Congress Can’t Outsource Impeachment

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Elizabeth Price Foley

31 May 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

It’s as if nothing happened. Special counsel Robert Mueller and the Justice Department found no wrongdoing by President Trump, so House Democrats stepped up their calls for impeachment. Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler issued a subpoena for millions of pages of evidence gathered by Mr. Mueller, including grand-jury material, which is secret under the law. When the department didn’t comply, Democrats said there was a “constitutional crisis,” and the committee voted to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt.

Yet if there is a constitutional crisis, its source is the Democrats. They are abusing the powers of investigation and impeachment in an illegitimate effort to unseat a president they despise.

Congressional Democrats claim they have the power to investigate the president to conduct “oversight” and hold him “accountable.” That elides an important constitutional distinction. As the Supreme Court said in Watkins v. U.S. (1957), Congress may “inquire into and publicize corruption, maladministration or inefficiency in agencies of the Government.” Executive departments and agencies are created by Congress and therefore accountable to it. The president, by contrast, is not a creature of lawmakers. He is Congress’s coequal, accountable to Congress only via impeachment.

To commence impeachment, the House has a constitutional obligation to articulate clear evidence of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” A two-year Justice Department investigation did not find that Mr. Trump had committed crimes. On the Russian collusion issue, Mr. Mueller reported that his investigation “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

Regarding obstruction of justice, Mr. Mueller “did not draw ultimate conclusions about the President’s conduct,” so the duty to do so fell on his boss, Mr. Barr—who, with senior Justice Department officials, concluded that the evidence was “not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.” Read more »

Demanding Trump’s tax returns is congressional overreach

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

17 May 2019 in The Hill

Democrats in Congress long have demanded that President Trump make his tax returns public. Many promised voters that, if given the House majority in the 2018 elections, they would force public disclosure of Trump’s returns. Indeed, they’ve demanded access to the president’s returns, but Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has refused to give Congress that access. He was right to refuse. His action is firmly grounded in federal statute and the Constitution.

In April, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) demanded Trump’s tax returns from 2013 to 2018, invoking a federal statute (26 U.S.C. § 6103) that makes federal tax returns confidential. Other statutory sections, including 26 U.S.C. § 7213, make it a felony to disclose information in federal tax returns without proper authorization.

There are narrowly drawn exceptions to the general rule of confidentiality, including one that allows congressional tax committees to demand copies of individual tax returns. That information, however, cannot be made public without the taxpayer’s written consent. Secretary Mnuchin must have a well-grounded fear that one or more members of Congress would make the president’s returns public, hiding behind the Constitution’s speech or debate clause to escape prosecution. This factor alone can preclude the release of tax information.

There are, however, even more fundamental problems with the request. The committee’s stated purpose is to investigate how the IRS enforces tax laws against sitting presidents. That is an obvious pretext. Even if the Democrats’ posturing could be ignored, the fact that only Trump’s returns are sought — and not those of former presidents — makes the game clear. Read more »

Should Noncitizens Be Represented in Congress?

by David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Richard Raile

24 April 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

The Supreme Court Tuesday will hear oral arguments in the Trump administration’s appeal of lower-court orders forbidding it to ask a citizenship question in the 2020 census. The justices’ task in Department of Commerce v. New York won’t be difficult: The law and facts overwhelmingly support the administration. But the case is a proxy for future battles over redistricting and reapportionment, vital components of American democracy that determine the balance of political power within and among states.

The Census Act grants the commerce secretary discretion to conduct the census “in such form and content as he may determine.” In rejecting the citizenship question, the lower courts usurped that authority and frustrated Congress’s intent. The question about citizenship is far from unprecedented: It was asked in every census but one from 1820 to 1950. Most advanced democracies ask for citizenship information in censuses, a United Nations-recommended best practice.

The administration argues that the citizenship data would help in enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, and that is manifestly true. By law, “majority minority” districts must be drawn so at least 50% of eligible voters—i.e., citizens over 18—are members of the minority in question. If too many minority residents are ineligible to vote, that defeats the purpose of avoiding the dilution of minority voting strength. Voting-rights litigation and compliance are hampered by the lack of citizenship data in the decennial census.

The plaintiffs in this case, which include 18 states and the District of Columbia, are using the litigation as a means of stifling the legal and policy debate over whether and how citizenship information should be used in redistricting and reapportionment. Read more »

Investigate McCabe’s 25th Amendment Tale

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

24 February 2019 in the Wall Street Journal

Did law-enforcement officials plot to remove President Trump from office? Andrew McCabe, former deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, suggests they might have. In a recent interview, Mr. McCabe said that in May 2017 Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein “raised the issue” of using the 25th Amendment to remove Mr. Trump from office “and discussed it with me in the context of thinking about how many other cabinet officials might support such an effort.” According to Mr. McCabe, Mr. Rosenstein was “counting votes or possible votes.”

Exactly what happened is unclear. A statement from Mr. Rosenstein’s office called Mr. McCabe’s account “inaccurate and factually incorrect” and asserted: “There is no basis to invoke the 25th Amendment, nor was the DAG in a position to consider invoking the 25th Amendment.” But this is a potentially serious matter, and should be fully investigated.

The 25th Amendment was ratified in 1967, primarily to provide for the appointment of a new vice president when that office becomes vacant, as it did when Lyndon B. Johnson acceded after John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination. It also contains a section creating a process whereby a president who is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” can temporarily cede authority to the vice president, and one through which the vice president and a majority of “principal officers”—cabinet members—can sideline a president who is disabled but won’t acknowledge it.

It is that last provision that supposedly excited Mr. Rosenstein’s interest. Mr. McCabe said the idea came in a discussion of “why the president had insisted on firing the director [Mr. Comey] and whether or not he was thinking about the Russia investigation.” To prevent interference with that probe, Mr. McCabe said, he opened new counterintelligence and criminal investigations of the president in May 2017, both of which were shortly subsumed into the probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller, whom Mr. Rosenstein appointed.  Read more »

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 »