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.

 

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