Tag Archives: Robert Mueller

Congress can’t outsource impeachment

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Elizabeth Price Foley

31 May 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

It’s as if nothing happened. Special counsel Robert Mueller and the Justice Department found no wrongdoing by President Trump, so House Democrats stepped up their calls for impeachment. Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler issued a subpoena for millions of pages of evidence gathered by Mr. Mueller, including grand-jury material, which is secret under the law. When the department didn’t comply, Democrats said there was a “constitutional crisis,” and the committee voted to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt.

Yet if there is a constitutional crisis, its source is the Democrats. They are abusing the powers of investigation and impeachment in an illegitimate effort to unseat a president they despise.

Congressional Democrats claim they have the power to investigate the president to conduct “oversight” and hold him “accountable.” That elides an important constitutional distinction. As the Supreme Court said in Watkins v. U.S. (1957), Congress may “inquire into and publicize corruption, maladministration or inefficiency in agencies of the Government.” Executive departments and agencies are created by Congress and therefore accountable to it. The president, by contrast, is not a creature of lawmakers. He is Congress’s coequal, accountable to Congress only via impeachment.

To commence impeachment, the House has a constitutional obligation to articulate clear evidence of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” A two-year Justice Department investigation did not find that Mr. Trump had committed crimes. On the Russian collusion issue, Mr. Mueller reported that his investigation “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

Regarding obstruction of justice, Mr. Mueller “did not draw ultimate conclusions about the President’s conduct,” so the duty to do so fell on his boss, Mr. Barr—who, with senior Justice Department officials, concluded that the evidence was “not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.”

House Democrats claim they’re entitled to see Mr. Mueller’s underlying materials. But Congress may not use its subpoena power for a prosecutorial do-over. The Constitution gives law-enforcement authority to the executive, not the legislative, branch. In Quinn v. U.S. (1955), the Supreme Court said that Congress’s “power to investigate must not be confused with any of the powers of law enforcement; those powers are assigned under our Constitution to the Executive and the Judiciary.”

Impeachment isn’t a law-enforcement function, but demanding Mr. Mueller’s documents to search for impeachable offenses is still unconstitutional. The Constitution gives the House the “sole power” of impeachment. Outsourcing aspects of the process to the other branches of government violates separation of powers.

Unfortunately, there is a precedent for such outsourcing, though it is one that ought to give Democrats pause: the impeachment of President Clinton. The offenses for which Mr. Clinton was impeached—perjury before a grand jury and obstruction of independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s investigation—were established by Mr. Starr, who informed Congress that “the evidence of wrongdoing is substantial and credible, and that the wrongdoing is of sufficient gravity that it warrants referral to Congress.” Mr. Starr issued a report and turned his materials over to the House because the now-defunct statute under which he operated required it. The Justice Department’s special-counsel regulations, which govern Mr. Mueller’s investigation, do not.

The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the independent counsel in Morrison v. Olson (1988). It did not address the constitutionality of the requirement that independent counsels turn over evidence of impeachable offenses to the House. If it had, there would be deep concerns about separation of powers. In addition to the textual declaration that the House has the “sole power” of impeachment, the debate over impeachment at the Constitutional Convention supports an outsourcing prohibition.

Delegates were deeply divided on whether the president should be subject to impeachment at all—and if so, which institution should have this great power. They considered vesting the impeachment power in state legislatures but rejected the idea. The concern was that it would make the president too dependent on the states, endangering the vertical separation of powers. They also pondered entrusting impeachment authority to the judiciary—essentially, to the Supreme Court—but concluded that would give the judiciary too much power and enable it to impeach its own members.

Eventually and with misgivings, the Framers settled on vesting impeachment authority in the House, with trial by the Senate. Their greatest fear was that this arrangement would destroy separation of powers by rendering the president perpetually dependent on legislative approval. Charles Pinckney believed congressional impeachment power would chill the president’s exercise of his core constitutional powers (such as vetoing legislation) and encourage Congress to hold impeachment “as a rod over the Executive and by that means effectually destroy his independence.” Rufus King opined that “under no circumstances ought [the president] to be impeachable by the Legislature,” because such power would be “destructive of his independence.”

The Framers took pains to devise meaningful limits on the impeachment power. When George Mason proposed to add “maladministration” to treason and bribery as a basis for impeachment, James Madison demurred: “So vague a term will be equivalent to a tenure during the pleasure of the Senate.” In Federalist No. 65, Alexander Hamilton argued that “the greatest danger” of giving Congress the impeachment power is that its “decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of the parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.” To allay these concerns, the Framers limited impeachment to “high crimes and misdemeanors”—not mere political disagreements.

In addition, by resting the entire impeachment power in Congress, the Framers constrained it. Congress was to have limited investigatory power and to conduct its proceedings in a transparent, politically accountable manner. That effectively meant presidential misconduct would have to be open and notorious to be impeachable.

In that regard, at least, the 1868 impeachment of Andrew Johnson was exemplary. His firing of War Secretary Edwin Stanton was in open defiance of the Tenure in Office Act, although the Supreme Court eventually concluded the law itself was unconstitutional. Republicans who pushed Johnson’s impeachment were held politically accountable, with Democrats gaining 20 House seats out of 243 in the 1868 elections.

If the House can outsource impeachment, the deepest concerns of the Framers will become reality. Impeachment would have few limits and no political accountability. As a federal prosecutor, Mr. Mueller legitimately obtained information from a grand jury, wiretaps and other forms of surveillance unavailable to Congress. If Congress can secure these materials by simply commanding the executive branch to turn them over, it would tremendously augment its power.

Turnover of prosecutorial materials would allow Congress to hide behind the fact-finding and legal determinations of the other branches, thereby diminishing its own political accountability. Because the nation’s law-enforcement officials have concluded Mr. Trump has not committed any crimes, Democratic representatives cannot legitimately draft articles of impeachment accusing him of criminal conduct involving the same offenses of which he was cleared by the Mueller investigation. The House could impeach him for misconduct that doesn’t violate criminal statutes—say, abuse of power or inappropriate behavior. But lawmakers must be candid about what exactly the charge is.

Proceeding in such a fashion—not hiding behind criminal accusations that prosecutors have rejected—would require House Democrats to assume the full political risk for their impeachment efforts. Instead, they are pressing Mr. Mueller to testify, hoping he will say something beyond what is contained in his report, and to obtain his investigatory materials. By second-guessing the prosecutors and recasting Mr. Trump’s conduct as criminal-law violations, Democrats seek cover for their raw political push to unseat a president.

Outsourcing impeachment also fundamentally deforms the executive branch. In Federalist No. 51, Madison explained that each branch must possess “the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. . . . The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.” When executive-branch officials see themselves as working for Congress, there is severe constitutional dislocation.

Mr. Mueller’s team, for example, embraced the proposition that a president can obstruct justice by exercising his constitutional powers, such as firing the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, if his decisions have a corrupt motive. That position runs roughshod over opinions of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which has consistently concluded that, to protect separation of powers, laws should not be construed to apply to the president’s performance of his official duties, absent a clear statement otherwise.

The obstruction statutes contain no such clear statement. And while Mr. Mueller refrained from ascribing corrupt motives to Mr. Trump, his legal view that the president can obstruct justice while discharging his constitutional powers is at odds with constitutional principles and would have never been adopted by the Justice Department in the normal course of business.

Allowing executive branch officials to investigate a sitting president all but invites a coup. Former Justice Department attorney Neal Katyal recently admitted that “the special counsel regulations I had the privilege of drafting in 1998-99 say that such inquiries have one ultimate destination: Congress.” Mr. Mueller hinted at the same idea in a public statement Wednesday: “The Constitution requires a process other than the criminal-justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.”

To Mr. Katyal and others now proclaiming a “constitutional crisis,” the special counsel works for Congress, not the president. Similarly, House Democrats claim it was illegitimate for Mr. Barr and other senior Justice Department officials to reach a prosecutorial judgment on obstruction of justice. In their view, that determination should have been made by Congress—which has no power to make prosecutorial judgments.

These views reflect a deep constitutional rot. While executive-branch officials must abide by legitimate oversight requests from lawmakers, they work for the president, not for Congress. Investigations of a sitting president by the executive branch threaten the separation of powers by encouraging insubordination to the president. Executive officials may be willing to help grease the wheels of impeachment. That’s no way to run a government of separated powers.

America’s experience with special prosecutors, independent counsels and special counsels has left a trail of partisan-fueled destruction. These investigations are inherently harmful to national unity and a stain on the constitutional fabric. The only way to restore the separation of powers and prevent further damage is to ensure that Congress cannot outsource any aspect of its impeachment powers.

Existing opinions from the Office of Legal Counsel already hold that no sitting president should be indicted or criminally prosecuted, because such actions would debilitate the presidency. The same is true of criminal or counterintelligence investigations. Thus the OLC logic should extend those opinions and conclude formally that a sitting president cannot be investigated by the executive branch.

If the U.S. is led one day by a truly corrupt president, the proposed cure of executive-branch investigation to aid impeachment would still be far worse than the disease. A president who openly violates the law or otherwise betrays the public trust can be voted out of office or impeached by Congress—using, as the OLC has noted, “its own investigative powers” in an open, politically accountable way.

Mr. Rivkin and Ms. Foley practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. He served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. She is a professor of constitutional law at Florida International University College of Law.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/congress-cant-outsource-impeachment-11559341259

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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

Mueller’s Fruit of the Poisonous Tree

Can a President obstruct Justice?

Speculation about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has turned toward obstruction of justice—specifically, whether President Trump can be criminally prosecuted for firing James Comey as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation or for earlier asking Mr. Comey to go easy on onetime national security adviser Mike Flynn. The answer is no. The Constitution forbids Congress to criminalize such conduct by a president, and applying existing statutes in such a manner would violate the separation of powers.

The Constitution creates three coequal branches of government, and no branch may exercise its authority in a manner that would negate or fundamentally undercut the power of another. The power to appoint and remove high-level executive-branch officers, such as the FBI director, is a core aspect of the president’s executive authority. It is the principal means by which a president disciplines the exercise of the executive power the Constitution vests in him.

The same is true of Mr. Trump’s request, as purported by Mr. Comey: “I hope you can see your way clear . . . to letting Flynn go.” The FBI director wields core presidential powers when conducting an investigation, and the president is entirely within his rights to inquire about, and to direct, such investigations. The director is free to ignore the president’s inquiries or directions and risk dismissal, or to resign if he believes the president is wrong. Such officials serve at the president’s pleasure and have no right to be free of such dilemmas.

A law criminalizing the president’s removal of an officer for a nefarious motive, or the application of a general law in that way, would be unconstitutional even if the president’s action interferes with a criminal investigation. Such a constraint would subject every exercise of presidential discretion to congressional sanction and judicial review. That would vitiate the executive branch’s coequal status and, when combined with Congress’s impeachment power, establish legislative supremacy—a result the Framers particularly feared.

Mr. Trump’s critics claim that subjecting the president’s actions to scrutiny as potential obstructions of justice is simply a matter of asking judges to do what they do every day in other contexts—determine the purpose or intent behind an action. That is also wrong. The president is not only an individual, but head of the executive branch. Separating his motives between public interests and personal ones—partisan, financial or otherwise—would require the courts to delve into matters that are inherently political. Under Supreme Court precedent stretching back to Marbury v. Madison (1803), the judiciary has no power to do so. And lawmakers enjoy an analogous immunity under the Speech and Debate Clause.

The president’s independence from the other branches does not merely support “energy” in the chief executive, as the Framers intended. It also ensures that he, and he alone, is politically accountable for his subordinates’ conduct. If officials as critical to the executive branch’s core functions as the FBI director could determine whom and how to investigate free from presidential supervision, they would wield the most awesome powers of government with no political accountability. History has demonstrated that even when subject to presidential authority, the FBI director can become a power unto himself—as J. Edgar Hoover was for decades, severely damaging civil liberties.

There are limits to presidential power. The Constitution requires the Senate’s consent for appointment of the highest-level executive-branch officers—a critical check on presidential power. The Supreme Court has upheld statutory limits—although never involving criminal sanction—on the removal of certain kinds of officials. But the decision to fire principal executive-branch officers like the FBI director remains within the president’s discretion. A sitting president can also be subjected to civil lawsuits—but only in a carefully circumscribed fashion, to avoid impeding his ability to discharge the powers of his office.

The ultimate check on presidential power is impeachment. Even though Mr. Trump cannot have violated criminal law in dismissing Mr. Comey, if a majority of representatives believe he acted improperly or corruptly, they are free to impeach him. If two-thirds of senators agree, they can remove him from office. Congress would then be politically accountable for its action. Such is the genius of our Constitution’s checks and balances.

None of this is to suggest the president has absolute immunity from criminal obstruction-of-justice laws. He simply cannot be prosecuted for an otherwise lawful exercise of his constitutional powers. The cases of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton —the latter impeached, and the former nearly so, for obstruction of justice—have contributed to today’s confusion. These were not criminal charges but articulations of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the constitutional standard for impeachment.

And in neither case was the accusation based on the president’s exercise of his lawful constitutional powers. If a president authorizes the bribery of a witness to suppress truthful testimony, as Nixon was accused of doing, he can be said to have obstructed justice. Likewise if a president asks a potential witness to commit perjury in a judicial action having nothing to do with the exercise of his office, as Mr. Clinton was accused of doing.

Although neither man could have been prosecuted while in office without his consent, either could have been after leaving office. That’s why President Ford pardoned Nixon—to avoid the spectacle and poisonous political atmosphere of a criminal trial. In Mr. Trump’s case, by contrast, the president exercised the power to fire an executive-branch official whom he may dismiss for any reason, good or bad, or for no reason at all. To construe that as a crime would unravel America’s entire constitutional structure.

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

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/can-a-president-obstruct-justice-1512938781