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 »