The most serious clash over presidential power since Watergate

On one level, the administration’s case rubs against not only previous practice but also the intent and spirit of the law. During the Reagan administration, shortly after revelations of the Iran-Contra scandal, Congress created an inspector general at the CIA, precisely so an independent entity on the inside could facilitate oversight of secret operations gone rogue. The IG was required to meet with the House and Senate Intelligence Committees twice a year and, beyond that, to inform them immediately about any complaint. (The current intelligence community IG, a post created in 2010, inherited the same requirements.)

“Thus,” Johnson told me in an email, “the current whistleblower has the wind of law at his or her back.” If the administration’s arguments are right, then the whole purpose of an IG—the whole purpose of independent oversight—is called into question.

Yet the Trump administration has frequently invoked a very broad interpretation of the president’s constitutional powers—to declare a Muslim ban on travel to the United States, to declare a state of emergency to justify taking money from the Defense Department to fund construction of a wall on the Southern border (even when Congress has voted to forbid funding), and now to keep the House Intelligence Committee from getting information that it’s entitled to get by law. (It’s worth noting that the intel committees, which have long been entrusted with some of the government’s deepest secrets, have almost never been responsible for leaks.)

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