Impeachment and Constitutional Deliberation

The House Judiciary Committee has filed its long awaited lawsuit against Don McGahn, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief from the court with respect to McGahn’s refusal to appear before the committee to testify regarding his knowledge of matters described in the report of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Specifically, the committee is interested in matters such as “how President Trump used his official power to oust Special Counsel Mueller and end his investigation; to force then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to transgress Department of Justice (DOJ) ethics rules to limit the scope of Mueller’s investigation; to demand that White House staff generate false accounts of the President’s conduct; and to influence witnesses not to cooperate with the investigation.” Complaint ¶ 2. The complaint repeatedly emphasizes that it needs this information in order to decide whether to recommend articles of impeachment against the president. See Complaint ¶¶ 1, 4, 10, 17, 19, 57, 61-62, 64, 95, 97, 100 & 105.

All of this is well and good. As we have discussed, McGahn is an important witness and there is no merit to DOJ’s claim that he is “absolutely immune” from testifying before Congress. The committee’s express invocation of the impeachment power further strengthens its claim for judicial relief and undermines what little persuasive value the OLC opinions on absolute immunity might otherwise have had.

It is important, however, not to conflate the committee’s litigation position and its constitutional responsibility regarding impeachment. The McGahn lawsuit is focused on substantiating specific allegations raised in the Mueller report, namely the obstruction of justice matters discussed in volume 2. See Complaint ¶ 1 (committee “is now determining whether to recommend articles of impeachment against the President based on the obstructive conduct described by the Special Counsel.”).

While the president’s conduct as described in volume 2 of the Mueller report clearly should be an element of any impeachment inquiry, it is questionable whether obstruction of justice alone can carry the weight of impeachment in this case. This is particularly true if one views obstruction as a specific statutory crime, rather than as a more colloquial term for President Trump’s implacable opposition to the Mueller investigation (or, for that matter, any other investigation he associates with the “deep state” or his political opponents).

For one thing, the special counsel declined to reach a conclusion as to whether Trump committed the crime of obstruction. Many believe he would have reached this conclusion had it not been for the OLC opinion prohibiting the indictment of a sitting president, but Mueller himself declined to substantiate this theory and it seems inadvisable to place much reliance on an unprovable hypothetical.

In addition, there are serious legal questions regarding whether the president’s exercise of his Article II powers, such as firing the FBI director or seeking to fire the special counsel, can constitute criminal obstruction. Professor Jack Goldsmith argues that “many of the 10 events outlined in Volume II of the Mueller report could not even theoretically be crimes under the obstruction statutes as they are currently written.” This is a controversial position, but it is not a frivolous one. It is also not an issue likely to be settled in the course of an impeachment proceeding.

Finally, focusing on questions of criminal obstruction requires the committee to evaluate Trump’s state of mind. See Complaint ¶ 66 (“McGahn’s testimony would provide significant evidence of the President’s motivations for his actions.”). I am skeptical, however, that McGahn is going to be able to shed much light on the president’s motives. Other presidents (Nixon and Clinton) have attempted to obstruct legal investigations or proceedings, but they did so only when they felt they had no other choice. Trump’s words and actions in general, and specifically in connection with the Russia probe, appear to be visceral in nature and to have little connection to a rational calculation of the consequences. Perhaps this is a clever strategy on Trump’s part, but I expect McGahn is as perplexed as the rest of us.

This is by no means to suggest that Trump’s conduct is unimpeachable, so to speak. The constitutional standard of high crimes and misdemeanors is quite different than the criminal standard for obstruction of justice. Thus, Goldsmith observes that “[i]n combination with Trump’s other abuses of power over the past two and a half years, I have little trouble concluding that Trump committed impeachable offenses, should Congress want to pursue that option.” The point here is that Congress’s task is more complicated than simply evaluating a handful of presidential actions to determine whether they satisfy the elements of criminal obstruction of justice. It must decide how to interpret and apply the constitutional standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which is by design a more discretionary and less determinate function than that performed by a criminal court. See Neal Katyal, Impeachment as Congressional Constitutional Interpretation, 63 Law & Contemp. Problems 169, 175-79 (2000). And it must do so in the context of Trump’s highly unusual behavior in office. Continue reading “Impeachment and Constitutional Deliberation”