The Constitution mentions the chief justice for one purpose only, and apparently it is so he can serve as Charlie McCarthy to Liz McDonough’s Edgar Bergen. Or so one would understand from the Department of Justice’s brief in In re Application of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States House of Representatives, for an Order Authorizing the Release of Certain Grand Jury Materials, currently pending before the D.C. Circuit.
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.
Late yesterday the DC Circuit panel hearing In re: Application of the Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. House of Representatives, for an Order Authorizing the Release of Certain Grand Jury Materials issued a scheduling order for briefing on the merits. The expedited schedule evidently reflects the compromise that the three judges came up with after yesterday’s argument. The merits will be heard by the same panel (Rogers, Griffith and Rao) which heard the stay application and an administrative stay will remain in place during that time.
The schedule is as follows:
DOJ brief to be filed on December 2, 2019
House brief to be filed on December 16, 2019
DOJ reply brief to be filed on December 23, 2019
Oral argument is on January 3, 2020 at 9:30 am.
Note that the oral argument will take place two and a half hours before the start of the second session of the 116th Congress. Not sure what that means, but I thought it was interesting.
The D.C. Circuit panel (Rogers, Griffith and Rao) heard arguments this morning on whether to stay Chief Judge Howell’s order granting the House Judiciary Committee access to certain grand jury material related to the Mueller report. The three issues discussed were (1) whether the district court erred in holding that impeachment was a “judicial proceeding” within the meaning of Fed. R. Crim. P. 6(e); (2) whether the committee had made an adequate showing of particularized need with respect to the materials in question; and (3) whether there would be irreparable harm from disclosing the material to the committee. It is hard to say what the panel is likely to do, though my guess is that it will probably not deny a stay outright.
On the first issue, Judge Griffith seemed to believe that existing D.C. Circuit precedent establishes that impeachment is a judicial proceeding within the meaning of Rule 6(e), and that only the en banc court would be able to revisit that issue. Although Griffith did not tip his hand as to whether he would ultimately side with the House on the merits of that issue, I did not hear anything in the argument to suggest he had changed his mind on existing precedent. Given that Judge Rogers was clearly sympathetic to the House’s position, this suggests that a majority of the panel is unlikely to grant a stay based on this argument.
Judge Rao questioned whether any court involvement in impeachment would run afoul of Supreme Court precedent that impeachment is solely a question for the Congress. Her theory seemed to be that this precedent prohibited the courts from even assisting the House or Senate in obtaining information for impeachment purposes. Although Judge Griffith expressed some interest in this theory, I think House Counsel Doug Letter did a nice job at the opening of his argument in shooting it down. In any event, I assume that Griffith would view that also as something that would have to be addressed by the en banc court.
The second issue appeared to be stronger for the Justice Department. All three judges had some concerns about whether the district court had adequately determined whether the committee had a particularized need for each piece of grand jury evidence that the court had ordered released. While there was not a clear consensus on how the court should go about that task, it appeared that there was enough uncertainty about it that the court would be reluctant to let the district court’s ruling proceed without further scrutiny.
The Justice Department lawyer, Mark Freeman, also seemed to make some headway on the third issue. While Griffith initially expressed some skepticism that there would be any irreparable harm in allowing the committee to gain access to the grand jury material, Freeman argued that once the material was disclosed, it would be impossible for the courts to enforce any restrictions on what the committee did with it (Letter more or less conceded that this was the case).
Although it is possible that the panel will simply deny the stay, my impression is that this is less likely. Instead, it will probably either grant the stay pending a decision on the merits (which would be heard by a different panel) or itself immediately proceed to address the merits, which would obviate the need for a stay. (The latter possibility was suggested by Letter). If the panel itself reaches the merits, my guess is that it will either affirm Chief Judge Howell’s ruling or remand for more specific findings with regard to the committee’s need for the information in question.
One final possibility was raised by Judge Griffith. He suggested that the problem with regard to controlling further dissemination of the grand jury material could be addressed by limiting access to “counsel” (by which he meant lawyers in the House Counsel’s office). Letter agreed with this suggestion but noted that it would have to include committee counsel as well, as they are the ones with the relevant substantive knowledge regarding what material is relevant to the impeachment inquiry.
This is of course exactly the Freeh-LaBella procedure that I suggested seven months ago (see here and here). Allowing access to a limited number of congressional counsel, who will fully understand that any further disclosure without the court’s permission will subject them to serious sanctions, allows the committee to identify any information for which it has a particularized need without jeopardizing the confidentiality of the information. This approach makes the most sense, which is why it probably won’t happen. But kudos to Judge Griffith, the former senate legal counsel, for proposing a solution that would actually meet the legitimate needs of all three branches.
Charlie Savage of the NY Times wrote an article over the summer which flagged the sheer volume of litigation in which the House has been involved this year. His count at the time was nine separate lawsuits in which the House was a party, plus four others in which it had filed amicus briefs. The cases in which the House is a party include three suits initiated by President Trump in his personal capacity to block Congress’s access to his financial records (Mazars, Deutsche Bank, and the effort to stop New York state authorities from providing his tax records to House committees), three initiated by the House to obtain information (the suit to require the Treasury Department to produce Trump’s tax records, the application for access to grand jury material, and the action to force Don McGahn to testify), plus the House’s effort to enjoin the border wall and its attempt to intervene in support of the constitutionality of the female genital mutilation statute. The ninth, I think, would be the litigation over the Affordable Care Act. (I haven’t kept track of the cases in which the House has appeared as an amicus, but one was the census litigation).
Now the House is party to at least one more case (Kupperman), and it appears that Mick Mulvaney, his motion to intervene in the Kupperman case having been withdrawn, will be filing his own separate suit, which will bring the grand total of cases in which the House is a party to 11. In addition, there are several other ongoing cases that could affect the House’s institutional interests, including Blumenthal v. Trump, where members of Congress are suing the president for alleged violations of the emoluments clauses.
One of these cases has already produced a significant appellate court decision (Mazars) and there are likely to be a number of important decisions coming out of the district and appellate courts in the next couple of months. The Supreme Court will be asked to weigh in and it seems very likely it will agree to hear at least one of these cases, if for no other reason than to decide questions of legislative standing. In the meantime, the House has decided, probably wisely, that further litigation is pointless in light of its determination to conclude impeachment proceedings in the near future (presumably by the end of the year).
We are therefore entering into a period in which there will be (1) a highly unusual amount of judicial precedent generated with potentially enormous impact on the balance of congressional and executive power and (2) an extremely difficult to predict interaction between these judicial opinions and ongoing impeachment proceedings (possibly including, if President Trump’s past statements are credited, an effort to directly challenge these proceedings in court). We cannot rule out the possibility that the chief justice of the United States will be presiding over an impeachment trial in the Senate while the Supreme Court is being asked to consider directly or indirectly related issues at the same time.
In addition to all this, the very fact that Congress and the executive have taken so many of their disputes to court could itself have major effects on how our constitutional system functions in the future. As former House deputy general counsel Charlie Tiefer told Savage, “this is like nothing else in history.” It is probably not too early to start thinking about the consequences.
Last Friday, July 26, the House Judiciary Committee filed an application with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeking release of certain grand jury materials related to the report and investigation of former Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III. The committee contends that the Mueller report “provided Members of Congress with substantial evidence that the President of the United States repeatedly attempted to undermine and derail a criminal investigation of the utmost importance to the nation.” Application at 1. Accordingly, “the House must have access to all the relevant facts and consider whether to exercise its full Article I powers, including a constitutional power of the utmost gravity– approval of articles of impeachment.” Id.
Some may view this, from a political perspective, as “impeachment lite” (Twitter wags had a variety of other terms like “impeachment-tinged” and “impeachment-infused”). From a legal perspective, however, I think this is probably good enough, at least for this particular controversy. Here’s why.
The committee’s primary argument is that the court should authorize the release of the grand jury information pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. P. 6(e)(3)(E), which provides “[t]he court may authorize disclosure of a grand jury matter . . . (i) preliminarily to or in connection with a judicial proceeding.” This provision is applicable here, the committee contends, because it is conducting an investigation to determine whether to recommend articles of impeachment with respect to the president. Application at 30-31. It bears emphasis that the committee does not contend this provision applies to congressional investigations outside the context of impeachment, nor would there be any basis for it to do so.
As we have discussed, controlling authority in the D.C. Circuit establishes that an impeachment proceeding qualifies as a “judicial proceeding” within the meaning of Fed. R. Crim. P. 6(e)(3)(E)(i). Specifically, a Senate impeachment trial is judicial in character and a House impeachment inquiry is therefor preliminary to or in connection with a judicial proceeding for these purposes. Application at 28-29.
To be sure, there is no Supreme Court authority on point, and it is possible that the Court would conclude that the term “judicial proceeding” refers to a proceeding conducted by the judiciary, not merely a proceeding that is judicial in character. (Of course, a Senate impeachment trial of the president is presided over by the chief justice, somewhat blurring this distinction.). However, if the Court were to reject the committee’s position in this respect, I strongly suspect that it would accept its alternative argument (currently foreclosed in the D.C. Circuit) that a federal court retains inherent authority to disclose grand jury materials under these circumstances. See Application at 40-41. I do not believe the Supreme Court would hold that there is no legal mechanism by which grand jury material relevant to impeachment can be transmitted to the House (or Senate), a conclusion that would be in considerable tension with the Constitution’s preference (at least) for impeachment rather than indictment of a sitting president. See, e.g., Brett M. Kavanaugh, The President and the Independent Counsel, 86 Geo. L. J. 2133, 2158 (1998) (citing with approval President Nixon’s argument that “[w]hatever the grand jury may claim about a President, its only possible proper recourse is to refer such facts, with the consent of the court, to the House and leave the conclusions of criminality to the body which is constitutionally empowered to make them”); see also id. at 2156 (“any information gathered with respect to executive branch officials that could reflect negatively on their fitness for office should be disclosed to Congress”).
The more difficult issue for the committee is establishing that disclosure of grand jury materials in these circumstances would be for purposes of impeachment, rather than simply for general oversight. As I have written elsewhere, the committee would clearly be in a stronger position if the House had formally initiated an impeachment inquiry. That being said, nothing in the language of Rule 6(e)(3)(E)(i) expressly requires the formal initiation of any particular proceeding and to the contrary the rule suggests that the disclosure may occur before (“preliminarily to”) such initiation.
Here it is worth noting that while it is the Senate impeachment trial that has been held to be a “judicial proceeding” for these purposes, there is also a strong argument that the House’s exercise of its power of impeachment likewise constitutes a judicial proceeding. Certainly the House’s power is judicial, rather than legislative, in nature. It is possible, however, to argue that the House’s proceeding are less judicial than the Senate’s because the latter performs the adjudicative function of a criminal court while the former performs the investigative function of a grand jury. In any event, it probably makes little difference to the outcome of the committee’s application because in either case the committee must persuade the court that its current investigation is sufficiently tied to the impeachment process.
To meet this burden, the committee points to the following: (1) impeachment falls within the committee’s jurisdiction and articles of impeachment (including in the current congress H. Res. 13, a resolution calling for the impeachment of President Trump) are invariably referred to the committee; (2) the committee has repeatedly indicated in various ways, such as statements by the chairman and a contempt report adopted by vote fo the committee, that it is assessing whether to recommend articles of impeachment with respect to the president; (3) the House Rules Committee, in its report accompanying H. Res. 430, similarly explained that the committee was considering whether to recommend such articles of impeachment; and (4) the full House voted to adopt H. Res. 430, which confirms the committee’s investigatory authority with regard to the Mueller report and related matters and expressly authorizes it to continue its efforts to obtain information, including by filing an application for grand jury material pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. P. 6(e)(3)(E). This authorization by the House implicitly recognizes that the committee is seeking grand jury information for impeachment purposes since, as mentioned previously, there is no other basis upon which the committee could avail itself of this provision.
While there are no guarantees in litigation, in my view this is a pretty strong case. Given the language of the rule and the past flexible practice in the context of impeachment, the committee should prevail in its application. Whatever the outcome, though, it will be interesting to see how the Justice Department responds.
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..
Who is Roger Cramton, I hear you ask? He was the author of a 1972 memorandum cited in footnote 1 of the OLC’s 5-20-19 opinion on the testimonial immunity of former White House counsel Don McGahn. It is cited as “Memorandum for John W. Dean III, Counsel to the President, from Roger C. Cramton, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Counsel, Re: Availability of Executive Privilege Where Congressional Committee Seeks Testimony of Former White House Official on Advice Given President on Official Matters (Dec. 21, 1972) (Cramton Memorandum).
I have not located a copy of the Cramton Memorandum (if anyone has, please forward), but I did come across this March 23, 1973 New York Times piece (an op-ed, I assume) written by Mr. Cramton. It is entitled “Why Executive Privilege Won’t Kill You,” which, you have to admit, sets a pretty low bar. Cramton addresses the controversy over the Nixon administration’s refusal to allow high level advisers, such as Henry Kissinger, John Ehrlichman, H.R. Haldeman, Peter Flanigan and John W. Dean, to testify before Congress.
Cramton’s defense of this practice is entirely based on the premise that these witnesses will be asked about privileged matters relating to advice given to the president. He contended that “[p]residential adverser are not subject to interrogation any more than a law clerk can be asked about the factors or discussions that preceded a decision of his judge or legislative aide asked about conversations with his Congressman.” The president’s “official family” must be able to give him candid advice uninhibited by fear their views “will be subject to subsequent disclosure or second-guessing.”
I have three observations about Cramton ‘s position. First, it was obviously part of an effort to justify the Nixon administration’s refusal to cooperate with Congress’s Watergate investigation. Just a couple weeks after the New York Times piece, Chairman Sam Ervin held a press conference calling this position “executive poppycock” and saying “Divine right went out with the American Revolution and doesn’t belong to White House aides.” Karl Campbell, Senator Sam Ervin, Last of the Founding Fathers 285 (2007). Nixon backed down shortly thereafter and allowed his closest aides to testify. Id. at 285-86.
Second, Cramton’s public statement, at least, does not claim that White House aides have absolute immunity from appearing on Capitol Hill or testifying about non-privileged matters. In this it is consistent with public pronouncements of William Rehnquist and other executive branch lawyers. It does suggest that presidential communications are absolutely privileged, but this position was rejected by the Supreme Court a year later in United States v. Nixon.
Finally, it is odd that OLC today relies on Cramton’s position, given that it failed in every conceivable way. Top White House advisers such as Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Dean were forced to testify before Congress when President Nixon realized it was politically and legally unsustainable to refuse. The Supreme Court subsequently rejected the legal reasoning on which the refusal was based. And the entire effort was revealed to be part of a criminal conspiracy which resulted in Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Dean going to prison.
It seems odd, anyway.
Now we come to the crux of the matter, OLC’s claim that “Congress may not constitutionally compel the President’s senior advisers to testify about their official duties.” 5-20-19 OLC Opinion at 1. Specifically, OLC contends that Don McGahn, the former White House counsel, may not be compelled to testify before the House Judiciary Committee about matters described in the report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. See id. at 1-2. These include, for example, the question whether McGahn truthfully told the special counsel that President Trump directed him to fire the special counsel or whether McGahn lied about this, as Trump apparently now alleges. See Mueller Report, vol. II, at 84-87. For the reasons that follow, OLC (sometimes known as the Keeper of the Presidential Fig Leaf) is wrong.
Adam White, a keen legal observer who unaccountably agrees with OLC’s analysis, summarizes its reasoning as follows:
As OLC explained, the president’s core advisors are entitled to absolute immunity from compelled appearances before Congress; they are his alter egos, and just as Congress cannot force the president himself to testify before its committees, nor can Congress force his closest advisors to appear. Such compelled testimony would subjugate the president to Congress; it would significantly impair (if not destroy altogether) the president’s ability to receive candid advice from his closest advisors, and it would enable congressional committees to prevent the president’s advisors from actually doing their own work for the president.
In essence, OLC offers a syllogism (1) the president has absolute testimonial immunity; (2) his closest advisers are his “alter egos”; and hence (3) his advisers also have absolute immunity. As we have already seen, however, it is far from established that the president himself has absolute testimonial immunity. Moreover, there is nothing other than OLC’s say-so to support the proposition that White House aides should be considered the president’s “alter egos’ and, in any event, this assertion does little more than assume the conclusion. Saying that an aide is the president’s “alter ego” is simply another way of saying that the aide is entitled to the same immunity as the president. However, as Assistant Attorney General Rehnquist recognized in 1971, the (assumed) fact that the president enjoys an immunity “does not answer the question as to whether his immediate advisers are likewise exempt.” Rehnquist Memorandum at 3.
As it happens, since 1971 the Supreme Court has addressed this very question in a closely related context. In a 1982 opinion joined by Justice Rehnquist, the Court held that senior presidential advisers were not entitled to absolute immunity in civil actions arising out of their official activities, even though the Court held in a companion case that the president was entitled to such immunity. The Court did not dispute “the importance to the President of loyal and efficient subordinates in executing his duties of office,” but found this was simply not enough to justify extending absolute immunity to presidential aides. Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 808-09 (1982); see also Nixon v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 731 (1982) (holding the president is absolutely immune from civil suits arising from his official duties).
Harlow not only establishes that the president’s advisers may be sued for civil damages, but, as OLC tacitly concedes, it also demonstrates that they can be compelled to testify in judicial proceedings. It would make no sense to claim that White House aides were immune from giving testimony in civil damages actions in which they were the defendants and, in any event, in such cases they would be “compelled” to testify as a practical matter to defend their conduct. Furthermore, despite the numerous criminal investigations that have involved White House aides over the past decades (to name just a few that come to mind in addition to the Mueller probe, Watergate, Iran-Contra, Whitewater, the 1996 campaign fundraising scandal, and the Valerie Plame leak matter), as far as I know OLC has not contended that presidential advisers are immune from testifying in either grand jury proceedings or criminal prosecutions. Thus, there seems to be no serious contention that White House aides have any immunity from testifying in judicial proceedings.
Harlow would seem to be fatal to OLC’s argument. Leaving aside the difficulty of explaining why the Constitution would require that presidential advisers have immunity in congressional, but not judicial, proceedings, Harlow establishes that these advisers are not constitutionally entitled to an immunity simply because it is available to the president. This might seem like a self-evident point (it was to Rehnquist even while he still worked at OLC), but OLC’s syllogism doesn’t work once it is recognized. See Comm. on the Judiciary, U.S. House of Representatives, v. Miers, 558 F.Supp.2d 53, __ (D.D.C. 2008) (executive branch’s argument for presidential adviser immunity from compelled congressional testimony is “virtually foreclosed” by Harlow).
OLC tries to “distinguish” Harlow on the ground that congressional proceedings are fundamentally different than judicial proceedings. But this misses the main point. Harlow doesn’t preclude the possibility White House aides (or executive officials generally) will be treated differently than ordinary citizens in certain situations, but it does preclude the argument that they are entitled to special treatment just because the president is. Thus, even if we grant the proposition that the president is immune from compelled congressional testimony (which, unlike his immunity from civil actions, has not been approved by the Supreme Court or any other court), this is insufficient to establish that his aides are.
White says “[n]o court has ever held that all presidential advisors must testify when subpoenaed.” This is true in the sense that no court has ever held that all firefighters must testify when subpoenaed. But the Supreme Court has made clear that all citizens have a duty to comply with congressional subpoenas:
A subpoena has never been treated as an invitation to a game of hare and hounds, in which the witness must testify only if cornered at the end of the chase. If that were the case, then, indeed, the great power of testimonial compulsion, so necessary to the effective functioning of courts and legislatures, would be a nullity. We have often iterated the importance of this public duty, which every person within the jurisdiction of the Government is bound to perform when properly summoned.
United States v. Bryan, 339 U.S. 323, 331 (1950) (emphasis added) (upholding a contempt conviction for failure to comply with a congressional subpoena). The relevant fact, then, is that no court has ever held that presidential advisers have immunity from this “public duty,” and the only court (Judge Bates in the Miers case) to directly address the claimed immunity has roundly rejected it.
Indeed, no court has ever held that any class of citizens or officials is categorically immune from compelled congressional testimony. Witnesses can assert the Fifth Amendment in congressional proceedings, for example, but that does not excuse them from the duty of appearing to invoke the privilege in response to specific questions. Therefore, OLC carries a heavy burden to establish that senior presidential advisers are constitutionally distinct from ordinary citizens and other executive branch officials in such a way that they are entitled to this unique immunity. It must carry this burden, moreover, without the benefit of any supporting authority (other than its own prior memoranda) because, as Judge Bates points out, “[t]he Executive cannot identify a single judicial opinion that recognizes absolute immunity for senior presidential advisors in this or any other context.” Miers, 558 F.Supp.2d at __.
It is also noteworthy that despite the fact that OLC refers to “absolute immunity from compelled congressional testimony,” it acknowledges that this immunity does not extend to testimony regarding the adviser’s “private affairs.” 5-20-19 OLC Opinion at 4, 7. OLC does not elaborate on what it means by this exception (which it refers to simply by quoting an apparently unpublished 1974 memorandum by Assistant Attorney General Antonin Scalia). However, as we saw in an earlier post, in his 1971 congressional testimony, Rehnquist associated this exception with two instances (Donald Dawson in 1951 and Sherman Adams in 1958) in which senior White House officials were alleged to have misused their offices for personal gain. These are hardly “private affairs” as that term would ordinarily be understood. And regardless of what one calls it, OLC fails to explain why the Constitution permits compelled congressional testimony in this instance and not in other cases where a senior adviser has important and non-privileged information that Congress needs.
OLC’s Policy Rationales
As White notes, OLC offers three basic reasons why senior presidential aides must have testimonial immunity in congressional proceedings. Absent such immunity, OLC maintains, (1) the president would be “subjugated” to Congress; (2) the president’s ability to receive candid advice from his closest advisers would be impaired or destroyed; and (3) committees could interfere with the work that these advisers must perform for the president. Let’s take these in reverse order. Continue reading “OLC’s Fig Leaf Can’t Cover McGahn”