Congress Declares War, but Only the President Can Make It

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

15 January 2020 in the Wall Street Journal

House Democrats, joined by a few Republicans, responded to the killing of Iran’s Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani by questioning the president’s authority to order that strike. But the resolution they passed last week makes a mockery of Congress’s own powers. It purportedly “directs the President to terminate the use of United States Armed Forces to engage in hostilities in or against Iran or any part of its government or military” unless Congress authorizes the use of force or an Iranian attack on the U.S. is “imminent.” But it’s styled as a nonbinding resolution. That means it doesn’t need Senate approval, but it also makes no pretense of having the force of law.

Which is just as well. Congress cannot limit the president’s constitutional authority to wage war in the way it pretends to here.

The resolution purports to restrict the president’s power to an even greater extent than the 1973 War Powers Resolution. The latter was enacted over President Richard Nixon’s veto, and every president since has regarded it as unconstitutional. It demands that the White House notify Congress anytime U.S. forces are introduced into hostilities abroad, then either obtain congressional authorization or withdraw troops within 90 days. The new resolution applies to all forms of military power, including drones and missiles, and claims to prohibit them effective immediately.

It’s true that the Constitution assigns Congress the power “to declare war.” Yet even in the 18th century, a declaration of war wasn’t required to create a state of armed conflict, governed by the laws of war. Today, such a declaration has to do with how citizens and property from belligerent and neutral states are treated, rather than the actual use of force. The last time Congress formally declared war was in 1942. Since World War II, lawmakers have approved U.S. military actions by other means, from the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which allowed President Lyndon B. Johnson to expand U.S. involvement in Vietnam, to the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002.

The power to declare war is different from the power to make war, which belongs to the president in his role as “commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.” There are few constraints on that power when the president is defending Americans, civilian or military, against armed attack.

True, the Framers didn’t grant the president power to initiate hostilities at his pleasure. They gave Congress, not the president, the authority to raise and support armies, to create a navy, and to make rules and regulations for their governance. It’s also up to the legislative branch to define the legal framework for armed conflict: offenses against international and military law, the procedures for their prosecution, the treatment of captured enemy property and prisoners and so forth.

Congress also has the power “to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the militia.” Military officers are subject to Senate confirmation. Congress can use its exclusive appropriation powers to limit or eliminate funding for a particular conflict—if lawmakers are prepared to take the resulting political risks. Inaction or nonbinding resolutions have no constitutional import.

Even if it passes legislation, Congress cannot dictate when and how the president exercises his power over the military forces it has provided—especially in selecting targets. Like any American, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is free to speak her mind. But her claim that the attack on Soleimani was “provocative and disproportionate” is preposterous.

Iran has been engaged in on-and-off armed conflict with the U.S. since “students” seized the embassy in Tehran in 1979. Soleimani was a uniformed member of the Iranian armed forces, and a critical player in Iran’s worldwide terror campaign. All that made him a legitimate target. The notion that Soleimani was too senior to be killed finds no support in the laws of armed conflict. Even the most senior military leaders can be targeted, as the U.S. did in 1943 when it shot down Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto’s plane in New Guinea.

Nor is it legally relevant, as some congressional Democrats have claimed, that killing such a high-ranking officer could heighten the danger of a wider war. Any military action has the potential to escalate hostilities, as do other exercises of presidential authority. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s imposition of an oil embargo against Japan in August 1941 arguably prompted the attack on Pearl Harbor four months later.

Under Mrs. Pelosi’s logic, virtually every major foreign-policy decision would require congressional authorization. Imagine if President John F. Kennedy had to ask lawmakers for approval during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 before subjecting Cuba to a “naval quarantine,” an act of war against Havana. The threat of Soviet missiles in Cuba was real, but it wasn’t “imminent” in the sense that Mr. Trump’s critics use that word today.

Kennedy acted to prevent a long-term, highly dangerous change in the nuclear balance of power that would have put Moscow in a position to launch a nuclear attack on the U.S. with virtually no warning. But there was no reason to think an attack was planned for the immediate future.

Kennedy decided that action, while risky, would enhance deterrence, as President Trump did when he ordered the killing of Soleimani. The president deserves credit for a decision that would, at any time until recently, have been considered a triumph by Democrats and Republicans alike.

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/congress-declares-war-but-only-the-president-can-make-it-11579133486

The Senate Knows Enough to Acquit Trump

By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Elizabeth Price Foley

5 January 2020 in the Wall Street Journal

Give Nancy Pelosi this: She has chutzpah. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell responded Friday on the Senate floor to the House’s refusal to appoint managers and transmit its articles of impeachment against President Trump to the upper chamber. “For now,” Mr. McConnell said, “we are content to continue the ordinary business of the Senate while House Democrats continue to flounder. For now.”

Mrs. Pelosi’s response: “The GOP Senate must immediately proceed in a manner worthy of the Constitution.” Never mind that the hold-up is at her end.

Yet now that Mr. Trump has been impeached, the Senate is constitutionally obliged to address the matter. Neither Mrs. Pelosi’s intransigence nor Senate rules, dating from 1868, that peg the commencement of an impeachment trial to the House’s appointment of impeachment “managers” justify an indefinite delay.

As Mr. McConnell noted, the Constitution’s Framers emphasized the importance of a speedy trial in cases of impeachment. “The procrastinated determination of the charges,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 65, would do “injury to the innocent,” work to “the advantage of the guilty,” and sometimes do “detriment to the state, from the prolonged inaction of men whose firm and faithful execution of their duty might have exposed them to the persecution of an intemperate or designing majority in the House.”

Mrs. Pelosi is holding the impeachment articles hostage, she says, to ensure that the Senate holds what she regards as a “fair” trial. Her central demand is that the Senate permit House managers to call witnesses the House didn’t hear from before impeaching the president. Putting aside the rank hypocrisy of this demand, the Constitution provides that “the Senate shall have the sole power to try all impeachments.” The House has no say in how the trial is conducted.

Mr. McConnell appears to believe it is to his advantage to let Mrs. Pelosi fumble about “for now.” But the Constitution obliges the Senate to act at some point. If the House does not relent, the Senate has two options. It could take the position that because the House bears the normal prosecutorial burden of production and persuasion, Mrs. Pelosi’s refusal to engage with the Senate requires the summary dismissal of the articles. Alternatively, the Senate could take a page from the judiciary’s handbook and appoint outside counsel as managers to make the House’s case against Mr. Trump.

If managers are appointed by either the House or the Senate, the Senate should not conduct a trial on the facts. Instead it should dismiss the articles as a matter of law. The House has alleged no impeachable offense, and therefore no evidence can convict Mr. Trump.

The first article charges the president with “abuse of power” in his dealings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. There are two ways a president can abuse power: by doing something that exceeds his constitutional authority (such as unilaterally imposing a tax) or by failing to carry out a constitutional obligation (refusing to enforce a law). Neither is applicable here.

Mr. Trump had ample constitutional authority to ask Mr. Zelensky to investigate Ukrainian involvement in the alleged Democratic National Committee server hack, the related genesis of the Russia collusion narrative, and Joe and Hunter Biden’s potentially corrupt dealings in Ukraine. The Supreme Court stated in U.S. v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp. (1936) that the president is the “sole organ of the federal government in the field of international relations,” with exclusive authority to conduct diplomatic relations.

House Democrats don’t dispute this, or claim Mr. Trump’s actions were illegal in themselves. Rather, they allege that he had “corrupt motives” for doing them.

The “corrupt motives” theory is inherently corrosive of democracy. Motives are often mixed, difficult to discern and, like beauty, generally in the eyes of the beholder—which in this case sees through partisan lenses. To Democrats, the transcript of the Trump-Zelensky call demonstrate the desire to harm Democrats; to Republicans, a desire to root out corruption.

Any investigation involving governmental malfeasance can damage the president’s political rivals or benefit allies. But the president has a constitutional duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” even if his political opponents may be violating them. To bar investigations of the president’s political opponents would effectively hand them a get-out-of-jail-free card and traduce the rule of law. And virtually everything elected officials do serves political ends. If a president’s pursuit of his political interests is impeachable, every president is removable at Congress’s whim.

The House Democrats’ theory will encourage impeachment whenever a President exercises his constitutional authority in a manner offensive to the party controlling the House. The Framers vehemently opposed impeachment for policy disagreements, as legal scholar Michael Gerhardt noted during President Clinton’s impeachment inquiry in 1998. He told the House Judiciary Committee that “one of the most often repeated pronouncements of the framers” was “that impeachment is not designed to address policy differences or opinion.” He referred the committee an “excellent study” by Peter Hoffer and N.E.H. Hull, which warned that “impeachable offenses are not simply political acts obnoxious to the government’s ruling faction.”

The second impeachment article charges Mr. Trump with “obstruction of Congress” for asserting executive privilege in response to subpoenas. But impeachment doesn’t abolish the separation of powers The president has ample constitutional basis to resist congressional demands of documentary and testimonial evidence, particularly when it involves his White House advisers and sensitive national-security issues. This article is not only legally baseless but outrageous, since the House didn’t bother asking a judge to compel White House aides to testify. Instead, Mrs. Pelosi insists Mr. McConnell make it happen.

The Senate must stop the madness. If the House chooses not to pursue its case, the Senate has the authority and the duty to move forward and acquit the president without hearing additional evidence. Both with respect to the timing of the impeachment trial and the actual trial procedures, the Senate must fulfill its constitutional duty as the ultimate check on the House majority’s partisan passions and abuse of its impeachment power.

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/the-senate-knows-enough-to-acquit-trump-11578262402

Barr’s Loyalty Is to the Constitution, Not a Party

By David B. Rivkin and Andrew M. Grossman

December 24, 2019, in the Wall Street Journal

Washington’s knives are out for Attorney General William Barr, and the stabbing has intensified since he delivered a November address at the Federalist Society. Predecessor Eric Holder —who while serving in the Obama administration described himself as “the president’s wingman”—accused Mr. Barr of championing “essentially unbridled executive power.” In the same Washington Post op-ed, Mr. Holder added that Mr. Barr’s “nakedly partisan” remarks rendered him a pawn of President Trump and “unfit to lead the Justice Department”—an utterly unhinged claim.

In the New York Times, William Webster, who directed both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency, chastised Mr. Barr for criticizing FBI bias. Meanwhile, the Never Trump group Checks and Balances accused Mr. Barr of advancing an “autocratic vision of executive power” that is “unchecked” by Congress and the courts.

Some of the attacks are mere symptoms of Trump derangement syndrome, but others reflect by a deep-seated resistance to the Constitution’s separation of powers and the threat that its enforcement poses to the unaccountable administrative state. In either case, they’re wrong. Far from calling for executive supremacy, Mr. Barr has vigorously advocated the Framers’ vision of the Constitution’s separation-of-powers architecture, featuring the three governmental branches—Congress, the president and the judiciary—each exercising its distinctive authorities while checking the others. In his Federalist Society address, Mr. Barr, quoting Justice Antonin Scalia, explained that the Constitution gives the president and Congress “many ‘clubs with which to beat’ each other.”

Mr. Barr’s extolling of the “unitary executive” is hardly revolutionary—nor, as critics imagine, is it a call for dictatorship. It posits only that the president, being responsible for execution of the law, must be able to control his subordinates. This was the rule across the government until Humphrey’s Executor v. U.S. (1935), in which the Supreme Court carved out an exception for members of certain “independent” regulatory agencies, whom the president can fire only for “good cause.”

The Framers had good reason to favor a strong presidency. The early republic’s weak civilian executive leadership almost lost the Revolutionary War, shifting nearly the entire burden to Gen. George Washington. Postwar government under the Articles of Confederation was a ruinous shambles, unable to assert any sort of national leadership. To be sure, the Framers also feared legislative overreaching. They resolved all these problems by creating a coequal executive who could act, in Mr. Barr’s words, with “energy, consistency and decisiveness.”

Humphrey’s Executor was only the beginning of the attack on the constitutional design. Congress whittled away at executive power, depriving the president of the authority and duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” The courts not only approved those usurpations, but themselves meddled in disputes between the political branches and seized broad swaths of executive discretion.

Numerous lawmakers, most of the media and much of the political class now claim—at least during a Republican administration—that even core executive-branch activities, such as diplomacy and law enforcement, must be substantially free from presidential control. Hence the steady drumbeat of criticism directed at Mr. Trump for overseeing and making policy for the Justice Department, the FBI and the intelligence community as a whole.

The result isn’t a strong Congress but the supplantation of the Constitution’s checks and balances with a worst-of-all-worlds muddle. Leaders of independent agencies like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau exercise executive power free from accountability to the president or voters and subject only to the partisan whims of Congress. The bureaucratic “resistance,” spurred on by its allies in Congress, openly defies presidential decisions, undermining the principle of democratic control even in core areas of presidential responsibility like foreign policy. For their part, the courts increasingly police ordinary separation-of-powers disputes between Congress and the executive, destroying the possibility of compromise through political means.

These deviations from the Framers’ blueprint explain much of the government’s current dysfunction. Congress avoids politically dangerous decisions by palming tough choices off on agencies and the courts. The legal and political limbo of the so-called Dreamers is a ready example. Ceaseless congressional investigations nearly incapacitate the White House and are designed to achieve precisely that result. Executive agencies find their every action—even those involving inherently discretionary matters—subject to judicial scrutiny and nationwide injunctions imposed by judges whose jurisdiction is supposed to be limited to a state or district. Whereas the separation of powers fostered practical compromise, today’s judicial supremacy reduces everything to winner-take-all litigation.

Mr. Barr warned in his address that we must “take special care not to allow the passions of the moment to cause us to permanently disfigure the genius of our Constitutional structure.” Too often, previous attorneys general regarded the elements of separation of powers opportunistically, as cudgels to be employed in particular disputes. Mr. Barr’s vision and goals are broader. He’s concerned not only with the conflicts of the day but the structure necessary for the federal government to work. It’s a bold vision, but it’s the opposite of a partisan one.

If Mr. Barr achieves even a fraction of his agenda to restore the Framers’ vision of a strong, independent executive, he will go down as Mr. Trump’s most consequential executive appointment.

Messrs. Rivkin and Grossman practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. Mr. Rivkin served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office. Mr. Grossman is an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/barrs-loyalty-is-to-the-constitution-not-a-party-11577229447

Schiff’s ‘Obstruction’ Theory

By David B. Rivkin and Lee A. Casey

Nov. 14, 2019, in the Wall Street Journal

Is it an impeachable offense for a president to resist impeachment? House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff told CNN last week that White House officials’ refusal to testify in his committee’s impeachment probe could lead to “obstruction of Congress” charges against President Trump. At a press conference last month, he warned the White House against trying to “stonewall our investigation” and said: “Any action like that, that forces us to litigate or have to consider litigation, will be considered further evidence of obstruction of justice.”

He’s wrong. In the absence of a definitive judicial ruling to the contrary, the president has a well-established constitutional right—even a duty—to resist such demands. The Constitution authorized the House to impeach the president if it has evidence of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” but it does not require the president, who heads an equal branch of government, to cooperate in gathering such evidence. Accordingly, the Trump administration has refused to honor various document-production requests, and has instructed some current and former officials to ignore committee subpoenas.

Not all officials have complied with this instruction, but those who have—including former national security adviser John Bolton, former deputy national security adviser Charles Kupperman, chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and deputy White House counsel John Eisenberg—are acting lawfully and appropriately.

It has long been established that the president, and by extension his advisers, have two types of immunity from making disclosures to Congress. One applies to national-security information, the other to communications with immediate advisers, whether related to national security or not. Both immunities, when applicable, are absolute, which means they can’t be trumped by competing congressional needs.

The national-security privilege was most definitively explained in a 1989 memorandum from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). It noted that the privilege is anchored in the longstanding right “not to disclose state secrets,” first asserted by President Thomas Jefferson and affirmed by the courts in 1807. Although the Supreme Court unanimously rejected an assertion of executive privilege for all presidential communications in U.S. v. Nixon (1974), it “unmistakably implied,” according to the OLC memo, “that the President does enjoy an absolute state secrets privilege.”

The privilege for communications with the small group of senior White House staff who are the president’s immediate advisers is equally well-grounded. The OLC first fully articulated it in 1971 under future Chief Justice William Rehnquist. The office has reaffirmed it many times under presidents of both parties in response to all manner of congressional requests.

The privilege is premised on the Constitution’s separation of powers: “The President is a separate branch of government,” a 1982 OLC memo put it. “He may not compel congressmen to appear before him. As a matter of separation of powers, Congress may not compel him to appear before it.” The president’s immediate advisers are effectively his alter egos. Compelling them to appear is the equivalent of compelling him.

This point bears emphasis. Congress also has absolute privileges from interference with its operations, including the Constitution’s Speech and Debate Clause. Under that protection, lawmakers may defy the executive branch—for example, by publicly reading classified information into the congressional record—and they have done so.

Both privileges apply to the situation at hand, in which Congress seeks information from Mr. Trump’s most senior advisers about sensitive issues of national security. Ultimately, the courts must determine whether the president may invoke these privileges and whether his advisers must comply with the Intelligence Committee’s demands. Mr. Kupperman has brought a lawsuit challenging the subpoena, which is now pending before Judge Richard Leon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Mr. Schiff appears to have little confidence in his legal position, because he attempted to make the case moot by withdrawing the Kupperman subpoena. House lawyers asked the court to dismiss the action on that ground. Judge Leon refused.

The House claims it doesn’t want judicial review because of another pending lawsuit involving a subpoena. But that case is materially different. It was brought before the impeachment inquiry began and involves efforts to force former White House counsel Don McGahn to testify about the firing of James Comey as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and matters related to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. It raises no question of national-security immunity, so it cannot resolve the question with respect to Mr. Kupperman—at least not in Mr. Schiff’s favor.

The House majority’s effort to avoid adjudication of its demands for testimony presents another key problem. Under Mr. Schiff’s legal theory of what constitutes an impeachable offense, the House must demonstrate that the president has engaged in quid pro quo conduct vis-à-vis Ukraine, where U.S. military aid was allegedly withheld to secure cooperation in investigating Hunter Biden’s association with Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company. Mr. Trump vigorously denies that he intended to withhold U.S. aid.

His state of mind is of utmost importance to the House’s case. Yet, the only witnesses who have provided testimony on the question had little if any direct contact with the president. Advisers like Messrs. Bolton, Kupperman and Mulvaney, by contrast, would have been in daily contact with him. If House Democrats are serious about impeaching Mr. Trump for his dealings with the Ukrainian president, obtaining a judicial ruling that they are entitled to this critical testimony should be their top priority.

Mr. Schiff’s claim that Mr. Trump is guilty of an impeachable offense if he “forces us to litigate” is preposterous. It is the president’s right and obligation to protect the institution of the presidency from inappropriate congressional demands. If Mr. Schiff believes he is right on the law, he should welcome the opportunity to put his case to a judge. His refusal to do so exposes the entire exercise as a partisan sham.

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/schiffs-obstruction-theory-11573776120

This Impeachment Subverts the Constitution

By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Elizabeth Price Foley

October 25, 2019, in the Wall Street Journal

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has directed committees investigating President Trump to “proceed under that umbrella of impeachment inquiry,” but the House has never authorized such an inquiry. Democrats have been seeking to impeach Mr. Trump since the party took control of the House, though it isn’t clear for what offense. Lawmakers and commentators have suggested various possibilities, but none amount to an impeachable offense. The effort is akin to a constitutionally proscribed bill of attainder—a legislative effort to punish a disfavored person. The Senate should treat it accordingly.

The impeachment power is quasi-judicial and differs fundamentally from Congress’s legislative authority. The Constitution assigns “the sole power of impeachment” to the House—the full chamber, which acts by majority vote, not by a press conference called by the Speaker. Once the House begins an impeachment inquiry, it may refer the matter to a committee to gather evidence with the aid of subpoenas. Such a process ensures the House’s political accountability, which is the key check on the use of impeachment power.

The House has followed this process every time it has tried to impeach a president. Andrew Johnson’s 1868 impeachment was predicated on formal House authorization, which passed 126-47. In 1974 the Judiciary Committee determined it needed authorization from the full House to begin an inquiry into Richard Nixon’s impeachment, which came by a 410-4 vote. The House followed the same procedure with Bill Clinton in 1998, approving a resolution 258-176, after receiving independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s report.

Mrs. Pelosi discarded this process in favor of a Trump-specific procedure without precedent in Anglo-American law. Rep. Adam Schiff’s Intelligence Committee and several other panels are questioning witnesses in secret. Mr. Schiff has defended this process by likening it to a grand jury considering whether to hand up an indictment. But while grand-jury secrecy is mandatory, House Democrats are selectively leaking information to the media, and House Republicans, who are part of the jury, are being denied subpoena authority and full access to transcripts of testimony and even impeachment-related committee documents. No grand jury has a second class of jurors excluded from full participation.

Unlike other impeachable officials, such as federal judges and executive-branch officers, the president and vice president are elected by, and accountable to, the people. The executive is also a coequal branch of government. Thus any attempt to remove the president by impeachment creates unique risks to democracy not present in any other impeachment context. Adhering to constitutional text, tradition and basic procedural guarantees of fairness is critical. These processes are indispensable bulwarks against abuse of the impeachment power, designed to preserve the separation of powers by preventing Congress from improperly removing an elected president. Read more »

Probe the effort to sink Kavanaugh

By David B. Rivkin and Lee A. Casey

Sept. 29, 2019, in the Wall Street Journal

The effort to sink Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation cries out for investigation. The Senate Judiciary Committee has already made a criminal referral to the Justice Department regarding alleged material misstatements by lawyer Michael Avenatti and his client Julie Swetnick. And a new book by two New York Times reporters contains a potentially explosive revelation.

In “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh,” Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly report that Leland Keyser —who was unable to corroborate high-school friend Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation of youthful sexual misconduct—says she felt pressured by a group of common acquaintances to vouch for it anyway. The book quotes an unnamed male member of the group suggesting in a text message: “Perhaps it makes sense to let everyone in the public know what her condition is”—a remark the reporters describe as reading “like a veiled reference” to Ms. Keyser’s “addictive tendencies.” (The authors quote her as saying she told investigators “my whole history of using.”)

A concerted effort to mislead the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Senate, especially if it involved threats to potential witnesses, could violate several federal criminal statutes, including 18 U.S.C. 1001 (lying to federal officials), 18 U.S.C. 1505 (obstruction of official proceedings) and 18 U.S.C. 1622 (subornation of perjury). Investigating and, if the evidence is sufficient, prosecuting such offenses would deter similar misconduct in the future.

It’s bad for the country when nominees are subjected to what Bill Clinton calls “the politics of personal destruction.” It intensifies political polarization and bitterness, traduces due process, dissuades good people from government service, and injures the reputation of the judiciary and other institutions.

The Senate and FBI could also consider changing the background-check process for nominees. Justice Kavanaugh’s opponents seem to have expected a full-fledged criminal-style inquiry into Ms. Ford’s allegations, although Senate Democrats had sat on them for months. But that’s not how background investigations work. They’re carried out by a special unit whose job is to verify information the nominee has provided and gather additional information that may reflect on his character and reputation. This process does not involve the same sort of searching questions that are characteristic of a criminal investigation. Nor do FBI background investigators routinely assess individual witness credibility. They reach no conclusions but collect information and then forward it to the White House and Senate. It is then up to the elected officials to decide who and what to believe. It is a political, not a criminal, process.

This is a matter of practice and tradition, not law. The FBI could be asked to conduct background investigations in a manner more comparable to its criminal and intelligence work, where agents will assess witness credibility and use those assessments to guide the focus and course of the inquiry. It should be especially vigilant to the possibilities of collusion and witness tampering, which are uniquely troubling in high profile confirmation battles.

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/probe-the-effort-to-sink-kavanaugh-11569786380