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

Mulvaney Can Undo Cordray’s Legacy

When Richard Cordray attempted to install his chief of staff as acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, his evident aim was to buy enough time to cement his legacy—particularly a just-finalized rule that the agency expects will wipe out half or more of the short-term lending industry. On Tuesday a federal judge thwarted Mr. Cordray, holding that President Trump acted within his authority by appointing Mick Mulvaney to moonlight as acting CFPB director while continuing to lead the Office of Management and Budget.

On his first day at the bureau, Mr. Mulvaney put a freeze on new rules and guidance. But that doesn’t solve the problem of the payday-lender rule. Mr. Mulvaney acknowledged that he cannot simply recall rules that have already gone out the door. Repealing a final rule typically requires restarting the rule-making process, which can take years to complete.

But Mr. Mulvaney can stop the payday-lender rule by putting on his OMB hat and invoking the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980. That law is generally thought of as—actually, strike that. Nobody ever thinks about the Paperwork Reduction Act. It has about as much currency in Washington as the Filled Cheese Act of 1896.

The PRA, which was purportedly strengthened in 1995, was an effort to address a real problem. Federal agencies are eager to impose paperwork burdens on citizens and businesses. It costs an agency almost nothing to impose a new record-keeping requirement or reporting mandate. The expense falls on those required to carry it out.

The obvious solution was to put agencies on a paperwork budget and force them to internalize the costs they foist on the public. To ensure that agencies don’t evade that responsibility, the PRA established robust centralized oversight in the Office of Management and Budget, which is part of the White House. Every “information collection request” issued or imposed by a federal agency must be approved by OMB. That includes government forms as well as requirements that private parties collect information. If OMB disapproves a request, the agency cannot enforce it.

In practice, however, the PRA doesn’t have much effect. Disapprovals from OMB are exceedingly rare. In part, that’s because most agencies are subject to presidential control, rendering the act superfluous—if the White House opposes a regulatory proposal, it can simply instruct the agency to drop or amend it. By the time PRA review rolls around, the White House has already had its say.

Then there are the independent agencies insulated from presidential control, such as the Federal Communications Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission and most other financial regulators. The PRA empowers them to overrule a disapproval by majority vote. The CFPB was designed to be an independent agency, but unlike the others it has a single director. The PRA limits the ability to overrule to “an independent regulatory agency which is administered by two or more members.” So OMB can disapprove any action by the bureau that imposes unnecessary or excessive paperwork burdens, without fear of being overruled.

Mr. Mulvaney should exercise that power. Every single provision of the short-term lending rule is structured around information collection requests subject to the PRA. The rule’s central requirement is that lenders determine a borrower’s ability to repay by demanding financial information from the borrower, verifying it, and then recording the result of various calculations. Each step is its own paperwork burden.

Whether or not the agency can ultimately justify its regulatory approach—and we have our doubts—it has to do its homework under the PRA. That includes accurately assessing costs, considering the need for and utility of each individual paperwork requirement, balancing the costs and benefits, and minimizing collection burdens. The bureau’s final rule differs substantially from its initial proposal, but the agency made little attempt to account for changes in paperwork burden, as the PRA requires it to do. Nor did it engage with the detailed criticisms of its analysis of the proposal’s costs. The three-page analysis published with the final rule can only be described as Mr. Cordray—perhaps unaware of the bureau’s unique status under the PRA—thumbing his nose at OMB and the White House.

That is reason enough to disapprove the rule and send the CFPB back to the drawing board. It would also signal that the Trump administration actually intends to enforce the PRA—to the point that it will halt a major regulation to ensure compliance. That should prompt other agencies to pay attention to paperwork burdens.

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 at the Cato Institute.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/mulvaney-can-unravel-cordrays-legacy-1512086936

Begging Your Pardon, Mr. President

‘You’re Fired,’ Trump Should Tell Richard Cordray

Under a dubious statute, the CFPB head can be dismissed only for cause—but there’s plenty of it.

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Andrew M. Grossman

April 13, 2017, in the Wall Street Journal

The greatest mystery in Washington involves not Russian spies or wiretaps but Richard Cordray’s continued employment as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In the face of President Trump’s mandate for change, Mr. Cordray continues the Obama administration’s regulatory crusade against lenders, blocking access to the credit that supports so many small businesses and so much consumer spending.

Why would a president who made a TV show out of firing underlings now suffer a subordinate who refuses to get with the pro-growth agenda he campaigned on? If reports from the West Wing are to be believed, Mr. Trump’s unusual timidity is the result of overcautious legal and political advice.

Mr. Cordray is insulated from presidential control by a New Deal-era innovation: a statutory clause that allows the president to fire an independent agency head only “for cause,” meaning “inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.” In October a three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia struck down that restriction an infringement of the president’s constitutional authority to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

When Congress created the CFPB by passing the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, Judge Brett Kavanaugh explained, it broke with decades of historical practice. Generally the power of independent agencies is diffused among multiple commissioners or directors so as to reduce the risk of abuse. Unless he can be fired, Mr. Cordray, as the sole director of the CFPB, wields more unilateral power than any government official save the president. Read more »

The Ninth Circuit Ignores Precedent and Threatens National Security

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals violated both judicial precedent and the Constitution’s separation of powers in its ruling against President Trump’s executive order on immigration. If the ruling stands, it will pose a danger to national security.

Under normal rules of standing, the states of Washington and Minnesota should never have been allowed to bring this suit. All litigants, including states, must meet fundamental standing requirements: an injury to a legally protected interest, caused by the challenged action, that can be remedied by a federal court acting within its constitutional power. This suit fails on every count.

The plaintiff states assert that their public universities are injured because the order affects travel by certain foreign students and faculty. But that claim involved no legally protected interest. The granting of visas and the decision to admit aliens into the country are discretionary powers of the federal government. Unadmitted aliens have no constitutional right to enter the U.S. In hiring or admitting foreigners, universities were essentially gambling that these noncitizens could make it to America and be admitted. Under the theory of standing applied in this case, universities would be able to sponsor any alien, anywhere in the world, then go to court to challenge a decision to exclude him.

It is also settled law that a state can seek to vindicate only its own rights, not those of third parties, against the national government. The U.S. Supreme Court held in Massachusetts v. Mellon (1923) that it is not within a state’s duty or power to protect its citizens’ “rights in respect of their relations with the Federal Government.” Thus the plaintiffs’ claims that the executive order violates various constitutional rights, such as equal protection, due process and religious freedom, are insufficient because these are individual and not states’ rights.

Read more »

What Kind of a Judge Is Neil Gorsuch?

He carefully follows the law, and writes as engagingly as Scalia, without the abrasiveness.

By DAVID B. RIVKIN JR. and ANDREW M. GROSSMAN

The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 31, 2017 

Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Trump ’s nominee to succeed Justice Antonin Scalia, is a native Coloradan and avid outdoorsman. He clerked for a federal appellate judge and two Supreme Court justices and spent a decade practicing law before his appointment in 2006, at age 39, to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In the decade since, he has written some 850 opinions.

The way to take a judge’s measure is to read his opinions, and so we set out to review Judge Gorsuch’s. It was not an arduous task, for his prose is unusually engaging—think Scalia, with none of the abrasiveness. Justice Elena Kagan has declared herself a fan of his writing style. The only difficulty in summarizing Judge Gorsuch’s output is the compulsion to quote, at length, from so many of his opinions.

One opens this way: “Haunted houses may be full of ghosts, goblins, and guillotines, but it’s their more prosaic features that pose the real danger. Tyler Hodges found that out when an evening shift working the ticket booth ended with him plummeting down an elevator shaft.” The case, by the way, was a prosaic dispute between insurers. Another opinion starts: “What began as a fight at a strip club finds its way here as a clash over hearsay.”

Judge Gorsuch shows a concern for the people whose disputes are before the court. Each opinion typically begins with the name of the person seeking relief and why. A recent example: “After a bale of hay hit and injured Miriam White while she was operating her tractor, she sued the manufacturer, Deere & Company.” Ms. White’s appeal was summarily denied, but even the brief, three-page opinion reflects a serious engagement with her arguments and the facts—in contrast with the boilerplate language judges often use in such decisions. Win or lose, parties appearing before Judge Gorsuch surely know that they have been treated with fairness, consideration and respect. Read more »