Tag Archives: Lee A. Casey

Demanding Trump’s tax returns is congressional overreach

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey

17 May 2019 in The Hill

Democrats in Congress long have demanded that President Trump make his tax returns public. Many promised voters that, if given the House majority in the 2018 elections, they would force public disclosure of Trump’s returns. Indeed, they’ve demanded access to the president’s returns, but Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has refused to give Congress that access. He was right to refuse. His action is firmly grounded in federal statute and the Constitution.

In April, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) demanded Trump’s tax returns from 2013 to 2018, invoking a federal statute (26 U.S.C. § 6103) that makes federal tax returns confidential. Other statutory sections, including 26 U.S.C. § 7213, make it a felony to disclose information in federal tax returns without proper authorization.

There are narrowly drawn exceptions to the general rule of confidentiality, including one that allows congressional tax committees to demand copies of individual tax returns. That information, however, cannot be made public without the taxpayer’s written consent. Secretary Mnuchin must have a well-grounded fear that one or more members of Congress would make the president’s returns public, hiding behind the Constitution’s speech or debate clause to escape prosecution. This factor alone can preclude the release of tax information.

There are, however, even more fundamental problems with the request. The committee’s stated purpose is to investigate how the IRS enforces tax laws against sitting presidents. That is an obvious pretext. Even if the Democrats’ posturing could be ignored, the fact that only Trump’s returns are sought — and not those of former presidents — makes the game clear.

Former presidents have disclosed some tax information, but their full returns and all supporting documents were not released. And since the ostensible oversight focus is how the IRS audits tax returns of sitting presidents, that type of information is not publicly available. In addition, even if Secretary Mnuchin were to ignore the politics involved, he would be justified in withholding the president’s tax returns on constitutional grounds.

Congressional demands for information must be grounded in proper constitutional powers. Congress does not have general investigative authority, let alone a mandate to enforce federal law, both of which are vested in the president. Nor does it have adjudicative power, which is reserved to the judiciary. Its proper investigative power is broad but limited to the purposes of legislation or oversight. And Congress’s oversight powers can be exerted only over matters that plausibly can be reached through the exercise of congressional legislative powers.

As the Supreme Court stated in Watkins v. United States (1957), with respect to a McCarthy-era demand by the House Un-American Activities Committee for information from a private citizen, “there is no general authority to expose the private affairs of individuals without justification in terms of the functions of the Congress,” and “investigations conducted solely for the personal aggrandizement of the investigators or to ‘punish’ those investigated are indefensible.”

With this in mind, the proper tailoring of tax information-related requests by Congress is essential. For example, it may well be that looking at how the IRS audits tax returns of sitting presidents is a worthwhile legislative pursuit; however, assembling all available tax returns of former presidents and arranging the information so that the congressional review does not include ascertaining the identity of the president to whom a given set of tax returns belongs and then ensuring that even this randomized information cannot be publicly disclosed would serve all legitimate legislative needs. Everything else is simple harassment.

To ascribe to Congress greater authority in this area would produce a situation where, under the guise of enacting tax laws, congressional committees could gain access to the tax information of individual Americans, including those regarded by specific members of Congress as political or ideological enemies. This would result in unprecedented abuses of the most sensitive personal information about U.S. citizens that would render Nixon-era IRS abuses tame by comparison.

And, even putting aside partisanship, enabling Congress to snoop on Americans at will is not to be countenanced. What seemingly has eluded Chairman Neal’s supporters is that due process requirements operate with equal vigor on all branches of government, including Congress. Basic due process requirements prevent the executive branch from obtaining private information on U.S. citizens merely because it wants this data.

Instead, when seeking access to financial and other information, law enforcement agencies must demonstrate, usually to a judge, why such information can be legitimately obtained. Improperly gained information is routinely suppressed, and executive branch officials who have obtained it often are reprimanded and even prosecuted. The congressional statute in issue has to be construed with these constitutional imperatives in mind.

There is an additional consideration: Although Congress has oversight authority over the executive branch generally, it has no such authority over the president himself — any more than the president has oversight authority over Congress or the judiciary. Each branch of the federal government is constitutionally equal; none is subordinate. Trump’s business activities before he entered office, and his refusal to make public his tax returns, are not proper subjects of congressional investigation. Although presidential candidates usually release their tax returns as a matter of campaign strategy, Congress could not compel such a release by statute. The Constitution sets qualifications for the presidency, and Congress cannot alter that list.

The fact that Trump’s tax returns are being sought pursuant to a statute that ordinarily would require the Treasury secretary to provide the returns, does not alter the constitutional balance involved. Indeed, the use of Congress’s oversight powers and legislative powers are cabined by the same constitutional principles. The request is based upon an unconstitutional application of a statute — unconstitutional as applied to the situation.

Even if Congress were acting within its constitutional authority, an effort to use its legitimate powers to force disclosure of the president’s tax returns — with the clear goal of debilitating the presidency — would have to be balanced by the courts against the stated congressional need. In balancing otherwise legitimate, but conflicting, assertions of power by the two political branches, courts have looked at their respective needs and the harm that would be inflicted on their respective institutional authorities if one branch were to give way. If Congress does need President Trump’s tax returns for some legitimate legislative purpose, that need will be equally served by providing his returns after he leaves office.

Congress has many powers that can thwart a president’s policy or personnel choices, but only impeachment can personally hold a president responsible for his actions. Even here, it is not clear what relevance a president’s pre-inauguration personal tax returns could have to the question whether he has committed high crimes and misdemeanors while in office.

What Chairman Neal seeks cannot be granted. What is really at stake are not President Trump’s political fortunes but the preservation of the constitutionally required balance of powers between two political branches. Secretary Mnuchin is defending the ability of presidents to function without fear of congressionally driven debilitation. There is every reason to believe that he will prevail in the courts of law as well as in the court of public opinion.

David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s Office and the Department of Justice under former Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Source: https://thehill.com/opinion/white-house/444231-demanding-trumps-tax-returns-is-congressional-overreach

Advertisements

Investigate McCabe’s 25th Amendment Tale

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey

24 February 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

Did law-enforcement officials plot to remove President Trump from office? Andrew McCabe, former deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, suggests they might have. In a recent interview, Mr. McCabe said that in May 2017 Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein “raised the issue” of using the 25th Amendment to remove Mr. Trump from office “and discussed it with me in the context of thinking about how many other cabinet officials might support such an effort.” According to Mr. McCabe, Mr. Rosenstein was “counting votes or possible votes.”

Exactly what happened is unclear. A statement from Mr. Rosenstein’s office called Mr. McCabe’s account “inaccurate and factually incorrect” and asserted: “There is no basis to invoke the 25th Amendment, nor was the DAG in a position to consider invoking the 25th Amendment.” But this is a potentially serious matter, and should be fully investigated.

The 25th Amendment was ratified in 1967, primarily to provide for the appointment of a new vice president when that office becomes vacant, as it did when Lyndon B. Johnson acceded after John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination. It also contains a section creating a process whereby a president who is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” can temporarily cede authority to the vice president, and one through which the vice president and a majority of “principal officers”—cabinet members—can sideline a president who is disabled but won’t acknowledge it.

It is that last provision that supposedly excited Mr. Rosenstein’s interest. Mr. McCabe said the idea came in a discussion of “why the president had insisted on firing the director [Mr. Comey] and whether or not he was thinking about the Russia investigation.” To prevent interference with that probe, Mr. McCabe said, he opened new counterintelligence and criminal investigations of the president in May 2017, both of which were shortly subsumed into the probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller, whom Mr. Rosenstein appointed. 

Almost two years later, there’s no evidence Mr. Trump colluded with the Russians. Yet even if he had, it could not justify his removal under the 25th Amendment. The amendment can be lawfully invoked only if the president, by reason of some physical or mental disorder, literally cannot do his job. The examples its framers offered were the disability of President James A. Garfield during the 80 days he lingered in feverish agony after the gunshot wound that finally killed him; the period during which President Woodrow Wilson was unable to perform his duties after suffering a stroke; and President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s similar (although shorter) disabilities after suffering a heart attack and a stroke while in office.

Neither Mr. Trump’s unorthodox political style (of which the electorate was very much aware when it chose him in 2016), the disorder and divisions within his administration, nor even any criminal offense he might have committed could justify invoking the 25th Amendment. If a president is corrupt or criminal, or even a Russian spy, the Constitution prescribes a remedy: impeachment by Congress, not his ouster by unelected officials. Messrs. Rosenstein and McCabe surely knew this, and that is what makes the conversations Mr. McCabe describes serious enough to merit the attention of law enforcement.

Under federal law, it is a crime when “two or more persons conspire . . . to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof in any manner or for any purpose.” In Haas v. Henkel (1910), the Supreme Court construed this language to include “any conspiracy to impair, obstruct or defeat the lawful function of any department of the government” using means that are not necessarily illegal themselves but involve trickery, deceit or dishonesty. That surely includes the purposeful impairment of a duly elected president through a pretextual resort to the 25th Amendment.

This law has been vigorously enforced. Mr. Mueller—presumably with the approval of Mr. Rosenstein, who is overseeing his work—last year obtained indictments against various Russian entities and persons for defrauding the U.S. by interfering in the 2016 presidential election using dishonest means.

An investigation wouldn’t necessarily lead to a prosecution. For one thing, investigators might conclude that Messrs. McCabe and Rosenstein were merely engaged in idle chatter. In this context, conspiracy requires both an agreement to defeat lawful government functions by dishonest means and an overt act in furtherance of that end. Canvassing cabinet members about their willingness to vote for the president’s removal—if that is what happened—would likely qualify. (Mr. McCabe has said Mr. Rosenstein believed two cabinet members would support the move, although he described this as “simply Rod thinking off the top of his head” and doesn’t think Mr. Rosenstein “actually sought support or talked to those people about it.”) Planning to record conversations with the president through an FBI wire, if substantiated, would also clear the bar for conspiracy.

Another challenge is that the chief witness would be Mr. McCabe, who has a credibility problem. He was fired from the FBI after the Justice Department inspector general concluded that he “lacked candor” in statements to investigators about his role in the bureau’s probe of Hillary Clinton. Still, now that his allegations have been publicly aired, they merit a prompt and vigorous investigation by the Justice Department. It would be bad enough if a conspiracy by government officials against American democracy went undiscovered, vastly worse if such a conspiracy is revealed and goes uninvestigated and unpunished.

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/investigate-mccabes-25th-amendment-tale-11551045250

Obstruction of justice? Careful what you wish for, lawmakers

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey

7 February 2018 in the Wall Street Journal

Democrats have attacked Attorney General-designate William Barr for a memo in which he argued against a legal theory some claim could support prosecuting President Trump for obstruction of justice. Mr. Barr argued that an exercise of the president’s constitutional authority—for instance, firing James Comey as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation—cannot be construed as obstruction even if prosecutors believe he did so for improper reasons.

At his confirmation hearings, Mr. Barr rightly stood his ground. Critics should consider the implications of the motive-driven obstruction theory with respect not only to the president but also to the other branches of government. It has the potential to impair Congress, the judiciary and state governments as well.

If the personal motivations behind every lawful official act could potentially be grounds for criminal charges, then presidents—and their subordinates, “from the Attorney General down to the most junior line prosecutor,” as Mr. Barr put it in his memo—might shirk supervisory authority over a wide variety of cases. Law enforcement would operate on an autopilot, with extreme harshness as the default approach. The result, as Hamilton put it in Federalist No. 70, would be “a feeble executive,” which “implies a feeble execution of the government” and produces “bad government.”

Nothing would stop prosecutors from applying such a theory to lawmakers and judges. Suppose a congressional committee investigates a matter also under investigation by the FBI. If prosecutors think the motive is political—and politics is Congress’s lifeblood—that could be considered obstruction.

Mr. Trump’s critics claim any presidential action to eliminate special counsel Robert Mueller’s funding would be obstruction, even if otherwise consistent with federal appropriations law. It would follow that congressional decisions to reduce or eliminate appropriations for public corruption investigations, which frequently target members of Congress, could also be prosecuted.

Federal judges would likewise be vulnerable to prosecution based on their personal motivations in reaching decisions. The proper method of interpreting the Constitution is a matter of fierce legal and political debates, waged largely in judicial confirmation proceedings. Under the motive-based obstruction theory, a judge might face criminal charges because a prosecutor thinks his rulings were influenced by his political, ideological or religious beliefs. If an official’s motives can transform lawful actions into crimes, then presidents—or junior prosecutors—would be able to investigate judges whose decisions they dislike. The mere possibility would destroy judicial independence.

Nor is there any reason to limit the motive-based obstruction theory to the federal government. State governors, lawmakers and judges also have wide-ranging constitutional authority. Discerning their motivations would become a fair game for prosecutors.

Historical practice does not support obstruction charges based on an exercise of lawful constitutional powers. As the Supreme Court has said for centuries, and reaffirmed in National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning (2014), “the longstanding ‘practice of the government’ can inform our determination of ‘what the law is.’ ” Novel assertions of governmental power must be viewed with considerable skepticism.

Preventing corruption doesn’t require the motive-driven obstruction theory. Prosecutors and other officials have plenty of existing tools to deal with corruption, including laws against bribery and nepotism as well as statutes governing conflicts of interest and recusal. These legal strictures are vigorously enforced at both federal and state levels.

If the motive-based obstruction theory prevails, criminal investigations of alleged obstruction by government officials at all levels, and in all institutions, would eventually become routine. That would impair the government’s ability to function and destroy the separation of powers by shifting vast authority to federal investigators and prosecutors and shielding them from political accountability.

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/obstruction-of-justice-careful-what-you-wish-for-lawmakers-11549497555

Saudi Probe Is Not a Job For the U.N.

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey

October 24, 2018, in the Wall Street Journal

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi has justly triggered international outrage. Yet calls for a United Nations-led investigation are neither justified nor prudent.

Those urging the U.N. to investigate argue that with so much at stake, no sovereign state can be trusted to conduct a full and fair probe. And there is a potential for bias—by the Saudis, whose officials are implicated; by Turkey, a rival of Riyadh; and by the U.S., the Saudis’ longstanding strategic partner. The same is true of many other states, including Britain, France and Germany, all of which have economic and strategic interests in the region.

But this objection proves too much. There are numerous instances in which countries have been accused of terrible crimes, including torture and extrajudicial killings. The list includes the U.S. and every other permanent member of the Security Council. This standard would disqualify virtually every U.N. member.

The general rule is that sovereign states both have the authority and the obligation to put their own houses in order by investigating and prosecuting alleged offenses. Only in the most extreme circumstances can an international inquiry be justified—such as when the state concerned is incapable of undertaking the investigation, or when the alleged offenses rise to the level of widespread international crimes, for which international law prescribes individual criminal responsibility.

The classic examples are war crimes and crimes against humanity, neither at issue here. The murder of a specific person has very rarely been the subject of an international investigation, as in the case of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s 2005 assassination. Syrian and Hezbollah involvement was suspected, and the Lebanese government was unable to conduct an investigation free of interference. Beirut thus agreed to the Security Council resolution establishing an independent investigative commission. Yet that probe was shunned by most intelligence services and failed to bring to justice any high-level culprits.

In this instance, Saudi Arabia is fully capable of investigating Khashoggi’s death and has the greatest interest in the matter. Khashoggi was a Saudi national; so, it appears, are his killers. There is obvious concern about the fairness of a Saudi investigation because of the potential involvement of high-level officials close to the royal family, and the conflicting Saudi explanations have been justifiably criticized. Yet the kingdom has been a respected member of the international community and surely understands a whitewash would severely damage its standing.

Turkey, too, has legitimate interests here. If Riyadh officially sanctioned Khashoggi’s killing in its Istanbul consulate, it would be an abuse of the diplomatic rights Turkey affords another sovereign under treaty. The U.S. and other Western powers can and should support and assist both Riyadh’s and Ankara’s investigations.

The U.S. has a strong interest in preserving international legal norms, grounded in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which recognize the nation-state as the highest authority and establish rules that apply equally to all states. There is a determined movement to undermine this traditional system in favor of a supranational authority. These efforts have frequently targeted America, including its operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, renditions, interrogations and drone strikes. These matters have elicited condemnations at the U.N. and demands for international investigations. The U.S. has properly opposed such demands because it can and does investigate the allegations itself.

This leaves us with only one solution, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put it a few days ago: “We’re going to give them”—the Saudis and the Turks—“the space to complete their investigations of this incident, and when they issue their reports, we’ll form our judgment about the thoroughness, depth and the decisions they make about accountability connected to that.”

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law and have argued before international legal bodies, including the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Court of Justice.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/saudi-probe-is-not-a-job-for-the-u-n-1540335772

Democrats Abandon the Constitution

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey

October 16, 2018, in the Wall Street Journal

Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court has sparked a firestorm of outrage and recrimination on the left. Some attacks seem aimed at intimidating the justices into supporting progressive causes. “The Court must now prove—through its work—that it is worthy of the nation’s trust,” Eric Holder, President Obama’s attorney general, tweeted Oct. 6.

Yet the attacks go beyond ideology. Detractors of Justice Kavanaugh and President Trump are denouncing the Constitution itself and the core elements of America’s governmental structure:

• The Electoral College. Mr. Trump’s opponents claim he is an illegitimate president because Hillary Clinton “won the popular vote.” One commentator even asked “what kind of nation allows the loser of a national election to become president.” The complaint that the Electoral College is undemocratic is nothing new. The Framers designed it that way. They created a republican form of government, not a pure democracy, and adopted various antimajoritarian measures to keep the “demos” in check.

The Electoral College could be eliminated by amending the Constitution. But proposing an amendment requires two-thirds votes in both houses of Congress, and the legislatures of three-fourths, or 38, of the states would have to ratify it.

• The Senate. The complaint here is that the 50 senators who voted in Justice Kavanaugh’s favor “represent” fewer people than the 48 who voted against him. But senators represent states, not people.

Equal Senate representation for the states was a key part of the Connecticut Compromise, along with House seats apportioned by population. The compromise persuaded large and small states alike to accept the new Constitution. It was so fundamental that Article V of the Constitution—which spells out the amendment procedure—provides that “no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.” That means an amendment changing the structure of the Senate would require ratification by all 50 states.

• Judicial independence. Commentators who disapprove of the Supreme Court’s composition have urged, as one law professor put it, “shrinking the power of the courts to overrun our citizens’ democratic decisions.” Some suggest limiting and staggering the justices’ terms so that a vacancy would come up every other year, ensuring that the court follows the election returns. That could be achieved via constitutional amendment, but it would go against the Framers’ wisdom. As Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 78, life tenure for judges is “the best expedient which can be devised in any government, to secure a steady, upright and impartial administration of the laws.”

Some of Justice Kavanaugh’s detractors have demanded that if Democrats take the House next month, they open an investigation into the sex-crime allegations Senate Democrats failed to substantiate. But although Congress has wide oversight powers with respect to the executive branch, it has no such oversight authority over the judiciary. The only way the House can legitimately investigate a sitting judge is in an impeachment proceeding.

And Justice Kavanaugh cannot be impeached for conduct before his promotion to the Supreme Court. Article III provides that judges “hold their Offices during good Behavior,” so that a judge can be removed only for “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” committed during his term in office.

That puts inquiry into allegations about Justice Kavanaugh’s conduct as a teenager and young adult well outside Congress’s investigative authority, along with any claims that he misled the Judiciary Committee. Such claims could be reviewed only as part of a criminal investigation by federal prosecutors based on a referral from the Senate, the only body that may decide whether his testimony contained “material” misrepresentations. For the House to inquire into this matter would impermissibly encroach on the Senate’s advice-and-consent power.

Michael Barone has observed that “all procedural arguments are insincere.” Those who now complain about the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College and the Senate were quite content when their party seemed to have a lock on the former and held a large majority in the latter. And it is the Supreme Court’s countermajoritarian character that made possible the decisions, such as Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges, that progressives now fear are at risk of being overturned or pared back.

There’s one thing the left could do to make the Supreme Court more liberal without amending the Constitution. Some have suggested a return to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “court packing” plan, which sought to expand the court to as many as 15 justices. Nothing in the Constitution prevents Congress from expanding the Supreme Court’s membership. Article III merely establishes a Supreme Court; it does not say how many justices it should have. Congress has altered the number of justices by statute several times, most recently in the Circuit Judges Act of 1869, which expanded the court from seven members to nine. But this would require a president and House and Senate majorities willing to go down this path, likely at considerable political cost. In other words, progressives would have to win elections. And if they did that, they’d be able to change the court without making it bigger.

The anger and disappointment of Justice Kavanaugh’s opponents is understandable, as would be that of his supporters if the vote had gone the other way. They are perfectly entitled to pursue political remedies, including using his appointment as a campaign issue. They also are entitled to pursue amendments to the Constitution that would make our system of government more responsive to the popular will. What they cannot do is overturn the Connecticut Compromise guaranteeing each state equal representation in the Senate, or launch unconstitutional investigations or impeachment of a sitting Supreme Court justice. The Constitution protects all of us, even Supreme Court justices.

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/democrats-abandon-the-constitution-1539645364

Why Mueller can’t subpoena Trump

Donald Trump’s lawyers have signaled he won’t agree to a voluntary interview with special counsel Robert Mueller. If Mr. Mueller insists, he will have to subpoena the president. To enforce a subpoena, the special counsel would have to go to court and meet a highly exacting standard, showing what he wants and why he needs it. He would be unlikely to succeed, given that Mr. Trump already has cooperated extensively with the investigation, producing 1.4 million documents and making dozens of White House staffers available for interviews.

The leading precedent is a 1997 opinion, In re Sealed Case, by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The case involved the independent counsel investigation of former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, who was accused of receiving unlawful gifts. The independent counsel sought to obtain sensitive documents produced in the course of an internal White House inquiry. These materials involved the preparation of a report to then-President Clinton himself. Although Mr. Clinton had directed that most of the materials be provided, he asserted executive privilege to withhold some items.

At issue in particular was information regarding whether Mr. Clinton should discipline or fire Mr. Espy, who did resign. To justify producing such sensitive materials involving “the exercise of [the president’s] appointment and removal power, a quintessential and non-delegable presidential power,” the court required the independent counsel to demonstrate with “specificity” why he needed the materials and why he could not get them, or equivalent evidence, from another source. (Mr. Espy was acquitted in 1998.)

Mr. Mueller’s initial charge was to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. But his investigation has expanded to cover whether Mr. Trump has obstructed justice. The president’s critics say his obstructive acts include urging then-FBI Director James Comey to “go easy” on former national security adviser Mike Flynn, subsequently firing Mr. Comey, and his public criticism of Mr. Mueller, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

There are significant factual disputes about these episodes, but all involve the president’s exercise of his core constitutional powers as chief executive, including the power to appoint and remove high-level executive-branch officials, to supervise the performance of their duties (as in the Espy case), and to determine law-enforcement priorities. We have argued in these pages that the president cannot obstruct justice by exercising the discretionary powers of his office, especially in determining whether and why to fire high-level presidential appointees like Mr. Comey. According to the two leaked letters from Mr. Trump’s lawyers to Mr. Mueller, they take essentially the same view.

Any prosecution based on Mr. Trump’s exercise of his core constitutional authority would dramatically impair the executive’s status as a coequal branch of government, considering that Congress enjoys immunity under the Speech and Debate Clause while exercising its legislative powers. It would also inject the judiciary into the president’s decision-making process, requiring judges to delve into matters that are inherently political.

Developments over the past year reinforce our view that it would unconstitutionally debilitate the presidency to base an obstruction charge on gainsaying the president’s motives in exercising his core responsibilities. Mr. Trump’s critics have also accused him of obstructing justice by using his pardon power. They claim his pardons of Joe Arpaio, Scooter Libby and Dinesh D’Souza —whom he considers victims of previous political prosecutions—were meant to reassure targets of Mr. Mueller’s probe that they too might be pardoned. Under such logic, a president under investigation could not discharge his constitutional duties at all, including the use of military force overseas—which can always be cast as a “wag the dog” strategy.

These considerations distinguish Mr. Trump’s situation from that of Mr. Clinton, who in August 1998 became the only sitting president to appear before a grand jury. That independent-counsel investigation did not concern the exercise of presidential authority. They concerned allegations of perjury and obstruction from Mr. Clinton’s personal relationship with a White House intern. Independent counsel Kenneth Starr subpoenaed the president but withdrew the subpoena when Mr. Clinton agreed to appear voluntarily by video. Because constitutional considerations were not in play, the In re Sealed Case analysis would not have favored the president. (The same might apply if New York-based federal prosecutors attempt to subpoena Mr. Trump in connection with Michael Cohen’s guilty plea on charges unrelated to presidential power, although there are other reasons why such a subpoena would neither be issued nor enforced.)

We also now know that Mr. Trump authorized White House counsel Don McGahn to answer all of Mr. Mueller’s questions regarding every alleged obstructive action. According to press reports, Mr. McGahn spent nearly 30 hours describing the substance of his conversations with Mr. Trump and offering his assessment that the president’s actions were lawful.

With access to the relevant documents and everyone around the president, the special counsel has no material facts left to find. Interviewing or interrogating the president could shed additional light only on his own thoughts and motives—exactly what executive privilege is designed to protect. They relate entirely to a constitutionally proscribed obstruction inquiry that would violate the separation of powers.

Applying the In re Sealed Case standard, Mr. Mueller cannot show that any need for Mr. Trump’s testimony outweighs the president’s interest in keeping his thoughts private. The president hasn’t asserted executive privilege vis-à-vis the special-counsel investigation. But if Mr. Mueller seeks his testimony directly, he can and should. Mr. Mueller knows that losing a subpoena court fight would prolong and delegitimize his investigation. He is unlikely to press the point.

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s Office and Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/why-mueller-cant-subpoena-trump-1534973736

The Rule of Law Prevails in the Travel Ban Case