Resolved: The President’s Conduct with respect to the Special Counsel’s Investigation was Consistent with the Take Care Clause and his Constitutional Oath

Last year Professor Andy Wright published an article arguing that presidential interference with criminal investigations conducted by the Department of Justice may violate the president’s constitutional duties under Article II even if it does not constitute obstruction of justice or any other criminal offense established under federal statutory law. See Andrew M. Wright, The Take Care Clause, Justice Department Independence, and White House Control, 121 W. Va. L. Rev. 100 (2018). Specifically, he points to the president’s obligation to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed,” U.S. const. art. II, § 3, and his oath to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and [] to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” U.S. const. art. II, § 1, cl. 8. Wright contends that “if the President interferes with the investigative or prosecutorial function in bad faith, he can violate the Take Care Clause and his Oath of Office,” even if the president’s actions violate no criminal law.

At some level of generality, it is difficult to imagine anyone disagreeing with this proposition. That is to say, no one would argue the president satisfies his obligations under the Take Care and Oath Clauses simply by not committing a crime. At least I don’t think anyone would argue that.

More controversially, Professor Wright argues that the president’s constitutional obligations require prophylactic measures to separate the Justice Department from the White House and thereby “protect the integrity of . . . criminal investigation[s] from political interference, including interference by the President himself.” 121 W. Va. L. Rev. at 105. Specifically, he points to policies adopted by every administration since President Ford that limit contacts between the White House and the Justice Department by requiring most such contacts be channeled through the offices of White House counsel and the attorney general. 121 W. Va. L. Rev. at 141-50. These policies, and related practices such as the refusal of White Houses to comment on open investigations and pending cases, are not merely matters of etiquette and “norms,” Wright contends, but flow from the Take Care and Oath clauses.

Whether or not one embraces the specifics of Wright’s thesis, his article suggests an important line of questioning for current and former Trump administration officials, particularly from the White House counsel’s office and the top levels of the Justice Department. For example, as Wright points out, in the first week of the Trump administration White House Counsel Don McGahn issued a contacts policy memorandum designed “to ensure that DOJ exercises its investigatory and prosecutorial functions free from the fact or appearance of improper political interference.” 121 W. Va. L. Rev. at 149. Did the president approve this policy? Was he aware of its contents? Was he ever advised that actions he proposed or directed would violate the policy? Was the president’s conduct as described in volume II of the Mueller report consistent with the letter or spirit of this policy?

Apart from Trump administration officials (and members of the president’s legal team), is there anyone with actual or purported constitutional law expertise who would defend the proposition in the title of this blog post? There are notable scholars, such Professors Jack Goldsmith and Josh Blackman, who have advanced strong arguments that the president’s conduct in connection with the Mueller investigation (at least insofar as it involved the exercise of presidential powers) did not violate the criminal obstruction laws. But neither contends this conduct was consistent with the president’s obligations under the Take Care and Oath clauses.

Here is a political stunt that might serve a useful and clarifying purpose. The chair of the House Judiciary committee and the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary committee should write their Republican counterparts to propose a hearing devoted to a panel of legal experts who would defend the proposition that the president’s conduct has been consistent with the Take Care and Oath clauses. Chairman Graham and Ranking Member Collins could be asked to propose a list of potential witnesses to appear at such a hearing.

We can’t have a debate unless someone is prepared to defend this proposition.

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