, at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street, stood Barnum’s American Museum. The museum was a popular tourist attraction, due principally to the ability of its owner, P.T. Barnum, to advertise and attract the public.
The museum charged 25 cents for admission and boasted possession of the trunk of a tree under which Jesus and his disciples sat. It also had on display a “Feejee Mermaid,” which in truth was the upper body of a small monkey sewn to the back half of a large fish. But as scandalous as these frauds were, they did not compare to the “Great Egress.”
Throughout the museum, signs were posted directing visitors to the Great Egress. The prominence of the signs generated curiosity and visitors followed them not realizing that “egress” meant “exit.” Eventually the signs led to a door that deposited the curious on the street and locked behind them. And the hapless visitors had to pay another quarter if they wanted to gain re-entry.
Because of these hoaxes, P.T. Barnum is closely associated with the saying: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
Today, there is another huckster giving New Yorkers a bad name. The United States government has a chief executive who has neither a sense of morality nor an understanding of the rule of law. Having lived his entire life in an entitled bubble, Donald Trump never had to answer to anyone except, perhaps, his father. The Trump organization under Donald Trump has always been an autocracy, where the law always has been whatever he said it was.
Having moved from the private to the public sector, Trump has been unwilling to adjust his thinking and his behavior in order to conduct himself appropriately. He runs the White House – and tries to run the nation – in the same dictatorial manner that he ran his private business enterprises. Never mind that he crash-landed on multiple occasions and engaged in nefarious conduct to cut his losses. Being an expert scam artist and spin meister, he has been able to convince many people that each of his many failures was a total success.
Now that he has been backed into a corner by the Mueller report raising numerous questions that Congress is obligated to answer, Trump has shifted his con game into high gear. While wildly attacking Congress for attempting to carry out its constitutionally mandated function and demonizing the American press for trying to bring the truth to light, the chief executive officer of the federal government is instructing his subordinates to ignore congressional subpoenas.
One such subordinate is Carl Kline, the former director of Donald Trump’s White House Presidential Personnel Office, who approved security clearances for individuals not deemed fit to receive them. It is generally understood that these approvals were given at Trump’s directions.
Seeking to understand Kline’s actions, the House Oversight and Reform Committee subpoenaed him to appear before the committee on April 23 and be deposed on this issue. Trump, having contempt for everything that does not glorify him, instructed Kline to ignore the subpoena. This prompted the committee chair, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, to begin proceedings to hold Kline in contempt of Congress. Faced with this threat, Kline has “volunteered” to appear before the committee and provide limited testimony – an offer that has not been accepted by Rep. Cummings.
Federal law states that any person summoned before Congress who “willfully makes default, or who, having appeared, refuses to answer any question pertinent to the question under inquiry” is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum fine of $100,000 and imprisonment for up to 12 months. Kline’s refusal to respond satisfactorily to his congressional subpoena fits the definition of contempt. The question now is whether Congress has the will to exercise its power.
The House of Representatives has the authority to seize, try, convict and punish Kline. But Trump’s administration will try to raise the nonsensical argument that the purpose for which Kline was subpoenaed was invalid, and therefore there was no legitimate congressional authority to subpoena Kline or hold him in contempt.
Multiple sources, including in testimony before Congress, have accused Kline of approving “unwarranted security clearances” over the objections of professional security experts in 30 instances. Two of those clearances were approved for Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, at Donald Trump’s insistence.
Clearly Donald Trump is instructing his minions to defy Congress in an effort to continue to obstruct justice and hide his criminal acts committed before and after occupying the White House. And the thinks he can get away with it because Trump, like P.T. Barnum, believes that there’s a sucker born every minute. So, he keeps putting up impressive signs that say, “This Way to the Great Egress.”
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia.