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White House response to House Judiciary request makes no attempt to defend Trump on merits

Hey, look over there!

President Trump Attends UN Meeting On Global Drug Problem Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Hours after the House Judiciary Committee requested documents from 81 people or entities associated with President Trump and his associates, the White House responded with a statement on Monday evening about, of all things, abortion — rather than trying to argue that Trump did nothing that requires such strict oversight.

Press secretary Sarah Sanders dismissed the document request as intended “to distract from [Democrats’] radical agenda of ... killing babies after they’re born.”

Sanders is intentionally blurring the line between late-term abortions, a procedure undergone by a very small minority of women, often under dire circumstances, and killing a baby, which is infanticide.

She’s revisiting a theme Trump mentioned in his State of the Union speech, referencing comments from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who recently said during a radio interview that when “a fetus that’s nonviable ... the infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.” Although some people took Northam’s comments to be an endorsement of infanticide, a spokesperson for the governor told Vox in a statement that his comments were “absolutely not” a reference to infanticide. (You can read Anna North’s full explainer here.)

After the Northam controversy, Democrats also blocked the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, a message bill that makes something a felony that’s already illegal.

Sanders’s statement is misleading at best, and pushes extreme rhetoric about abortion that has motivated violence against abortion providers.

But the larger point here is that Sanders, notably, isn’t defending Trump by arguing he did nothing wrong. Instead, she’s throwing up a lightning rod issue to distract from the larger point of accountability of the president.

Her statement is part of a larger pattern of Trump’s supporters in the White House and Congress trying to defend the president not on the merits, but by creating distractions. For instance, during longtime Trump attorney Michael Cohen’s blockbuster congressional testimony last week. Republicans on the Oversight Committee chose not to defend Trump against Cohen’s claims that Trump committed campaign finance crimes while in office, but instead tried to discredit Cohen as a liar.

The White House isn’t happy about Democratic oversight, but elections have consequences

Sanders began her Monday evening statement by suggesting that Democratic efforts to conduct oversight are needless because Trump has “already [been] investigated by the Special Counsel and committees in both Chambers of Congress.”

But special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating Russian meddling, not Trump’s business, and the Republican-led investigations conducted by the last Congress seemed more concerned with protecting Trump than uncovering the truth — especially in the House.

The House Oversight Committee would take the lead in any potential effort to impeach Trump. As Vox’s Matthew Yglesias wrote on Monday, the committee’s recent activities — including last week’s hearing Cohen — represent a first step toward potentially building a political case that Trump isn’t fit to serve:

It’s not illegal to be a greedy, racist liar, but the voters might reasonably care about whether a candidate for office is a greedy, racist liar. Indeed, voters might reasonably care about this more than they care about whether an effort to cover up an affair ran afoul of the Federal Election Commission’s disclosure rules. Some of these questions about Trump’s character cut close to the core of fitness for office in a way that campaign finance violations don’t.

On Tuesday morning, Trump responded to House Judiciary’s document request by making a baseless claim that Democrats “realize the only Collusion with Russia was done by Crooked Hillary Clinton & the Democrats.”

Trump’s tweet suggests investigations of anything short of “Collusion” is mere “harassment.” But the president’s alleged misconduct goes much deeper than that.

During his testimony last week, for instance, Cohen presented checks signed by Trump and other top Trump Organization officials indicating that efforts to cover up illegal hush payments made on Trump’s behalf continued into his term as president. Cohen’s testimony about those payments has nothing to do with “Collusion,” but is the sort of thing of interest to a committee that’s now eager to conduct oversight of the president.

As House Oversight Committee Chair Elijah Cummings (D-MD) said during the Cohen hearing, “the days of this committee protecting the president at all costs are over.” Elections have consequences, whether the White House likes it or not.

The news moves fast. To stay updated, follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter, and read more of Vox’s policy and politics coverage.