This Impeachment Subverts the Constitution

By David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Elizabeth Price Foley

October 25, 2019, in the Wall Street Journal

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has directed committees investigating President Trump to “proceed under that umbrella of impeachment inquiry,” but the House has never authorized such an inquiry. Democrats have been seeking to impeach Mr. Trump since the party took control of the House, though it isn’t clear for what offense. Lawmakers and commentators have suggested various possibilities, but none amount to an impeachable offense. The effort is akin to a constitutionally proscribed bill of attainder—a legislative effort to punish a disfavored person. The Senate should treat it accordingly.

The impeachment power is quasi-judicial and differs fundamentally from Congress’s legislative authority. The Constitution assigns “the sole power of impeachment” to the House—the full chamber, which acts by majority vote, not by a press conference called by the Speaker. Once the House begins an impeachment inquiry, it may refer the matter to a committee to gather evidence with the aid of subpoenas. Such a process ensures the House’s political accountability, which is the key check on the use of impeachment power.

The House has followed this process every time it has tried to impeach a president. Andrew Johnson’s 1868 impeachment was predicated on formal House authorization, which passed 126-47. In 1974 the Judiciary Committee determined it needed authorization from the full House to begin an inquiry into Richard Nixon’s impeachment, which came by a 410-4 vote. The House followed the same procedure with Bill Clinton in 1998, approving a resolution 258-176, after receiving independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s report.

Mrs. Pelosi discarded this process in favor of a Trump-specific procedure without precedent in Anglo-American law. Rep. Adam Schiff’s Intelligence Committee and several other panels are questioning witnesses in secret. Mr. Schiff has defended this process by likening it to a grand jury considering whether to hand up an indictment. But while grand-jury secrecy is mandatory, House Democrats are selectively leaking information to the media, and House Republicans, who are part of the jury, are being denied subpoena authority and full access to transcripts of testimony and even impeachment-related committee documents. No grand jury has a second class of jurors excluded from full participation.

Unlike other impeachable officials, such as federal judges and executive-branch officers, the president and vice president are elected by, and accountable to, the people. The executive is also a coequal branch of government. Thus any attempt to remove the president by impeachment creates unique risks to democracy not present in any other impeachment context. Adhering to constitutional text, tradition and basic procedural guarantees of fairness is critical. These processes are indispensable bulwarks against abuse of the impeachment power, designed to preserve the separation of powers by preventing Congress from improperly removing an elected president. Read more »

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 »

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 »

Mueller’s Fruit of the Poisonous Tree

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation may face a serious legal obstacle: It is tainted by antecedent political bias. The June 14 report from Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general, unearthed a pattern of anti-Trump bias by high-ranking officials at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Some of their communications, the report says, were “not only indicative of a biased state of mind but imply a willingness to take action to impact a presidential candidate’s electoral prospects.” Although Mr. Horowitz could not definitively ascertain whether this bias “directly affected” specific FBI actions in the Hillary Clinton email investigation, it nonetheless affects the legality of the Trump-Russia collusion inquiry, code-named Crossfire Hurricane.

Crossfire was launched only months before the 2016 election. Its FBI progenitors—the same ones who had investigated Mrs. Clinton—deployed at least one informant to probe Trump campaign advisers, obtained Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court wiretap warrants, issued national security letters to gather records, and unmasked the identities of campaign officials who were surveilled. They also repeatedly leaked investigative information.

Mr. Horowitz is separately scrutinizing Crossfire and isn’t expected to finish for months. But the current report reveals that FBI officials displayed not merely an appearance of bias against Donald Trump, but animus bordering on hatred. Peter Strzok, who led both the Clinton and Trump investigations, confidently assuaged a colleague’s fear that Mr. Trump would become president: “No he won’t. We’ll stop it.” An unnamed FBI lawyer assigned to Crossfire told a colleague he was “devastated” and “numb” after Mr. Trump won, while declaring to another FBI attorney: “Viva le resistance.”

Read more »

Five Ways to Restore the Separation of Powers

The Constitution separates power in two ways: among the three branches of the federal government and between the federal government and states. As James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers, separation creates “a double security” for liberty because “different governments will control each other, at the same time that each will be controlled by itself.”

The Obama administration has spurned this core constitutional principle, aggrandizing executive power at the expense of Congress and states. It has rewritten laws, disregarding its constitutional duty to faithfully execute them.

ObamaCare’s implementation provides multiple examples: delaying statutory deadlines, extending tax credits to groups Congress never included, exempting unions from fees, expanding hardship waivers beyond recognition and granting “transition relief” for preferred employers. Read more »

Can Trump cut off funds for sanctuary cities? The Constitution says yes.

By David Rivkin and Elizabeth Price Foley

December 7, 2016, in the Los Angeles Times

Several cities and public universities have vowed to resist President-elect Donald Trump’s plan to deport undocumented criminals by doubling down on sanctuary policies. In response, Trump has pledged to curtail federal funding for sanctuary providers. Activists, predictably, are crying foul, and some legal scholars, such as Harvard’s Noah Feldman, have even claimed that such a response would be unconstitutional.  

But whatever one thinks about Trump’s strategy, it almost certainly would pass muster at the Supreme Court.Several cities and public universities have vowed to resist President-elect Donald Trump’s plan to deport undocumented criminals by doubling down on sanctuary policies. In response, Trump has pledged to curtail federal funding for sanctuary providers. Activists, predictably, are crying foul, and some legal scholars, such as Harvard’s Noah Feldman, have even claimed that such a response would be unconstitutional.  

Feldman and others point to New York v. United States (1992) and Printz v. United States (1997), in which the Supreme Court concluded that the federal government cannot conscript state or local officials to carry out federal law. The federal government must enforce its own laws, using federal personnel. So when state or local police arrest immigrants who are present in the country illegally, they are under no obligation to deport them, as deportation is the responsibility of the federal government alone. 

This “anti-commandeering” doctrine, however, doesn’t protect sanctuary cities or public universities — because it doesn’t apply when Congress merely requests information. For example, in Reno v. Condon (2000), the Court unanimously rejected an anti-commandeering challenge to the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act, which required states under certain circumstances to disclose some personal details about license holders. The court concluded that, because the DPPA requested information and “did not require state officials to assist in the enforcement of federal statutes,” it was consistent with the New York and Printz cases.

It follows that, consistent with the anti-commandeering doctrine, Congress can require state, local or university police to tell federal agents when they arrest an immigrant present in the country illegally. Read more »