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

The Iran Deal Violates U.S. Law

Obama let Tehran get into the medical-isotope business, contrary to the intent of Congress.

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and James L. Connaughton

Oct. 12, 2017, in the Wall Street Journal

As President Trump decides whether to certify his predecessor’s nuclear deal with Iran, here’s another wrinkle he should keep in mind: The deal’s implementation violates federal law, namely the American Medical Isotopes Production Act of 2012.

That statute seeks to end the nuclear-proliferation risk associated with foreign production of radioactive substances for medical use using weapons-grade highly enriched uranium. U.S. doctors use a molybdenum isotope, moly-99, in 20 million procedures annually to detect early cancer, heart disease and other lethal illnesses. But the U.S. has no domestic production capability, relying instead on foreign suppliers who obtain the necessary highly enriched uranium from the U.S. government.

In enacting the 2012 law, Congress sought to end exports of highly enriched uranium while ramping up sufficient domestic production of moly-99 to satisfy U.S. needs. Since America uses roughly half of the world’s moly-99, robust U.S. production would cramp the ability of foreign isotope suppliers to control the market and sell their wares globally.

Under the 2012 law, the National Nuclear Security Administration is supposed to implement programs to encourage U.S. entrepreneurs to develop ways of making moly-99 without using highly enriched uranium, with the goal of making enough of it to justify permanently ending U.S. exports of highly enriched uranium. The Obama administration conspicuously failed to fulfill the law’s requirements. Moly-99 is not being produced in the U.S. and the U.S. government continues to export weapons-grade uranium overseas.

The Iran deal makes matters worse. It specifically permits Tehran an unlimited right to generate highly enriched uranium for use in medical isotope production. Iran is free to join with other producers to control supply and price. Earlier this year Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s former lead nuclear negotiator and now head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, declared Iran’s intention to become a major supplier of medical isotopes. Most significantly, the Iran deal’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action commits the U.S. and other parties to assist Iranian medical isotope development with technology transfer, project finance, export credits and other forms of investment. The European Union has established a joint nuclear cooperation working group with Iran.

The U.S. cannot in good faith implement these obligations without evading its obligation under the American Medical Isotopes Production Act to curtail such foreign medical isotope production. Under U.S. law, there is no question which obligation prevails. The Obama administration, knowing the Senate would never ratify the JCPOA as a treaty, made it an “executive agreement” instead. Such agreements can have the force of law, but under our Constitution the president cannot unilaterally repeal a statute. It’s another reason the administration should declare the Iran deal null and void.

Mr. Rivkin, a Washington-based constitutional lawyer, served at the Justice Department and White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Mr. Connaughton served as chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, 2001-09.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-iran-deal-violates-u-s-law-1507847288

The Justices Lay Down the Law

In the travel-ban case, a high-court ‘compromise’ delivers a unanimous rebuke to political judges.

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

June 27, 2017, in the Wall Street Journal

In one of the last decisions of its term, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a clear rebuke to politicized lower courts. The justices’ unanimous ruling in Trump v. International Refugee Assistance Project upholds both the integrity of the judiciary and the Supreme Court’s own authority.

The case came to the justices from two federal appellate courts. They had upheld trial judges’ orders halting enforcement of President Trump’s “travel ban” executive order, which temporarily limits entry to the U.S. by nationals from six countries. The court will hear the appeal on the merits in October. On Tuesday it held unanimously that the executive order can be immediately enforced, with narrow exceptions, until they address the merits of these cases in the fall.

The challenges to the order claimed it violated the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom and exceeded the president’s authority under immigration law. Both the substance and tone of these decisions created an unmistakable impression that a portion of the judiciary has joined the anti-Trump “resistance.” Not only did the lower-court judges defy clear and binding Supreme Court precedent, they based much of their legal analysis, incredibly, on Candidate Trump’s campaign rhetoric.

The high court didn’t rule entirely in the administration’s favor. By a 6-3 vote, with Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch dissenting, it held that the individuals who originally challenged the order could continue to do so, as could a carefully defined class of “similarly situated” persons with “close familial” relationships to individuals in the United States, along with institutions that can show a “formal, documented, and formed in the ordinary course” relationship to a U.S. entity. Read more »

In Texas, judges waive bail for the indigent, distorting the Constitution

by DAVID B. RIVKIN JR. & LEE A. CASEY

May 31, 2017, in the National Review

The Constitution protects arrestees against “excessive bail.” This guarantee, however, has never been understood to provide indigents the right to a zero-dollar bail simply because they cannot afford more. That, however, is the clear import of in ODonnell v. Harris County, a recent decision by a federal district court in Houston. Unless reversed on appeal, such a rule would require the release of any arrestee, irrespective of the seriousness of the charges being brought, who claims that he or she cannot afford bail — even if the arrestee has a history of failing to appear for trial. This would have wide-ranging implications for how the balance is struck between the rights of criminal defendants and society at large. And policy consequences aside, another judge-engineered right would enter the Constitution’s firmament.

The ODonnell case is part of a recent wave of lawsuits asking unelected federal judges to require the release of arrestees without any bail if they cannot afford it, regardless of what the Constitution says or what such a sweeping abolition of money-bail requirements might portend. Indeed, for many individuals who are accused of a crime, facing months or years in jail, the temptation is great to skip court and avoid justice, and money bail can be a powerful incentive to check this temptation.

When judges set bail, they may obviously consider an arrestee’s ability to pay. But the Constitution does not require this to be the only factor. In fact, Texas law requires judges to consider not only an arrestee’s ability to pay but also their flight risk, criminal history, and danger to the community. Indigent arrestees who present little flight risk are frequently released without posting money bail. But public safety is not served by releasing, with no financial constraint, arrestees with long rap sheets and rich histories of failing to appear in court — which is what the Houston court’s decision arguably now requires. Read more »