In the coming weeks, President Donald Trump is going to find himself making a decision he’s bound to hate: Does he want to comply with Robert Mueller, or risk diminishing his own power?
Here’s why this choice is inevitable. In the wake of his 8-count indictment against 13 Russian nations and 3 Russian entities for election interference, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s interest in interviewing Trump will take on a renewed importance. So far, all signs have pointed to Trump’s refusing the interview request, which would almost certainly force Mueller to issue a grand jury subpoena to compel the president to talk.
If this comes to pass, and the president refuses to comply with such a subpoena, the country will be in unchartered constitutional territory, and the courts will need to intervene. But history shows that when courts intervene because a president is trying to shield his own conduct, the deck is stacked against him. If Trump isn’t careful, he will end up shrinking his own authority—and diminishing the presidency for years to come.
When it comes to the separation of powers, the Constitution makes it look pretty simple: Congress makes the laws, the president enforces them and the judiciary adjudicates them. In reality, though, the lines between the branches are a little blurrier than they seem on paper. Writing in 1952, Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson noted that presidential power sometimes lies in a “zone of twilight” where the precise boundaries of Article II, which defines the president’s role, are unclear.