Does the President Enjoy Absolute Testimonial Immunity?

As we saw in my last post, for presidential advisers to have testimonial immunity it is necessary but not sufficient that the president himself have such immunity. Assistant Attorney General Rehnquist noted in 1971 that “[e]veryone associated with the Executive Branch from [the Aaron Burr treason trial] until now, so far as I know, has taken the position that the President himself is absolutely immune from subpoena by anyone . . .” Rehnquist Memorandum at 3. Of course, taking a position is not the same thing as establishing that the position is correct.

OLC’s current justification for the president’s immunity consists of little more than the bare assertion that “Congress may no more summon the President to a congressional committee room than the President may command Members of Congress to appear at the White House.” 5-20-19 OLC Opinion at 1. I have three observations about this assertion. First, it should be noted that it is more modest than the position stated by Rehnquist in 1971. The latter was that the president was immune from “subpoena by anyone.” OLC today refers only to subpoena by Congress, although its reasoning, premised on the fact that the “President stands at the head of a co-equal branch of government,” would seem to apply equally to judicial subpoenas. See 5-20-19 OLC Opinion at 4. By confining its claim, OLC avoids the need to deal with the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974), which suggests that “even the President may not be absolutely immune from compulsory process more generally.” Comm. on the Judiciary, U.S. House of Representatives v. Miers, 558 F.Supp.2d 53, __ (2008).

Second, as others have noted, the attempt to equate congressional and presidential subpoena authority makes no sense because the president has no subpoena authority and thus lacks the power to command anyone (other than, I suppose, his subordinates) to appear at the White House. The president’s inability to compel the appearance of members of the Congress therefore says nothing about the subpoena authority of congressional committees.

Third, the comparison makes even less sense when one considers that members of Congress have no immunity from subpoenas themselves. Representatives and senators have been required to appear and testify in many types of proceedings despite the existence of an express constitutional privilege against arrest which was designed to allow them to carry out their legislative duties without interruption while Congress is in session. Though no less authorities than Thomas Jefferson and Joseph Story believed this provision gave members a (temporary) immunity from subpoenas ad testificandum, this position has never been accepted by the courts. See 2 Deschler’s Precedents of the U.S. House of Representatives 817 (“The rulings of the courts, both state and federal, have uniformly expressed the principle that a summons or subpena is not an arrest, and is not precluded by the Constitution.”). Similarly, although members have a privilege against being questioned about legislative activities under the Speech or Debate Clause, this does not equate to an absolute testimonial immunity or the right to refuse to appear when subpoenaed. See Miers, 558 F.Supp.2d at __ (“Members cannot simply assert, without more, that the Speech or Debate Clause shields their activities and thereby preclude all further inquiry.”) Thus, OLC’s comparison would seem to support, rather than refute, the president’s amenability to subpoena. Id.

Interestingly, while OLC relies on many of its prior memoranda in support of its contention that presidential advisers have absolute testimonial immunity, it fails to mention a 1973 memorandum which expresses doubt as to whether even the president himself has such immunity. After discussing the dispute between Chief Justice Marshall and President Jefferson over whether the latter could be required to give evidence in the Aaron Burr treason trial, the memorandum notes that “[m]odern legal discussion of the power of the courts to subpoena the President still adheres to Chief Justice Marshall’s view that the President is not exempt from judicial process, in particular the judicial power compel anyone to give testimony.” Memorandum from Robert G. Dixon, Jr., Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Counsel, Re: Presidential Amenability to Judicial Subpoenas 5 (June 25, 1973) (available in OLC FOIA electronic reading room) (hereinafter “Dixon memorandum”). It goes on to note that it is “questionable whether there is adequate precedent for the proposition that the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers precludes vel non the issuance of judicial subpoenas to the President.” Dixon Memorandum at 7.

The same memorandum suggests that any presidential immunity or protection against subpoenas may be limited in cases of alleged official wrongdoing:

A special situation exists with respect to claims of privilege where charges of official wrongdoings are concerned. There appears to be no pertinent precedent as to whether a President can claim privilege in judicial proceedings in that situation. There have been, however, several statements made by Presidents and Attorneys General that privilege will not be invoked vis-a-vis Congress where charges of official wrongdoing are involved. Significantly those statements have usually been made [in the context of] the Congressional power of impeachment.

Dixon Memorandum at 12 (citations omitted) (emphasis added).

Dixon concludes that “the subpoenaing of a President involves a number of complex issues depending on the circumstances in which and the purposes for which the subpoena is issued.” Dixon Memorandum at 13. For example, “it could be argued that a President will not or cannot claim privilege where official misconduct is the subject matter of grand jury proceedings or of a criminal prosecution.” Id. Moreover, “it may well be that a President will not or even may not claim privilege where Congress performs its specific constitutional responsibilities in the field of impeachment.” Id. These observations, it should be noted, precede the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Nixon, which only bolsters Dixon’s skepticism regarding the president’s absolute immunity from subpoena.

While OLC’s position on presidential testimonial immunity has little support in judicial precedent or legal doctrine, historical practice is more favorable. As Andy Wright details here, presidents rarely have testified in judicial or congressional proceedings and when they have done so it is generally with an accommodation to indicate the voluntariness of their cooperation. Perhaps most strikingly, neither Andrew Johnson nor Bill Clinton testified in their impeachment trials, nor did Nixon testify in the House Judiciary Committee inquiry regarding his impeachment. I would summarize this history as reflecting a strong constitutional convention against forcing a president to testify in any but the most compelling circumstances.

All this being said, there is no direct judicial precedent on the question of whether a sitting president is entitled to absolute testimonial immunity.  I tend to agree with Steve Vladeck and Ben Wittes that it is more likely than not that the Supreme Court would reject a claim of such immunity, but I also agree with them that “it is not a sure thing, and the President has plausible arguments available to him that a court would have to work through before enforcing a subpoena for his testimony.” There is particular uncertainty as to how newer members of the Court may view the president’s claim of absolute testimonial immunity (and some reason to believe that Justice Kavanaugh, in particular, may be sympathetic to such a claim). Continue reading “Does the President Enjoy Absolute Testimonial Immunity?”

OLC’s Evolving Position on Testimonial Immunity

In this post I will look at OLC’s claim that its advice on testimonial immunity of senior presidential advisers has been consistent “for nearly five decades.” See 5-20-19 OLC Opinion at 1. As we saw in my first post, since the 1940s the executive branch has generally resisted congressional demands for testimony from such advisers, but on a number of occasions it has permitted these advisers to testify in open congressional hearings and on other occasions it has agreed or offered to provide information from these advisers in alternative ways. Until the mid to late-1990s, the executive branch’s position on this subject was not presented to Congress as an assertion of absolute constitutional immunity, but more like the prophylactic rule described in my last post. Moreover, when OLC’s internal memoranda from this time period are scrutinized (to the extent they are available), they are compatible with this more modest interpretation of its position.

It was not until the Clinton administration that OLC articulated a formal and definitive defense of the proposition that senior presidential advisers are constitutionally immune from compelled congressional testimony. Even then, OLC seems to have accepted this proposition without any serious legal analysis and, in particular, without any consideration of important developments in the case law since Assistant Attorney General William Rehnquist first casually suggested it in 1971. Continue reading “OLC’s Evolving Position on Testimonial Immunity”

What Does OLC Really Mean By “Testimonial Immunity”?

Following up on my first post on the Office of Legal Counsel’s May 20, 2019 opinion regarding the “testimonial immunity” of senior presidential advisers, let’s turn to OLC’s claim that “for nearly five decades” it has advised that “Congress may not constitutionally compel the President’s senior advisers to testify about their official duties.” See 5-20-19 OLC Opinion at 1.

Today I want to ask what this advice actually means. After all, it is not at all clear that OLC believes Congress may “constitutionally compel” anyone in the executive branch to provide any information, whether in the form of testimony or documents, regarding their official duties or anything else. Although it would concede that Congress has the constitutional right to demand information needed for legislative and oversight purposes, OLC would deny that Congress ever has the right to “compel” the executive branch to produce such information, at least where the president has asserted executive privilege.

Perhaps OLC would offer the distinction that the president is constitutionally obligated to provide information to Congress unless a valid constitutional basis exists for withholding it; thus, he is “compelled” to provide information where no such basis exists, even though he is the final decisionmaker as to whether or not information should be withheld. In the case of senior presidential advisers, however, the president has complete discretion as to whether to allow them to testify and thus is never “compelled” to do so.

There are a couple problems with this distinction. First, even in OLC’s theory, the immunity of presidential advisers is limited. It does not apply to everyone who works in the White House, but only the president’s “senior” or “immediate” advisers. It does not apply to those with statutory or operational responsibilities. It does not apply to testimony about “personal affairs,” a term which OLC does not define but which, we will see, includes at least matters involving misuse of the adviser’s public position. Thus, even under OLC’s theory, it would seem the president is “compelled” to provide testimony of his advisers under certain circumstances.

More fundamentally, however, OLC and the executive branch maintain that all congressional demands for information are subject to a constitutionally-mandated accommodation process, which consists of a “back-and-forth process under which each branch is constitutionally obligated to negotiate in good faith, articulate with particularity their legitimate institutional needs and interests, and weigh the legitimate needs and interests of the other branch.” This is “not simply an exchange of concessions or a test of political strength” but “an obligation of each branch to make a principled effort to acknowledge, and if possible to meet, the legitimate needs of the other branch.”

Congressional demands for testimony from senior presidential advisers are not exempt from this accommodation process. OLC acknowledges that “Presidents have occasionally made senior advisers available to accommodate congressional requests, even while defending their legal authority to decline such requests.” 5-20-19 OLC Opinion at 12. During the 2008 litigation in which the House Judiciary Committee attempted to compel former White House counsel Harriet Miers to testify, the Justice Department stressed that the committee was trying to end run the accommodation process. See, e.g., Reply in Support of Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss at 47 (June 12, 2008) (“rather than relying on good faith negotiations and cooperation (including the President’s offer that Ms. Miers appear for an interview), the Committee has invoked this Court’s jurisdiction to judicially compel Ms. Miers’s attendance and sworn testimony at a public hearing”).

It is hard to see how one can square OLC’s understanding of the accommodation process with a claim that presidential advisers are “absolutely immune” from testifying before Congress. If Congress has a “legitimate need” for the testimony of a senior presidential adviser (e.g., because the adviser is an essential fact witness to wrongdoing) and there is no principled reason to withhold the information (e.g., because of the executive’s longstanding position that executive privilege will not be invoked to conceal evidence of criminal or unlawful wrongdoing by executive officials), it would seem that the president would be obligated to permit the adviser to testify. Thus, when Presidents Nixon and Reagan permitted senior advisers to testify about Watergate and Iran-Contra, respectively, they were not merely engaging in acts of presidential grace but carrying out their constitutional obligations.

Any other interpretation would create bizarre inconsistencies in the executive branch position. For example, suppose Congress has a legitimate legislative need for information known only to a senior presidential adviser. If the adviser wrote the information down in a document, the executive branch would have a constitutional obligation (under some circumstances) to provide the document to Congress. But if the same information were only in the adviser’s head, there would be no constitutional obligation to acknowledge the legislative need for the information and any accommodation would be purely a matter of political bargaining. This simply makes no sense.

To be sure, OLC would deny that Congress can use the methods of testimonial compulsion (inherent contempt, criminal contempt or civil litigation) to force senior presidential advisers to testify. However, as already noted, OLC would take the same position with regard to any other type of testimony or evidence if the president has invoked executive privilege. This was made clear in the government’s briefs in the Miers case:

At no time during the long history of interbranch negotiations and accommodations has a court ordered an Executive Branch official—let alone one of the President’s senior advisers—to testify before Congress, nor has the Executive Branch been required by court order to produce documents or a privilege log to Congress. This uniform past practice also has been followed with respect to congressional demands that senior White House advisers appear before congressional committees to justify the President’s decisions. Although such advisers have, from time-to-time, appeared before Congress, at no time in the Nation’s history has a court ordered a senior White House adviser to testify as a result of a congressional subpoena.

Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss and in Opposition to Plaintiff’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on Counts I and II at 9 (May 9, 2008).

Of course, if the executive branch is wrong about the justiciability of executive-legislative information disputes, OLC would want its absolute immunity argument available as a backup. But the justification for absolute immunity is premised on the notion that without such immunity Congress would routinely use its power to compel the appearance of key White House officials. If the argument is only relevant in judicial proceedings to compel appearance, it is not necessary because courts will prevent any abuse and will not order senior White House aides to testify unless there is a legitimate legislative need for the information.

In short, the only way OLC’s position makes sense is if one understands the “immunity” of senior presidential advisers to be a prophylactic rule or policy asserted by the executive branch in order to keep senior White House officials from having to testify before Congress as a routine matter. Because in most cases their testimony will be largely if not entirely protected by executive privilege, such a policy protects legitimate executive branch interests and is generally accepted by Congress as a matter of comity.

As we will see in my next post on this subject, this is also the best way to interpret OLC’s position on this issue for most of the “nearly five decades” it has offered advice on it.

 

Update on BLAG’s Authority to Initiate Subpoena Enforcement Action

As I discussed in a prior post,  House Rule II(8)(B) currently provides with respect to the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group:

There is established a Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group composed of the Speaker and the majority and minority leaderships. Unless otherwise provided by the House, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group speaks for, and articulates the institutional position of, the House in all litigation matters.

As I noted in the prior post, it is possible to argue that this provision authorizes BLAG to initiate litigation on behalf of and in the name of the House. This raises the question whether BLAG could file a subpoena enforcement action on behalf and in the name of the House without a House vote on the particular subpoena in question. Such an interpretation would have to be squared with the language of House Rule XI that “[c]ompliance with a subpoena issued by a committee or subcommittee . . . may be enforced only as authorized or directed by the House.”

It turns out that I was not the first person to think of this. Unbeknownst to me (and, I suspect, most House members), Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern had inserted the following statement in the record on January 3, 2019:

I want to speak regarding House Rule II(8)(B). Pursuant to this provision, the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG) is delegated the authority to speak for the full House of Representatives with respect to all litigation matters. A vote of the BLAG to authorize litigation and to articulate the institutional position of the House in that litigation, is the equivalent of a vote of the full House of Representatives. For example, in the 115th Congress, the BLAG, pursuant to Rule II(8)(B), authorized House Committees to intervene in ongoing litigation. The BLAG has been delegated this authority for all litigation matters, and I want to be clear that this includes litigation related to the civil enforcement of a Committee subpoena. If a Committee determines that one or more of its duly issued subpoenas has not been complied with and that civil enforcement is necessary, the BLAG, pursuant to House Rule (II)(8)(B), may authorize the House Office of General Counsel to initiate civil litigation on behalf of this Committee to enforce the Committee’s subpoena(s) in federal district court.

Based on this “legislative history,” would a court conclude that BLAG’s authority to “speak[] for, and articulate[] the institutional position of, the House in all litigation matters” empowers it to authorize a committee to bring suit in federal court? I remain somewhat skeptical, but Chairman McGovern’s statement presumably would strengthen that argument. It appears, however, that the House is planning to adopt a much more explicit resolution on that issue, which is wise.

OLC’s Law Office History of Testimonial Immunity

On May 20, 2019, the Office of Legal Counsel released an opinion entitled “Testimonial Immunity Before Congress of the Former Counsel to the President,” in which OLC concludes that former White House counsel Don McGahn is constitutionally immune from being required to appear, much less testify, before the House Judiciary Committee. Before analyzing OLC’s substantive argument, I want to address two factual assertions it makes about historical practice and its own legal advice regarding this issue.

OLC makes two basic claims. First, it contends that executive branch practice “at least since the Truman Administration” provides a “strong historical foundation for the Executive Branch’s position that Congress may not compel the President’s senior advisers to appear and testify.” Second, it asserts that “for nearly five decades” the Justice Department has maintained that “Congress may not constitutionally compel the President’s senior advisers to testify about their official duties.”

One might question the relevance of these assertions even if they were true. Neither the executive branch’s unilateral practice of objecting to congressional testimony by White House officials nor its internal opinions regarding the constitutional basis for this practice would constitute authority binding on the other branches, particularly in the absence of any evidence or even allegation of congressional acquiescence. Nevertheless, it is worth scrutinizing OLC’s claims if for no other reason than that it seems to place a great deal of reliance on them. Perhaps this is because, as Judge Bates observed in 2008, the only authority offered by the executive branch for the proposition that White House officials enjoy testimonial immunity is OLC’s prior opinions on the subject.

That being said, the historical record does not support either of OLC’s claims. Today we will look at the evidence with regard to OLC’s description of the historical record. In a future post we will look at its claims regarding its prior advice.

Practice Prior to the Nixon Administration. The Executive Office of the President dates back only to the 1930s, and OLC maintains that since that time “the long-standing policy has been to decline invitations for voluntary appearances and to resist congressional subpoenas for involuntary ones” with respect to White House officials.

OLC has identified only six instances in which White House officials attempted to refuse congressional invitations or demands for testimony during the period prior to the Nixon administration. In three of these cases, the official in question ultimately agreed to testify as the result of political or legal pressure (or both) exerted by Congress.

[Note: CRS has identified a couple of additional instances during the 1940s where White House officials testified regarding allegations they misused their positions for personal gain, but it is not apparent there was any objection in those cases. See CRS Report on Presidential Advisers’ Testimony Before Congressional Committees: An Overview 7-8 (Apr. 10, 2007).]

First, in 1944 during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, a Senate subcommittee subpoenaed a presidential aide, Jonathan Daniels, to testify about his reported attempts to compel the head of the Rural Electrification Administration to resign. The aide appeared but refused to testify based on his confidential relationship with the president. After the subcommittee unanimously recommended Daniels be held in contempt, the aide wrote to the subcommittee that he had conferred with the president, who had decided his testimony would not be contrary to the public interest, and was therefore willing to return to the Hill and testify.

A second instance (which is not mentioned in OLC’s May 20 opinion but comes from earlier OLC discussions of this period) concerns Donald Dawson, an aide to President Truman, who was asked in 1951 to testify before a Senate subcommittee investigating the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. Truman “reluctantly” gave permission to Dawson to testify because the inquiry included allegations of wrongdoing against Dawson and Truman wished to give the aide an opportunity to clear his name.

Finally, in 1958 during the Eisenhower administration, the president’s chief of staff, Sherman Adams, testified (with the president’s approval) before a House subcommittee regarding allegations he had improperly interfered with administrative proceedings for the benefit of a New England industrialist with whom he had a longstanding friendship.

On the other hand, OLC identifies three instances in which presidential advisers successfully refused to testify before Congress during this period. One concerned John Steelman, an aide to President Truman, who in 1948 refused subpoenas to testify before a House subcommittee about his communications with Truman regarding administration of the Taft-Hartley Act during a strike. Another also involved Sherman Adams, who in 1955 successfully refused an invitation from a Senate subcommittee to testify regarding a contract between the Atomic Energy Commission and two power companies. Finally, in 1968 an aide to President Lyndon Johnson, W. DeVier Pierson, declined to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding allegations that Associate Justice Abe Fortas, whose nomination to become chief justice was pending, had inappropriately been involved in drafting certain legislation while serving on the Supreme Court.

It is difficult to see how this history shows anything other than the fact that the White House generally prefers that its staff not testify before Congress. Indeed, in a 1971 internal memorandum (about which more later), Assistant Attorney General William Rehnquist described the practice during this period as “erratic” and noted that “[t]hese precedents are obviously quite inconclusive.” See Memorandum for John D. Ehrlichman, Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs, from William H. Rehnquist, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Counsel, Re: Power of Congressional Committee to Compel Testimony of “White House Staff” 4, 6 (Feb. 5, 1971) (“Rehnquist Memorandum”). This would seem to directly contradict OLC’s current assertion that these “precedents” provide a “strong historical foundation” for its constitutional theory.

Practice Since the Nixon Administration. While the  pre-Nixon history provides little or no support for OLC’s position, at least its description of that history appears to be fair. On the other hand, its description of the later history suffers from egregious cherry-picking. Although OLC acknowledges that its examples are “not exhaustive,” it implies that they fairly represent the practice during this period. This is not so.

Nixon administration. OLC cites the refusal of Peter Flanigan, a White House aide, to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding the nomination of Richard Kleindienst to be attorney general. Somehow it fails to mention that the White House relented within a few days and that Flanigan both appeared before the committee and answered written questions for the record. See Louis Fisher, The Politics of Executive Privilege 73 (2004).

Carter administration. OLC cites two examples of Carter White House aides declining to appear in public congressional hearings, but it neglects to mention that both the White House counsel and national security adviser appeared at congressional hearings regarding alleged misconduct by the president’s brother. Fisher, supra, at 202.

Reagan administration. OLC cites the refusal of the White House counsel to appear in person before a congressional committee (he did agree to answer written questions) regarding allegations of corruption against the secretary of labor. It does not mention President Reagan’s directive to all administration officials to cooperate with the congressional investigation of Iran-Contra, which resulted in a number of former White House officials testifying before Congress. Fisher, supra, at 62-64, 202.

Clinton administration. OLC cites President Clinton’s directive to Beth Nolan, counsel to the president, not to testify before a House committee regarding a clemency decision, but it does not mention that Nolan, along with a number of other former White House aides, testified before the same committee regarding Clinton’s subsequent pardons. Fisher, supra, at 219. It also overlooks the fact that “[a] series of congressional investigations throughout the Clinton years required a large number of White House aides to testify about procedures and actions involving contacts with the Treasury Department, the dismissals of employees in the Travel Office, Whitewater, and access to FBI files.” Fisher, supra, at 203.

Even where OLC acknowledges that presidential  aides have testified, it downplays the significance of these facts. For example, OLC acknowledges in a footnote that during Watergate President Nixon allowed current and former White House officials to appear before Congress, first in closed session and then later in open hearings. However, OLC interprets such occurrences as merely “accommodations” to Congress, as opposed to evidence that executive branch practice with respect to congressional testimony by presidential advisers has been inconsistent, non-absolute, or both. This approach renders OLC’s position non-falsifiable since it only counts evidence that supports it.

Conclusion

Rather than constituting a “strong historical foundation” for OLC’s claim of absolute immunity, the evidence supports Lou Fisher’s conclusion that while Congress does not call White House officials to testify regarding routine oversight matters, it does do so when the circumstances warrant, particularly in cases where these officials have an operational role or are fact witnesses to alleged misconduct. See Fisher, supra, at 226-227. Under these conditions White House officials have in fact testified, “and in large numbers.” Id. at 199; see also CRS Report, supra, at 7-20.