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.
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.