Trump Is Right to Pardon Scooter Libby, an Innocent Man

FISA Abuses Are a Special Threat to Privacy and Due Process

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

Feb. 26, 2018, in the Wall Street Journal

The House Democratic surveillance memo is out, and it should worry Americans who care about privacy and due process. The memo defends the conduct of the Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation in obtaining a series of warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to wiretap former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

The Democrats argue that Christopher Steele, the British former spy who compiled the Trump “dossier” on which the government’s initial warrant application was grounded, was credible. They also claim the FISA court had the information it needed about the dossier’s provenance. And they do not dispute former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe’s acknowledgment that the FBI would not have sought a FISA order without the Steele dossier.

The most troubling issue is that the surveillance orders were obtained by withholding critical information about Mr. Steele from the FISA court. The court was not informed that Mr. Steele was personally opposed to Mr. Trump’s election, that his efforts were funded by Hillary Clinton’s campaign, or that he was the source of media reports that the FBI said corroborated his dossier. These facts are essential to any judicial assessment of Mr. Steele’s veracity and the applications’ merits.

The FBI should have been especially wary of privately produced Russia-related dossiers. As the Washington Post and CNN reported in May 2017, Russian disinformation about Mrs. Clinton and Attorney General Loretta Lynch evidently prompted former FBI Director James Comey to announce publicly the close of the investigation of the Clinton email server, for fear that the disinformation might be released and undermine the bureau’s credibility. Read more »

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

Apple, the FBI and free speech

A court order that compels the iPhone-maker to write and then sign new code may violate the First Amendment.

by David B. Rivkin, Jr., and Andrew M. Grossman, in USA Today

February 19, 2016

It would be one thing if Apple could carry out a court order that it unlock an iPhone used by the San Bernardino terrorists simply by waving a magic wand. But encryption isn’t magic; the order requires Apple to write and digitally sign a security-degraded version of its iOS operating system. That raises serious First Amendment concerns because the order amounts to a government-compelled speech.

The FBI picked this fight to set a precedent. For years, it’s been locked in a “crypto war” with Silicon Valley over how to provide law enforcement access to users’ data. So far, Apple, Google, and other companies have rebuffed demands to implement government back doors that defeat encryption and other security measures, arguing that such bypasses weaken security and facilitate abuses by criminals, corporate spies and foreign governments.

Apparently unable to identify a true ticking-time-bomb scenario to bring to court, the FBI settled for the next best thing: obtaining encrypted data off the workplace phone of shooter Syed Farook. The phone’s encryption is keyed to a passcode, and Apple’s software erases data after ten incorrect passcode attempts. So the government, relying on an aggressive reading of the 1789 All Writs Act, obtained an order directing Apple to “bypass or disable the auto-erase function” and make it possible to cycle through all possible passcodes.

While the FBI has previously obtained warrants requiring Apple to extract unencrypted data from devices running older software, this appears to be the first time that it has sought to conscript a company to write new software to circumvent security features. If it prevails, such a precedent will govern future cases. Read more »