If you want to hear me and Steve Vladeck discuss the slew of litigation regarding congressional investigative and oversight authority and what it may mean for the future, you can listen here.
Remember the Roger Cramton memorandum we discussed a few months ago? (Of course you do, scarcely a waking moment goes by when you don’t think “I wonder what ever happened with that Roger Cramton memorandum?”). This was one of the memoranda cited by the Office of Legal Counsel in footnote 1 of its opinion declaring that former White House counsel Don McGahn was absolutely immune from having to appear in response to a congressional subpoena.
As we have discussed, OLC’s argument for absolute immunity is based in large part on “precedent” consisting of its own prior statements on the subject. But, as two federal judges have now pointed out, OLC cannot create precedent simply on its own say-so. Last month Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote, in her scathing rejection of McGahn’s claim of immunity, that OLC’s initial theory of absolute immunity set forth in the 1971 Rehnquist memorandum “was seemingly formed out of nothing” and “it appears that an endorsement of the principles that OLC espouses would amount to adopting the absolute testimonial immunity for senior-level presidential aides by ipse dixit.” Comm. on the Judiciary, U.S. House of Representatives v. McGahn, No. 19-cv-2379, slip op. at 99, 102 (D.D.C. Nov. 25, 2019); see also Comm. on the Judiciary, U.S. House of Representatives v. Miers, 558 F. Supp.2d 53, 86 (D.D.C. 2008) (rejecting OLC’s opinions on absolute immunity as “conclusory and recursive”). Furthermore, as both Judge Jackson and Judge Bates noted, the original justification for immunity set forth in the Rehnquist memorandum would not apply to former White House officials at all. See McGahn, slip op. at 100; Miers, 558 F. Supp.2d at 88 n. 36.
Enter the aforementioned Cramton memorandum of December 21, 1972 to “the Honorable John W. Dean, III,” Counsel to the President. Although OLC cited this memorandum in its opinion on McGahn, it did not make it public at the time, nor did it bother to mention that this memorandum differed in an important respect from the argument that it was making. We know this now because OLC has just posted it on its website. Hat tip: @kpolantz and @EricColumbus.
To wit, the Cramton memorandum concludes that former White House officials should not be entitled to the same absolute immunity as current officials. It states:
We have one caveat with respect to our conclusion. While we believe that an assertion of Executive privilege with respect to specific testimony on the subject of advice given by the former staff member to the President is entirely proper, we have some reservations about the propriety of invoking the privilege to direct the former staff member not to appear at all. This aspect of the Executive privilege has in the past been claimed only for the President and his most intimate, immediate advisers. One of the justifications that has been advanced for an immediate adviser declining to appear is that he is presumptively available to the President 24 hours a day; the necessity to appear before congressional committees therefore could impair that availability. This consideration would obviously not justify a refusal to appear by a former staff member. However, this justification is in our view neither the only nor the best one. An immediate assistant to the President may be said to serve as his alter ego in implementing Presidential policies. On this theory, the same considerations that were persuasive to former President Truman would apply to justify a refusal to appear by such a former staff member, if the scope of his testimony is to be limited to his activities while serving in that capacity.
In conclusion, we believe that an invocation of the privilege with respect to particular testimony by a former staff member on the subject of advice given the President is quite clearly proper; on the other hand, we believe an invocation of the privilege as a basis for refusal to appear at all is a closer question. An intention to invoke the privilege with respect to particular testimony could certainly be announced. This as a practical matter may solve the problem. If, however, the interrogation is expected to extend to non-privileged matters, a decision that the former staff member should not appear at all would not, in our opinion, be justified.
Memorandum of 12-21-1972 at 6-7 (emphasis added).
To be sure, this language does not foreclose a refusal to appear by a former White House official if the testimony is expected to involve only privileged matters (though it suggests this is a “closer question”). If, on the other hand, non-privileged matters are involved, it indicates that such a refusal would not be justified. This position is inconsistent with OLC’s current stance, which is that former officials are absolutely immune from any questioning about their official activities, regardless whether they are privileged. As OLC “explained” in its McGahn opinion, “the concept of immunity is distinct from, and broader than, the question whether executive privilege would protect a witness’s response to any particular question.” 5-20-19 Opinion at 17. Moreover, it asserted that “consistent with our prior precedents, we find no material distinction between the compelled congressional testimony of current and former senior advisers to the President.” Id. at 16. This again is inconsistent with the Cramton memorandum.
Furthermore, the Cramton memorandum implicitly rejects OLC rationales for extending immunity to former officials. If allowing such officials to testify about non-privileged matters will not impair the president’s ability to obtain confidential advice, there is no reason why they should not appear and invoke the privilege on a question by question basis (like every other executive official outside the White House). Moreover, Cramton obviously did not believe that allowing former officials to appear would adversely impact the president’s “autonomy.”
It seems to me that if you are going to rest an argument on ipse dixit, you ought at least to be honest about the ipse. Maybe the D.C. Circuit will have some questions about this too.
The lawsuit brought by former deputy national security advisor Charles Kupperman continues, for the moment, despite the House’s withdrawal of its subpoena. Most likely, Judge Leon will end up dismissing the case as nonjusticiable on one ground or another. However, it could matter a good deal which ground(s) the court relies upon.
If the case is dismissed as moot due to the withdrawal of the subpoena, it would be of little consequence. On the other hand, if the court were to base its dismissal on the president’s lack of authority to direct Kupperman not to appear in response to the subpoena, its ruling is potentially of much greater significance. As Jonathan Shaub has noted in connection with the House’s lawsuit against former White House counsel Don McGahn, a judicial ruling that the president lacks authority to direct former officials how to respond to congressional subpoenas might be more important than a ruling on the merits of the absolute immunity issue. While the latter would affect only the relatively small group of senior White House advisors who allegedly are protected by absolute immunity, the former “could be far-reaching, encompassing all disputes involving former officials whether they are grounded in immunity or executive privilege.”
Kupperman’s complaint alleges that he “has a duty to abide by a lawful constitutional assertion of immunity by the President and a lawful instruction by the President that he decline to testify before Congress concerning his official duties as a close advisor to the President.” Complaint ¶ 41. Note that this arguably constitutes two distinct assertions. At one level, it is an assertion that if the claimed immunity exists, it belongs to the president, not to the subordinate official, and therefore Kupperman cannot or should not waive it contrary to the president’s instruction. This makes sense to me. Since the immunity (if it exists) is designed to protect the presidency, it should be the president’s decision whether to assert or waive it.
Of course, as Eric Columbus has pointed out, former officials not infrequently choose to disclose confidential information regarding their government service in medial interviews or tell-all books. Indeed, former national security advisor John Bolton, who is currently declining to testify before Congress based on the president’s assertion of “absolute immunity,” has a book deal in which he will presumably discuss many of the matters allegedly covered by that immunity. (As one Twitter wag put it, absolute immunity is a monarchical doctrine so naturally it has a “royalty exception.” Ok, that wag was me.). While there is a tension between this fact and the non-waiver principle, in my view it simply illustrates that the executive branch has no means of punishing former officials who violate a duty not to disclose non-classified information (about which more below).
Kupperman also appears to be making a second and stronger assertion. He seems to be claiming that a former official has a duty to obey the president’s instruction, regardless of whether the former official agrees with the president’s legal position. As Shaub points out, though, it is not clear where the president gets the authority to direct a private citizen’s response to a congressional subpoena. OLC’s past pronouncements suggest it believes the president has this authority, but it fails to “offer any constitutional analysis to support that conclusion.” (Shaub, this might be a good place to note, is a former OLC lawyer).
If Judge Leon were to conclude the president lacks authority to direct Kupperman’s response to the subpoena, he could dismiss the case without reaching the merits. Kupperman claims to be facing “irreconcilable commands” from the executive and legislative branches, but if he is not bound to obey the president’s command, the alleged conflict disappears and can provide no basis for him to sue. He then would be in a posture no different than any other congressional witness who asserts a potentially valid privilege. He can choose to assert absolute immunity if he wishes and, when the committee (properly) rejects that assertion, he can decide whether to comply or risk the possibility of a contempt proceeding. There is no reason why he, any more than any other congressional witness in this situation, should be entitled to an advance court ruling to forestall contempt.
A somewhat narrower approach the court might take is to side step the question of legal duty entirely. Instead, the court might ask what injury Kupperman would suffer should he choose to ignore the president’s directive not to testify. Kupperman alleges that “an erroneous judgment to appear and testify in obedience to the House Defendants’ subpoena would unlawfully impair the President in the exercise of his core national security responsibilities,” Complaint ¶ 2, but it is hard to see how this constitutes an injury to Kupperman. As suggested earlier, there do not appear to be any practical repercussions to a former official who reveals confidential but non-classified information, whether before Congress or in a tell-all book. In the absence of any adverse consequence Kupperman will suffer as a result of disregarding the president’s order, it would seem he lacks standing to sue regardless of whether the president has the authority to issue the order.
Even if Kupperman has a legal duty to assert absolute immunity when instructed to do so by the president, it does not follow that he is obligated to go into contempt to protect the president’s privilege. For example, a lawyer who is subpoenaed by a congressional committee to provide privileged information of a current or former client is obligated to assert the privilege if her client so instructs, but she is not obligated to go into contempt in order to fulfill her professional obligations. See D.C. Bar Ethics Opinion 288 (Feb. 1999). There is no reason why a former government official should be required to do more when instructed by the president; after all, the president has ample other tools, including filing his own lawsuit, to protect whatever confidentiality interests are at issue.
In short, a non-merits dismissal of Kupperman v. House could still have a significant (and beneficial) effect on the House’s ability to get information in the current impeachment inquiry and/or in future information disputes between the political branches.
As it happens, the decision in Trump v. Mazars USA (D.C. Cir. Oct. 11, 2019) coincides nicely with our discussion of the congressional contempt power. Although Mazars involved the validity of a congressional subpoena, not the exercise of the contempt power per se, the cases we are about to encounter are quite relevant to an analysis of the D.C. Circuit’s opinion, particularly with regard to Judge Rao’s remarkable dissent.
Kilbourn v. Thompson
Following its decision in Anderson v. Dunn, 19 U.S. 204 (1821), the Supreme Court next had occasion to consider the contempt power in Kilbourn v. Thompson, 103 U.S. 168 (1880). Kilbourn arose out of a House special committee’s investigation into the bankruptcy of Jay Cooke & Co., a private firm with large investments in a somewhat shady “real estate pool”; the House resolution establishing the committee recited that the government of the United States was a creditor of the bankrupt firm as the result of “improvident deposits by the Secretary of the Navy” of public moneys at the firm. 103 U.S. at 171. The resolution further recited that the bankruptcy trustee “has recently made a settlement of the interest of the estate . . . to the disadvantage and loss, as it is alleged, of the numerous creditors of said estate, including the government of the United States, and . . . the courts are now powerless by reason of said settlement to afford adequate redress to said creditors.” Id.
Hallet Kilbourn, a real estate broker with knowledge of the private investments in question, was subpoenaed by the House to provide testimony and documents regarding the matter. He declined to do so, denying “the right of the House to investigate private business arbitrarily,” but stated that “if either the committee or the House would assert that the production of his private papers, or the revelation of his private business, would promote any public interest, or if any private individual would assert on oath that the papers asked for would lead to the detection of corruption, he would respond freely to all demands for information or papers.” 2 Hinds’ Precedents § 1609.
The House then ordered that the Speaker issue an arrest warrant for Kilbourn, pursuant to which the recalcitrant witness was brought before the bar of the House. When he continued to refuse to answer, the House held him in contempt and ordered the Sergeant-at-Arms to keep him in custody until such time as he was willing to provide the information demanded. 103 U.S. at 175; 2 Hinds’ Precedents § 1609.
While Kilbourn was in custody, he was indicted by a federal grand jury under the criminal contempt of Congress statute. This precipitated a conflict between the legislative branch and the executive/judicial branches when the U.S. marshal, with a warrant from the D.C. court, attempted to take custody of Kilbourn from the Sergeant-at-Arms. 2 Hinds’ Precedents § 1609. The Sergeant-at-Arms refused, and the House actually considered a Blackstonian resolution that would have asserted that the House, not the courts, had the ultimate right to determine the disposition of the prisoner. Id. The House rejected this resolution, however, and authorized the Sergeant-at-Arms to obey the court’s writ of habeas corpus. Id. The court eventually determined that Kilbourn should be released by the Sergeant-at-Arms and taken into custody by the U.S. marshal. Id.
Kilbourn subsequently sued the House for false imprisonment. Perhaps due to the prior tension with the executive branch, the House was represented by private counsel in the case. See Representation of Congress and Congressional Interests in Court: Hearings Before the Subcomm. on Separation of Powers of the Senate Comm. on the Judiciary, 94th Cong., 2d sess. 511-12 (1974-75). For whatever reason, the House’s position was much less warmly received when it reached the Supreme Court than it had been in Anderson.
While the Anderson Court embraced the key arguments of the “pro-contempt” side of congressional debates (particularly the argument that the contempt power was an absolute necessity to protect the functioning of Congress), the Kilbourn Court adopts many of the principal arguments of congressional opponents of contempt. It begins with the observation that Congress’s powers are “dependent solely on the Constitution,” “either expressly or by fair implication.” 103 U.S. at 182. As no express power to punish contempts is granted, “advocates of this power have, therefore, resorted to an implication of its existence founded on two principal arguments . . . (1) its exercise by the House of Commons of England, from which country we, it is said, have derived our system of parliamentary law, and (2) the necessity of such a power to enable the two Houses of Congress to perform the duties and exercise the power the Constitution has conferred on them.” Id. at 182-83. Continue reading “Kilbourn and Chapman and Rao. Oh my.”
Last week I wrote a piece for Just Security regarding the State Department’s refusal to produce certain officials for depositions requested by several House committees (relating, of course, to the Ukraine affair). Among other things, I addressed the question of whether Congress is required to allow government counsel to attend depositions of the current or former officials of their department or agency. OLC (surprise!) says the answer is yes. In my view, the correct answer is no.
Tomorrow the Mazars subpoena case will be argued before the D.C. Circuit (Judges Tatel, Millett and Rao). In this appeal, President Trump (in his private capacity) has advanced a novel and audacious theory in support of his contention that the congressional subpoena at issue lacks a “legitimate legislative purpose.” Trump is asking the D.C. Circuit to reverse the decision of the district court, which denied Trump’s application for an injunction to prevent Mazars, his accounting firm, from producing financial records responsive to the subpoena.
As Judge Mehta pointed out in his decision below, the legal standards employed by the courts to review congressional subpoenas and investigations are generally so deferential that they “do not substantially constrain Congress.” Rather than fighting this proposition head on, Trump’s lawyers focus primarily on seeking a carve-out from Congress’s broad investigatory and oversight authority for those who hold constitutional offices (i.e., the president and Supreme Court justices).
The lynchpin of this argument is the distinction between Congress’s legislative and judicial powers. Although it has long been understood that Congress must have some ability to obtain information needed to consider and craft legislative measures, the scope of this power was once highly controversial. Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Kilbourn v. Thompson, 103 U.S. 168 (1880), which stressed that Congress, unlike the British Parliament, was not a court of general jurisdiction, it was widely believed that Congress’s authority to compel the production of information for legislative purposes was limited at best. This reading of Kilbourn, however, was undermined by later Supreme Court cases beginning with McGrain v. Daugherty, 273 U.S. 135 (1927). These subsequent cases, Judge Mehta noted, render Kilbourn “largely impotent as a guiding constitutional principle.”
Trump attempts to revive Kilbourn for a limited purpose. His theory goes something like this. Congress generally has broad legislative and oversight authority with respect to the departments and agencies of government, including offices created by statute. With respect to constitutional offices, however, Congress’s legislative authority is “severely constrained.” Trump Br. at 4, 38. Thus, Trump claims that Congress cannot rely on its legislative authority to seek his financial records because these records are not relevant to a subject on which legislation may be had.
To be sure, Trump acknowledges that Congress also has powers of a judicial nature. But, following Kilbourn, he stresses that these are not of general scope, but are limited to those areas expressly identified in the Constitution, namely judging elections, disciplining members, and, most importantly, impeachment. For those who hold constitutional offices, therefore, impeachment is the only method (Trump argues) by which Congress can investigate alleged wrongdoing.
Thus, “[w]hile Congress could presumably use subpoenas to advance these non-legislative powers, the Committee has not invoked them.” Trump Br. at 45. In fact, Trump takes pains to demonstrate that Speaker Pelosi has disavowed any intent to go down the path of impeachment. Trump Br. at 47-48.
The novelty of this argument is illustrated by the fact that one of the principal “authorities” cited in Trump’s brief is a three-page law student note that is more than a century old. See Note, Congressional Power to Punish for Contempt, 30 Harv. L. Rev. 384 (1917) (cited in Trump Br. at 17-18). The apparent utility of this note from Trump’s perspective is that it vividly distinguishes congressional contempt in the context of impeachment from that in the context of legislative oversight:
A committee of the House considering an impeachment is like a Grand Jury hearing evidence which may lead to the return of an indictment– it is a judicial body and it is one provided for by the Constitution. It must surely have the power to call witnesses, and the power is of little avail if these witnesses may contemptuously refuse to respond, or may be influenced or intimidated by outside contempts of the body before whom they are testifying. If the House is to sit in a judicial capacity, it must have the protection that a court has.
Note, 30 Harv. L. Rev. at 385. Yet even this note, which predates McGrain, concludes that “[t]he power to legislate . . . by necessary implication include[s] the power to examine witnesses and to compel them to respond by contempt proceedings.” Id. at 386.
Why would the Trump team rely on what seems like a very long shot argument? The short answer is I don’t know, but three possibilities come to mind. First, Trump’s lawyers may simply believe this is the best argument available to them. Second, it may be thought that stressing the lack of impeachment proceedings helps Trump’s cause beyond the confines of this particular case (e.g., with public opinion and/or with courts that will be ruling on more difficult subpoena enforcement issues in the months ahead). Third, Trump’s legal team may believe that advancing a bold legal theory is the best way to get the Supreme Court to grant certiorari, which strings out the proceedings even if it is unlikely to deliver an ultimate victory.
The two things to look for in tomorrow’s argument: (1) how much interest does the panel show in impeachment and why the House has declined to initiate impeachment proceedings to date, and (2) whether Judge Rao (the lone Republican appointee) seems at all open to Trump’s arguments. A unanimous panel opinion will make further review less likely.
You can listen here..
As we saw in my last post, for presidential advisers to have testimonial immunity it is necessary but not sufficient that the president himself have such immunity. Assistant Attorney General Rehnquist noted in 1971 that “[e]veryone associated with the Executive Branch from [the Aaron Burr treason trial] until now, so far as I know, has taken the position that the President himself is absolutely immune from subpoena by anyone . . .” Rehnquist Memorandum at 3. Of course, taking a position is not the same thing as establishing that the position is correct.
OLC’s current justification for the president’s immunity consists of little more than the bare assertion that “Congress may no more summon the President to a congressional committee room than the President may command Members of Congress to appear at the White House.” 5-20-19 OLC Opinion at 1. I have three observations about this assertion. First, it should be noted that it is more modest than the position stated by Rehnquist in 1971. The latter was that the president was immune from “subpoena by anyone.” OLC today refers only to subpoena by Congress, although its reasoning, premised on the fact that the “President stands at the head of a co-equal branch of government,” would seem to apply equally to judicial subpoenas. See 5-20-19 OLC Opinion at 4. By confining its claim, OLC avoids the need to deal with the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974), which suggests that “even the President may not be absolutely immune from compulsory process more generally.” Comm. on the Judiciary, U.S. House of Representatives v. Miers, 558 F.Supp.2d 53, __ (2008).
Second, as others have noted, the attempt to equate congressional and presidential subpoena authority makes no sense because the president has no subpoena authority and thus lacks the power to command anyone (other than, I suppose, his subordinates) to appear at the White House. The president’s inability to compel the appearance of members of the Congress therefore says nothing about the subpoena authority of congressional committees.
Third, the comparison makes even less sense when one considers that members of Congress have no immunity from subpoenas themselves. Representatives and senators have been required to appear and testify in many types of proceedings despite the existence of an express constitutional privilege against arrest which was designed to allow them to carry out their legislative duties without interruption while Congress is in session. Though no less authorities than Thomas Jefferson and Joseph Story believed this provision gave members a (temporary) immunity from subpoenas ad testificandum, this position has never been accepted by the courts. See 2 Deschler’s Precedents of the U.S. House of Representatives 817 (“The rulings of the courts, both state and federal, have uniformly expressed the principle that a summons or subpena is not an arrest, and is not precluded by the Constitution.”). Similarly, although members have a privilege against being questioned about legislative activities under the Speech or Debate Clause, this does not equate to an absolute testimonial immunity or the right to refuse to appear when subpoenaed. See Miers, 558 F.Supp.2d at __ (“Members cannot simply assert, without more, that the Speech or Debate Clause shields their activities and thereby preclude all further inquiry.”) Thus, OLC’s comparison would seem to support, rather than refute, the president’s amenability to subpoena. Id.
Interestingly, while OLC relies on many of its prior memoranda in support of its contention that presidential advisers have absolute testimonial immunity, it fails to mention a 1973 memorandum which expresses doubt as to whether even the president himself has such immunity. After discussing the dispute between Chief Justice Marshall and President Jefferson over whether the latter could be required to give evidence in the Aaron Burr treason trial, the memorandum notes that “[m]odern legal discussion of the power of the courts to subpoena the President still adheres to Chief Justice Marshall’s view that the President is not exempt from judicial process, in particular the judicial power compel anyone to give testimony.” Memorandum from Robert G. Dixon, Jr., Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Counsel, Re: Presidential Amenability to Judicial Subpoenas 5 (June 25, 1973) (available in OLC FOIA electronic reading room) (hereinafter “Dixon memorandum”). It goes on to note that it is “questionable whether there is adequate precedent for the proposition that the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers precludes vel non the issuance of judicial subpoenas to the President.” Dixon Memorandum at 7.
The same memorandum suggests that any presidential immunity or protection against subpoenas may be limited in cases of alleged official wrongdoing:
A special situation exists with respect to claims of privilege where charges of official wrongdoings are concerned. There appears to be no pertinent precedent as to whether a President can claim privilege in judicial proceedings in that situation. There have been, however, several statements made by Presidents and Attorneys General that privilege will not be invoked vis-a-vis Congress where charges of official wrongdoing are involved. Significantly those statements have usually been made [in the context of] the Congressional power of impeachment.
Dixon Memorandum at 12 (citations omitted) (emphasis added).
Dixon concludes that “the subpoenaing of a President involves a number of complex issues depending on the circumstances in which and the purposes for which the subpoena is issued.” Dixon Memorandum at 13. For example, “it could be argued that a President will not or cannot claim privilege where official misconduct is the subject matter of grand jury proceedings or of a criminal prosecution.” Id. Moreover, “it may well be that a President will not or even may not claim privilege where Congress performs its specific constitutional responsibilities in the field of impeachment.” Id. These observations, it should be noted, precede the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Nixon, which only bolsters Dixon’s skepticism regarding the president’s absolute immunity from subpoena.
While OLC’s position on presidential testimonial immunity has little support in judicial precedent or legal doctrine, historical practice is more favorable. As Andy Wright details here, presidents rarely have testified in judicial or congressional proceedings and when they have done so it is generally with an accommodation to indicate the voluntariness of their cooperation. Perhaps most strikingly, neither Andrew Johnson nor Bill Clinton testified in their impeachment trials, nor did Nixon testify in the House Judiciary Committee inquiry regarding his impeachment. I would summarize this history as reflecting a strong constitutional convention against forcing a president to testify in any but the most compelling circumstances.
All this being said, there is no direct judicial precedent on the question of whether a sitting president is entitled to absolute testimonial immunity. I tend to agree with Steve Vladeck and Ben Wittes that it is more likely than not that the Supreme Court would reject a claim of such immunity, but I also agree with them that “it is not a sure thing, and the President has plausible arguments available to him that a court would have to work through before enforcing a subpoena for his testimony.” There is particular uncertainty as to how newer members of the Court may view the president’s claim of absolute testimonial immunity (and some reason to believe that Justice Kavanaugh, in particular, may be sympathetic to such a claim). Continue reading “Does the President Enjoy Absolute Testimonial Immunity?”
In this post I will look at OLC’s claim that its advice on testimonial immunity of senior presidential advisers has been consistent “for nearly five decades.” See 5-20-19 OLC Opinion at 1. As we saw in my first post, since the 1940s the executive branch has generally resisted congressional demands for testimony from such advisers, but on a number of occasions it has permitted these advisers to testify in open congressional hearings and on other occasions it has agreed or offered to provide information from these advisers in alternative ways. Until the mid to late-1990s, the executive branch’s position on this subject was not presented to Congress as an assertion of absolute constitutional immunity, but more like the prophylactic rule described in my last post. Moreover, when OLC’s internal memoranda from this time period are scrutinized (to the extent they are available), they are compatible with this more modest interpretation of its position.
It was not until the Clinton administration that OLC articulated a formal and definitive defense of the proposition that senior presidential advisers are constitutionally immune from compelled congressional testimony. Even then, OLC seems to have accepted this proposition without any serious legal analysis and, in particular, without any consideration of important developments in the case law since Assistant Attorney General William Rehnquist first casually suggested it in 1971. Continue reading “OLC’s Evolving Position on Testimonial Immunity”
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.