The Attorney General has appointed Jack Smith to serve as Special Counsel to conduct an investigation of certain matters relating to former President Donald Trump, including “whether any person or entity violated the law in connection with efforts to interfere with the lawful transfer of power following the 2020 presidential election or the certification of the Electoral College vote held on or about January 6, 2021, as well as any matters that arose or might arise directly from this investigation or that are within the scope of 28 C.F.R. §600.4(a).” The regulations at 28 C.F.R. §600.4(a) provide that “[t]he jurisdiction of a Special Counsel shall also include the authority to investigate and prosecute federal crimes committed in the course of, and with intent to interfere with, the Special Counsel’s investigation, such as perjury, obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence, and intimidation of witnesses; and to conduct appeals arising out of the matter being investigated and/or prosecuted.”
This jurisdiction does not appear to cover a potential certification by the House, pursuant to 2 U.S.C. §194, of Trump’s failure to appear and/or produce documents in response to the subpoena from the January 6 select committee. Although that subpoena relates to the subject of the Special Counsel’s January 6 investigation and Trump’s defiance of the subpoena constitutes a possible violation of law, I doubt that violation of law in 2022 would be considered to be “in connection with” efforts to interfere with the transfer of power or electoral vote count in late 2020 and early 2021 within the meaning of the appointment order. Similarly, while contempt of Congress under 2 U.S.C. §192 is a violation of law and a federal misdemeanor, Trump’s contempt arose from the congressional investigation, not from either the Special Counsel’s investigation or the prior federal criminal investigation over which he is assuming control. Thus, the Special Counsel will probably not be able to assert direct jurisdiction over such a contempt certification.
However, 28 C.F.R. §600.4(b) provides that “[i]f in the course of his or her investigation the Special Counsel concludes that additional jurisdiction beyond that specified in his or her original jurisdiction is necessary in order to fully investigate and resolve the matters assigned, or to investigate new matters that come to light in the course of his or her investigation, he or she shall consult with the Attorney General, who will determine whether to include the additional matters within the Special Counsel’s jurisdiction or assign them elsewhere.” Thus, were the Special Counsel to determine that expanding his jurisdiction to include a congressional contempt referral is appropriate under the terms of 28 C.F.R. §600.4(b), it would be up to the Attorney General to make that decision.
It seems to me that there is enough of a link between the Special Counsel’s investigation and a contempt referral of Trump to support an expansion of the Special Counsel’s jurisdiction under this somewhat nebulous standard. After all, the committee’s subpoena relates to factual matters which are directly relevant to the Special Counsel’s investigation, and it may advance that investigation to determine why Trump withheld testimony and documents from the committee. Moreover, a separate part of the Special Counsel’s investigation relates to Trump’s failure to cooperate with government efforts to retrieve classified and other official documents in his possession and Trump’s possible obstruction of a grand jury investigation by failure to produce documents responsive to its subpoena. His refusal to comply with the January 6 committee’s subpoena therefore may demonstrate a pattern of illegal behavior.
Even if the Special Counsel’s jurisdiction were expanded, this does not necessarily mean Trump will be prosecuted for contempt of Congress. The Special Counsel regulations require that the Special Counsel ordinarily “comply with the rules, regulations, procedures, practices and policies of the Department of Justice.” 28 C.F.R. §600.7(a). This is the provision that (arguably) prevented Special Counsel Mueller from indicting then-President Trump due to the Office of Legal Counsel’s determination that the Constitution prohibits indictment of a sitting president. Similarly, Special Counsel Smith might be prohibited from prosecuting Trump for invoking testimonial immunity because of the longstanding DOJ/OLC view that a former president is absolutely immune from compelled congressional testimony.
There are, however, several reasons why this view may not (and probably should not) bind Smith. First (and most dubiously), there is the argument (also made with respect to Mueller) that a special counsel is not bound by OLC opinions but is free to reach his or her own conclusions on constitutional questions. Second, although the view that a former president enjoys absolute testimonial immunity has been reflected in opinions and pleadings, it has not to my knowledge been the subject of a formal analysis and opinion by OLC (or DOJ). Thus, in contrast to OLC’s formal opinion that a sitting president cannot be indicted, the department’s position on absolute immunity for former presidents may be fairly characterized as more of an assumption than a definitive opinion. Third (and most importantly), OLC has always viewed the scope of absolute immunity to be limited to official activities. Here there is ample room for the Special Counsel to conclude that at least some of the matters about which the January 6 committee wishes to question Trump are political or personal, rather than official. [Note that if Trump’s legal team takes the position in the litigation over classified documents and presidential records that certain documents in his possession should be considered personal or political, this may cut against his interests here].
Furthermore, even if Smith concludes that Trump is protected by absolute testimonial immunity, this would not prevent prosecution with regard to Trump’s withholding of documents responsive to the congressional subpoena. While there are no doubt those at main Justice who would be reluctant to prosecute a former president for asserting invalid but non-frivolous objections to a congressional document subpoena, these concerns would not appear to rise to the level of a practice or policy that would be binding upon the Special Counsel.
For all of these reasons the appointment of a special counsel makes it substantially more likely that a certification under 2 U.S.C. §194 could actually result in a criminal prosecution of the former president. The January 6 committee should take this into account in deciding how to proceed with regard to Trump’s defiance of its subpoena.