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Comey and Executive Privilege (with Update)

[See Update below]

Former FBI Director Jim Comey is scheduled to testify before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) next week. He is expected to be asked questions about certain subjects, including his personal conversations with the president, that might be the subject of executive privilege claims. However, because Comey is testifying voluntarily and presumably would like to share this information with the committee, the question arises whether there is any effective method for the administration to stop him from answering questions it believes to be invasive of executive privilege.

In a Twitter thread, Eric Columbus, a former lawyer in the Obama administration, argues that the answer is no. He contends that the privilege only protects a witness from being compelled to provide information. It does not apply, he suggests, to the voluntary testimony of a former government official, just as it does not prevent former officials from writing books or giving interviews in which they discuss conversations with the president or other communications that might fall within the scope of executive privilege. As Columbus puts it, “I know of no precedent for blocking a FORMER official who WANTS to testify.” (all caps in original; its Twitter after all).

To the extent Columbus is suggesting that the applicability of executive privilege turns on whether the former official wants to testify, this seems wrong. The privilege belongs to the president, not to the subordinate official, and it is hard to see why the availability of the privilege should turn on the subordinate’s preferences.

Columbus makes an interesting point about the fact that former officials often write books or make other public disclosures about matters that could be covered by executive privilege. It could be that executive privilege, having developed as an evidentiary doctrine in formal proceedings, simply does not apply to such situations or, alternatively, that it does apply but there is no method of enforcing it. Broad gag orders against former executive branch officials (e.g, requiring them to get preclearance before speaking about their time in office, or threatening sanctions if they make public disclosures that in the judgment of the president or his lawyers violate executive privilege) would raise some tricky First Amendment issues, which we have discussed in the context of analogous prohibitions on congressional staffers. But these issues do not have much bearing on Comey’s testimony in a formal congressional proceeding.

The real problem here is procedural. Assuming for the sake of argument that the president has a valid or at least plausible executive privilege objection, how can that objection be raised in this situation?

The most straightforward answer would be for the executive branch to communicate to Comey (presumably through a lawyer who would attend the hearing) which questions it believes intrude upon executive privilege. Comey would then inform the committee of this objection, and it would then be up to the chairman to decide how to proceed. Comey might refuse to play this role, but I doubt he would do so. It is in his interest to remain above the fray to the extent possible, and to let the real parties in interest (the committee and the executive branch) battle it out.

Even if Comey declines to cooperate, the committee would probably allow the executive branch to raise its objections directly (presumably by having its lawyer stand up and object on a question by question basis). This would be a highly unusual procedure, and it might be contended that the committee’s rules do not permit it. SSCI Rule 8.6 provides that “[a]ny objection raised by a witness or counsel shall be ruled upon by the Chairman or other presiding member, and such ruling shall be the ruling of the Committee unless a majority of the Committee present overrules the ruling of the chair.” The “counsel” referred to here is counsel for the witness, and in this case the government counsel would not be appearing in that capacity. I suspect, though, that SSCI would make an allowance for this unusual situation.

Assuming the executive branch has the opportunity to raise the objection, it is up to the chairman to rule on the objection in the first instance. I imagine there could be some dispute as to whether Rule 8.6 requires the chair to rule immediately or permits him to take the matter under advisement, but let’s assume eventually there is a final ruling from the chair/committee. At that point I expect that Comey would comply with the ruling, as he is under no obligation to risk being held in contempt. This procedure would therefore leave the resolution of the issue ultimately in the control of the committee.

The administration’s only alternative would seem to be to bring an action in federal court against Comey (the Speech or Debate Clause prohibits it from suing the committee). The suit would ask for declaratory and injunctive relief prohibiting Comey from testifying on certain subjects or providing certain information to Congress. The executive branch used this method in the 1970s in an attempt to prevent AT&T from complying with a congressional subpoena. See United States v. AT&T, 567 F.2d 121 (D.C. Cir. 1977). Although that case involved national security information, there is no reason in principle why the same method could not be used to resolve a different type of executive privilege issue. Whether the Trump administration wants to take the political heat from bringing such a suit, or whether it is confident that its legal position would ultimately be vindicated in court, are different questions.

UPDATE:

In a follow up exchange on Twitter, Columbus expresses doubt that a court could grant a remedy to the executive branch under the circumstances here. His argument is that the court could not enjoin Comey from discussing the same matters outside of Congress (e.g., it couldn’t stop him from going on the Sunday talk shows to discuss his conversations with the president) so logically it could not enjoin him from talking to Congress either. Essentially he is arguing that because the court cannot grant effective relief, it should dismiss the executive branch’s (hypothetical) lawsuit against Comey for lack of standing.

I agree that a court might accept this argument, but I don’t think it is a slam dunk. To begin with, it assumes that a court would take as a given that a former executive official cannot be enjoined from publicly disclosing confidential (but non-classified) presidential communications contrary to POTUS’s instructions. As far as I know, no such case has been brought, much less decided. While I tend to agree with Columbus that there would be serious problems with such a suit (including First Amendment prior restraint issues), the matter is not so clear that a court would necessarily want to predicate its decision in our hypothetical suit on a prediction about the outcome of this different and more novel case.

Moreover, even if we assume Comey could not be enjoined from disclosing presidential communications outside Congress, it does not follow that such disclosures would be legal or proper. Nor is it guaranteed they would be without consequence. For example, a former official might find his security clearance in jeopardy or face a bar complaint (if, like Comey, he is a lawyer). These potential consequences make it less likely a court can simply assume that Comey (or any former official) would be free to divulge presidential communications in a public setting.

Finally, a court’s view of this issue may very well depend on the position Comey himself takes in our (hypothetical) litigation. As a long time executive branch lawyer, Comey would probably be reluctant to suggest it is generally appropriate for former officials to divulge confidential presidential communications. Such a stance would be at least in tension with the executive branch’s approach to executive privilege, and it might have ramifications for the ability of future presidents to have candid discussions with their FBI directors. I am also not sure Comey would want to open himself up to questioning generally about his discussions with Presidents Trump, Obama or Bush. So I would guess he would be cautious about asserting any general right (much less intent) to make public disclosures about these matters.

I would note that in the course of my exchange with Columbus, a number of tweeters chirped in with comments along the lines of: “If Comey can’t testify before Congress, why wouldn’t he just go on Rachel Maddow or some other cable show and spill the beans there? That’s what I would do!”

The short answer to this is: “Because he’s Comey, not you.” The somewhat longer answer is that I don’t know what Comey might do, but I think he has a number of personal and institutional incentives, alluded to above, not to do that.

In any event, I agree with Columbus that there is a risk that the hypothetical lawsuit against Comey could be dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, but I don’t assess this risk as being as high as he does. If I were advising the president, I would be more concerned with the political cost of bringing such a lawsuit in the first place, as well as the distinct possibility that the executive branch could lose on the merits.

Based on the latest news, though, it sounds like the administration is backing away from asserting executive privilege at all with respect to Comey’s testimony before SSCI.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Comments

  1. [...] have suggested that, because the privilege belongs to the president, it would be illogical to allow someone else [...]

  2. [...] have suggested that, because the privilege belongs to the president, it would be illogical to allow someone else [...]

  3. [...] have suggested that, because the privilege belongs to the president, it would be illogical to allow someone else [...]

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