Questions about OLC’s Role in Responding to House Subpoenas in the Impeachment Inquiry

On Monday I am participating in a Transparency Caucus program entitled “Shedding Light on the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel Opinions.” (It will take place at 2pm in Longworth; email Hannah.Mansbach@mail.house.gov if you would like to attend). In that connection, I want to raise an issue regarding OLC’s role in the administration’s decision not to cooperate with the House’s Ukraine investigation and the president’s defense with regard to the second article of impeachment (obstruction of Congress) which resulted from that decision.

The president’s trial brief in the Senate impeachment trial attached an OLC memorandum on “House’s Committees’ Authority to Investigate for Impeachment.” This memorandum, dated January 19, 2020, purported to memorialize oral advice previously given to the White House counsel regarding whether House committees “could compel the production of documents in furtherance of an asserted impeachment inquiry.” OLC Memorandum of 1-19-20 at 2. OLC “advised that the committees lacked such authority because, at the time the subpoenas were issued, the House had not adopted any resolution authorizing the committees to conduct an impeachment inquiry.” Id.

The OLC memorandum is a little fuzzy, however, as to when this advice was given. It is clear that the request for advice came sometime after the issuance of a series of subpoenas issued by House committees in late September and early October 2019. See OLC Memorandum of 1-19-20 at 2 (“Upon the issuance of these subpoenas, you asked whether these committees could compel the production of documents and testimony in furtherance of an asserted impeachment inquiry”): id. at 8  (“Following service of these subpoenas, you and other officials within the Executive Branch requested our advice . . .). The earliest of the subpoenas specifically referenced was on September 27 (to the Secretary of State), the second was on October 4 (to the Acting White House Chief of Staff), and the latest was October 10 (to the Secretary of Energy). See OLC Memorandum of 1-19-20 at 1-2.

The most plausible reading of the OLC memorandum is that the request for advice was made on or after October 10 or, at the earliest, on or after October 4, when the second subpoena was issued. Of course, it is possible that the memorandum refers inaccurately to “subpoenas” when the request was actually made after the issuance of the first subpoena on September 27. This seems unlikely, however, because OLC was undoubtedly aware of the significance of this issue and had no reason to suggest that the request was made later than it actually was.

The OLC memorandum indicates that it provided its initial advice sometime on or before October 31, when the House adopted Resolution 660, formally authorizing an impeachment inquiry. See OLC Memorandum of 1-19-20 at 39. It does not, however, provide any greater specificity on when it first advised the White House counsel and/or other executive officials of its legal conclusion that the subpoenas were invalid.

Why does this matter? Because on October 8, the White House counsel sent a  letter to the House flatly refusing to cooperate with the House’s impeachment inquiry. This letter raises a number of objections, many of which are political rather than legal in nature, to the impeachment inquiry. One of those objections, stated in a single conclusory paragraph, is that the inquiry is “constitutionally invalid”  because of the lack of any formal House vote on the matter. See Letter of Oct. 8, 2019 at 2-3. There is nothing in the letter, however, to suggest that the administration would provide information to the House even if such a vote were to occur; to the contrary, it indicates that the only way the administration would even discuss the possibility of providing information is if the House dropped its impeachment inquiry  and agreed “to return to the regular order of oversight requests.” Id. at 8.

For at least three reasons it seems highly unlikely that OLC had provided even its initial advice to White House counsel as of October 8. First, as already noted OLC probably had not even received a request at that point. Second, even if OLC had received the request as early as September 27, it hardly seems possible that it could have formed a responsible legal opinion by October 8, given that it purported to rest that opinion on an exhaustive historical survey of judicial, executive and legislative statements and practice, including nearly 100 House impeachment inquiries. See OLC Memorandum of 1-19-20 at 13-39; id. at 21 (referring to the “weighty historical record, which involves nearly 100 authorized impeachment investigations”). Third, there is no reference in the October 8 letter to any OLC advice on this issue, though it refers to OLC opinions on other issues it raises.

If the October 8 letter was sent before OLC had advised on this issue, it certainly undercuts the White House’s argument that the president was acting in good faith to protect the legitimate confidentiality interests of the executive branch and that he was relying on legal advice from OLC in doing so. See Senate trial brief of Donald J. Trump at 36 (“the legal principles invoked by the President and other Administration officials are critical for preserving the separation of powers– and based on advice from the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel”). It also raises the question whether OLC could provide independent legal advice when the president had already formally asserted a position on the issue.

Even if OLC did weigh in before the October 8 letter, it would be important to know how long it spent formulating its opinion before providing that advice. It is also important to find out whether OLC reviewed and approved the October 8 letter. Did OLC advise the White House counsel that the House should be informed that its objection to the impeachment inquiry was curable through a properly worded resolution? Is it consistent with the executive branch’s obligation of negotiating in good faith over information requests to conceal or misrepresent objections that could otherwise have been easily satisfied by the House?

Ventilating these issues would be a great first step toward transparency for OLC.

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