By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Elizabeth Price Foley
Feb. 14, 2019, in the Wall Street Journal
As William Barr begins his term as attorney general, House Democrats are aiming a “subpoena cannon” at President Trump, hoping to disable his presidency with investigations and possibly gather evidence to impeach him. Mr. Trump fired back in his State of the Union address: “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation.” To protect the presidency and separation of powers, Mr. Barr should be prepared to seek a stay of all congressional investigations of Mr. Trump’s prepresidential conduct.
The president is not one among many, as are legislators and judges. Crippling his ability to function upsets the constitutional balance of power. For this reason, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel has repeatedly concluded that a sitting president may not be indicted or prosecuted. The same logic should apply to congressional investigations.
Congress is targeting Mr. Trump’s actions before becoming president because there are well-established constitutional limits, grounded in separation-of-powers doctrine, on its ability to investigate his official conduct. In U.S. v. Nixon (1974), the Supreme Court recognized a constitutionally based, although not unlimited, privilege of confidentiality to ensure “effective discharge of a President’s powers.” In Nixon v. Fitzgerald (1982), the justices held that presidents and ex-presidents have absolute immunity against civil liability for official presidential acts.
Executive immunity for prepresidential activity is less clear. In Clinton v. Jones (1997), which arose out of Paula Jones’s accusation that Bill Clinton sexually harassed her while he was governor of Arkansas, the justices reasoned that Ms. Jones’s lawsuit could proceed because the burden on the presidency objectively appeared light. Specifically, because only three sitting presidents had been sued for prepresidential acts, the justices thought it “unlikely that a deluge of such litigation will ever engulf the presidency.”
The court did, however, consider the question of whether civil litigation “could conceivably hamper the President in conducting the duties of his office.” It answered: “If and when that should occur, the court’s discretion would permit it to manage those actions in such fashion (including deferral of trial) that interference with the President’s duties would not occur.”
Unfortunately, the scenario the court called “unlikely” in 1997 now exists. Like Mr. Clinton, Mr. Trump faces an investigation by a zealous prosecutor with unlimited resources inquiring, among other things, into prepresidential activities. In addition, Mr. Trump is subject to a deluge of lawsuits and investigations, including by state attorneys general, involving his conduct before entering politics. The House Intelligence Committee has announced a wide-ranging investigation of two decades’ worth of Mr. Trump’s business dealings. The Ways and Means Committee plans to probe many years of Mr. Trump’s tax returns. By contrast, the 1995 resolution establishing the Senate Whitewater Committee targeted specific areas of possible improper conduct by the White House and federal banking regulators.
Congress has no authority to investigate or prosecute crimes; these responsibilities belong to the executive branch. It has no power to conduct fishing expeditions, and its investigatory authority is supposed to be in the service of legislation. As the Supreme Court warned in Watkins v. U.S. (1954), investigations unrelated to legislative business are an abuse of power that “can lead to ruthless exposure of private lives.” When congressional investigations seek ruthless exposure of a sitting president’s private life, the harm is not only to persons but to institutions.
Nor is investigating Mr. Trump’s prepresidential activities a legitimate exercise of the House’s impeachment power. The Framers viewed impeachment as a remedy for serious violations of public trust committed while in office. As Gouverneur Morris told the constitutional convention, impeachment would punish the president “not as a man, but as an officer, and punished only by degradation from his office.” Alexander Hamilton likewise observed in Federalist No. 65 that impeachment involves “those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.”
The House Judiciary Committee has embraced this interpretation several times. In 1872, it refused to impeach Vice President Schuyler Colfax for taking—while he was in Congress—discounted shares of the Union Pacific Railroad as part of the Credit Mobilier scandal. The Judiciary Committee concluded in a report that impeachment “should only be applied to high crimes and misdemeanors committed while in office.” The committee’s Democrats took a similar tack in 1998, objecting to the committee’s resolution to impeach Mr. Clinton on the ground that perjury and obstruction of justice arising from the Jones case did not “amount to the abuse of official power which is an historically rooted prerequisite for impeaching a President.”
While the full House impeached Mr. Clinton for perjury before a grand jury, it voted down an article of impeachment for perjury in Ms. Jones’s civil case. Earlier efforts to impeach presidents clearly involved official acts: Andrew Johnson was impeached after violating the Tenure of Office Act. The effort to impeach Nixon began only after tapes implicating him in the Watergate burglary were obtained.
“Impeachment is like a wall around the fort of the separation of powers,” the Judiciary Committee Democrats wrote in 1998. “The crack we put in the wall today becomes the fissure tomorrow, which ultimately destroys the wall entirely.” If Congress can use its investigatory power to fish for evidence of impeachable acts, presidents will become politically accountable to Congress, not the people. Impeachment proceedings must be designated as such from the get-go, not obfuscated as amorphous “investigations.”
To protect the separation of powers, the president should defy all demands for information about his prepresidential activities. If Congress or private litigants seek to enforce these demands, the Justice Department should move to stay these proceedings while Mr. Trump is in office. If Democrats want to remove Mr. Trump from office, there are two legitimate ways to do so: By defeating him at the polls in 2020 or through properly conducted impeachment proceedings based on evidence of “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” committed while in office.
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.