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 »

Obstruction of justice? Careful what you wish for, lawmakers

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

7 February 2018 in the Wall Street Journal

Democrats have attacked Attorney General-designate William Barr for a memo in which he argued against a legal theory some claim could support prosecuting President Trump for obstruction of justice. Mr. Barr argued that an exercise of the president’s constitutional authority—for instance, firing James Comey as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation—cannot be construed as obstruction even if prosecutors believe he did so for improper reasons.

At his confirmation hearings, Mr. Barr rightly stood his ground. Critics should consider the implications of the motive-driven obstruction theory with respect not only to the president but also to the other branches of government. It has the potential to impair Congress, the judiciary and state governments as well.

The Constitution vests all executive power in the president, including decisions about high-level personnel, investigations, prosecutions and pardons. Human motives are rarely pure, and bad motives are often in the eye of the beholder. Presidents inevitably have self-interested objectives when exercising their authority—enhancing their political position, for example.

If the personal motivations behind every lawful official act could potentially be grounds for criminal charges, then presidents—and their subordinates, “from the Attorney General down to the most junior line prosecutor,” as Mr. Barr put it in his memo—might shirk supervisory authority over a wide variety of cases. Law enforcement would operate on an autopilot, with extreme harshness as the default approach. The result, as Hamilton put it in Federalist No. 70, would be “a feeble executive,” which “implies a feeble execution of the government” and produces “bad government.” Read more »

Another IRS free-speech scandal

By David B. Rivkin and Randall John Meyer

November 23, 2018, in the Wall Street Journal

The Internal Revenue Service infamously targeted dissenters during President Obama’s re-election campaign. Now the IRS is at it again. Earlier this year it issued a rule suppressing huge swaths of First Amendment protected speech. The regulation appears designed to hamper the marijuana industry, which is still illegal under federal law although many states have enacted decriminalization measures. But it goes far beyond that.

The innocuously named Revenue Procedure 2018-5 contains a well-hidden provision enabling the Service to withhold tax-exempt status from organizations seeking to improve “business conditions . . . relating to an activity involving controlled substances (within the meaning of Schedule I and II of the Controlled Substances Act) which is prohibited by federal law.” That means that to obtain tax-exempt status under any provision of the Internal Revenue Code’s Section 501—whether as a charity, social-welfare advocacy group or other type of nonprofit—an organization may not advocate for altering the legal regime applicable to any Schedule I or II substance.

Marijuana is a Schedule I substance, meaning the Food and Drug Administration has found it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Schedule II drugs include such widely prescribed medications as Adderall, Vyvanse, codeine and oxycodone. The IRS can deny tax-exempt status to any organization that seeks to improve the “business conditions” of a currently prohibited activity involving these medications. That could include simply advocating for a change in the law or regulation forbidding the possession, sale or use of marijuana or other Schedule I substances. It would also encompass advocacy for relaxing the regulatory regime currently governing the production, distribution or prescription of Schedule II medications.

The rule does not apply to all speech dealing with the listed substances, only that involving an “improvement” in “business conditions,” such as legalization or deregulation. Efforts to maintain restrictions or impose additional ones are fine by the IRS. This is constitutionally pernicious viewpoint discrimination. As the Supreme Court stated in Rosenberger v. University of Virginia (1995): “When the government targets not subject matter, but particular views taken by speakers on a subject, the violation of the First Amendment is all the more blatant.”

Read more »

Iranian Sanctions with an Extra Bite

Democrats Abandon the Constitution

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

October 16, 2018, in the Wall Street Journal

Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court has sparked a firestorm of outrage and recrimination on the left. Some attacks seem aimed at intimidating the justices into supporting progressive causes. “The Court must now prove—through its work—that it is worthy of the nation’s trust,” Eric Holder, President Obama’s attorney general, tweeted Oct. 6.

Yet the attacks go beyond ideology. Detractors of Justice Kavanaugh and President Trump are denouncing the Constitution itself and the core elements of America’s governmental structure:

• The Electoral College. Mr. Trump’s opponents claim he is an illegitimate president because Hillary Clinton “won the popular vote.” One commentator even asked “what kind of nation allows the loser of a national election to become president.” The complaint that the Electoral College is undemocratic is nothing new. The Framers designed it that way. They created a republican form of government, not a pure democracy, and adopted various antimajoritarian measures to keep the “demos” in check.

The Electoral College could be eliminated by amending the Constitution. But proposing an amendment requires two-thirds votes in both houses of Congress, and the legislatures of three-fourths, or 38, of the states would have to ratify it.

• The Senate. The complaint here is that the 50 senators who voted in Justice Kavanaugh’s favor “represent” fewer people than the 48 who voted against him. But senators represent states, not people.

Read more »

Kavanaugh’s Foes Politicize the FBI

By David B. Rivkin Jr and Kristi Remington

October 1st, 2018, in the Wall Street Journal

The bipartisan bonhomie occasioned by the reopening of Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s background investigation dissipated quickly. By the weekend, Senate Democrats—who had demanded the investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation—were challenging its credibility, objecting to its scope and focus, and lamenting that the White House had any involvement in shaping the process.

The reopened investigation, according to Sen. Lindsey Graham—reflecting the White House’s view—potentially entailed interviewing Deborah Ramirez, who claims that Judge Kavanaugh committed lewd conduct while a freshmen at Yale, and the three purported witnesses named by first accuser Christine Blasey Ford—Mark Judge, P.J. Smyth and Leland Keyser—all of whom have attested they have no memory that would corroborate her accusation. Julie Swetnick’s sordid and implausible claims were to be left out, and if any new allegations against Judge Kavanaugh were to emerge, these also wouldn’t be investigated.

President Trump told reporters Monday: “The FBI should interview anybody that they want within reason, but you have to say within reason.” That qualification is crucial. It is clear that Judge Kavanaugh’s opponents are clamoring for an open-ended fishing expedition that, probably by design, would go on much longer than a week. They are insisting that the FBI investigate Judge Kavanaugh’s drinking while in high school and college and interview anyone who might know about it. Two such people have already come forward, and there are no disincentives for new claimants, possibly driven by partisan or personal animus, to emerge.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) tried to justify his demand to broaden the FBI investigation by claiming that heavy drinking was “directly relevant” to the sexual-assault allegations. If this approach were adopted, the FBI would have to interview a very large pool of witnesses about Judge Kavanaugh’s alcohol intake, and possibly many other personal traits, over many years. Never mind that alcohol use is a standard FBI question, certainly asked in the course of Judge Kavanaugh’s previous six background investigations.

Read more »