Stop the Impeachment Fishing Expedition

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.” Read more »

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.

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