The Justice Department’s Inventive New Process for (Not) Responding to Congressional Questions

Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker was scheduled to appear before the House Committee on the Judiciary tomorrow. According to the latest communication by the Department of Justice, however, he may refuse to appear because the committee has authorized a subpoena for his testimony (even though the subpoena has not actually been served on him). [Update: it seems he will appear after all].

This unusual chain of events began in early January, when Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler invited Whitaker to testify before the committee at a general oversight hearing regarding the Department of Justice’s operations. Nadler identified a broad range of areas regarding which the committee would likely have questions. Some of these areas related specifically to the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller; others involved completely unrelated areas. The former included questions about Whitaker’s decision not to recuse himself from matters involving the investigation and the question of how the investigation is currently being supervised at the Department of Justice. In addition, Nadler notes “[w]e must discuss the impact of the President’s near-daily statements attacking the integrity of the Department of Justice, the FBI, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.”

After some back and forth over scheduling, Whitaker agreed to testify at a February 8 hearing. On January 22, Nadler sent him a follow-up letter listing a series of specific questions Whitaker could expect to be asked at the hearing. Some of these questions fell clearly within the subjects delineated in Nadler’s earlier letter; others were arguably beyond the scope. For example, some of the questions focused on discussions with President Trump about the investigation by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, something that was not specifically mentioned in Nadler’s first letter but is closely related the Special Counsel’s investigation as well as Trump’s general attacks on the Department of Justice.

In any event, Nadler explained that he was sending these questions because “your responses may implicate communications with the President of the United States.” Nadler directed Whitaker to “take any steps that may be necessary for the White House to consider these communications and for the President to determine whether he will invoke executive privilege.” Absent such a formal invocation of privilege by the president, Nadler stated “I will expect you to answer these questions fully and to the best of your knowledge.”

Earlier today, the committee held a business meeting for the purpose of authorizing a testimonial subpoena to Whitaker. According to Nadler, this was necessary “[i]n an abundance of caution to ensure Mr. Whitaker both appears in the hearing room on Friday morning and answers our questions cleanly . . . .”

As a legal matter, it is not clear why this step was deemed necessary. If Whitaker had simply failed to show up at the hearing after saying that he would (which seems unlikely), the committee would presumably have had to subpoena him for a future hearing, which could be easily done whether or not a subpoena had previously been authorized. On the other hand, if Whitaker showed up voluntarily, he would be under the same obligation to answer questions as he would have been under subpoena. See Sinclair v. United States, 279 U.S. 263, 291 (1929) (holding that the congressional contempt statute’s penalty for refusing to answer questions “plainly extends to a case where a person voluntarily appears as a witness without being summoned as well as to the case of one being required to attend.”).

In any event, the Department of Justice (through Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs Stephen E. Boyd) responded to the committee’s authorization of a subpoena by demanding a written assurance “that the Committee will not issue a subpoena to the Acting Attorney General on or before February 8, and that the Committee will engage in good faith negotiations with the Department before issuing a subpoena.”

The first part of this demand is simply the flip side of the committee’s position and is rather silly. If Whitaker shows up at the hearing, there is no reason for the committee to serve him with a subpoena. Conversely, there is no reason to demand that the committee not serve him with a subpoena if he shows up. It really does not matter.

The second part of the demand, however, is different. The Department is using the committee’s theatrical and unnecessary authorization of a subpoena as an opportunity to establish a new and (as far as I know) unprecedented position regarding the process for responding to congressional questions at a hearing. According to Boyd’s letter, the appropriate process for responding to questions that may implicate executive privilege is that first the committee must ask the questions at a hearing in which the witness appears voluntarily, then there must be a period of negotiation in which the parties attempt to resolve differences and, only then, if an accommodation cannot be reached, the committee may issue a subpoena and the president may choose to formally invoke executive privilege.

This is ridiculous. In support of this theory, Boyd quotes an opinion by the once (and presumably future) Attorney General, Bill Barr. But Barr’s opinion related to the process for producing documents, not oral testimony. Although there is nothing prohibiting a committee from issuing a document subpoena in the first instance, the ordinary process is to begin with a document request, have a period of negotiation and the proceed to a subpoena. Indeed, my proposed House rule would formalize that process and add deadlines to ensure that committees are able to get a final response (including a decision by the president whether or not to invoke executive privilege) within a timeframe that is useful for fulfilling their oversight functions.

The proposed rule does not address oral testimony, however, because there the process is different. A committee is free to ask witnesses any questions pertinent to a matter within the committee’s jurisdiction. If the witness declines to answer on grounds of executive privilege (or, more precisely, that the question is one on which the president might decide to invoke executive privilege), theoretically the committee could move immediately to hold the witness in contempt. There is no need to issue a subsequent subpoena because, as we have already seen, the witness is under a legal obligation to answer at the time the questions are asked. As a matter both of practice and practicality, however, the committee should give the witness an opportunity to consult with White House counsel and others to determine whether the president intends to formally invoke the privilege before moving forward with contempt.

The problem is that there is no deadline within which the president must make this decision. The executive branch can (and does) drag the process out indefinitely, often citing the layers of legal counsel that must be consulted before a decision is reached (agency counsel, if applicable, then the Office of Legal Counsel, then the Attorney General, then the White House counsel, etc.). If Congress proceeds with contempt in the meantime, the president can invoke executive privilege immediately before the final contempt vote or even thereafter. And there is little Congress can do about it.

By informing Whitaker of the specific questions before the hearing, Chairman Nadler is cleverly trying to speed up this process (in a manner analogous to my proposed rule on document subpoenas). Whitaker is clearly on notice as to the types of questions that will be asked and has had an opportunity to consult with others in the Department and the White House as to where to draw the lines. But it would not be advisable to press this too far. Until the hearing is actually held, there is no way to say for sure what questions will be asked, whether the committee will be satisfied with Whitaker’s answers to particular questions, what follow up questions might be asked, etc. So assuming that the president does not formally invoke executive privilege before the hearing, the committee should provide Whitaker with a limited but reasonable period of time to determine whether the privilege will be invoked. If the time period expires without any invocation, the committee will be in as strong a position as possible to move forward with contempt.

Of course, the committee still has the problem of how to enforce the contempt. But we will leave that problem for another day.

Congressional Subpoenas, Contempt, and Executive Privilege: Molly Reynolds and Stan Brand Discuss

There will undoubtedly be a lot of content appearing in the next few months about congressional subpoenas and how to enforce them, along with the related topics of contempt of Congress and executive privilege. Most of this will be review for the regular readers of this blog (you can click on the “congressional investigations,” “contempt of Congress” or “executive privilege” categories to see Point of Order’s prior posts on these topics), but you still might want to check out this podcast featuring Molly Reynolds of Brookings and former House General Counsel Stan Brand, which provides a good overview of the subject as well as some history of the House Counsel’s office (you can find out, for example, why Neil Gorsuch might not be the biggest fan of the congressional subpoena power).

As Stan explains, the biggest problem with congressional subpoenas is that there is no clearly established mechanism to enforce them against the executive branch. Civil contempt is the only currently usable method, but it faces a number of obstacles, the greatest of which is that it is somewhere between extremely difficult and impossible to get a resolution within the time frame of a two-year congress. This gives the Justice Department and its clients a strong incentive to delay as much as possible, knowing that by the time a court gets around to deciding the dispute, it is likely that the whole matter will be moot.

As it happens, I have proposed a reform to House rules designed to address this problem (you can read about it here). Thus far the House in its wisdom has not seen fit to adopt this proposal, but perhaps someone will bring it to the attention of the new House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.

Kavanaugh’s Missing Records

Yeah, I know. The transparency and separation of powers issues that everyone thought were so important with respect to the Kavanaugh nomination a week or so ago are now yesterday’s news. For that very reason, I am putting a longer piece on the Presidential Records Act and its application to the Kavanaugh hearing on the back burner. But I want to make a relatively brief point on the subject at this time.

With all the charges and countercharges relating to what documents were and were not produced from Kavanaugh’s prior government employment, it is easy to become confused as to what is actually at issue. In my view, the most important question has to do with the documents from Kavanaugh’s service at the White House counsel’s office that were withheld from the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Under the PRA, all of Kavanaugh’s documents from his service in the GW Bush White House are in the custody of the Archivist of the United States (and his agency the National Archives and Records Administration or NARA). At the outset, the committee majority and minority disagreed whether to request that NARA produce Kavanaugh’s documents from both his service as an attorney in the White House counsel’s office and later as President Bush’s staff secretary. Chairman Grassley decided that the former employment was far more relevant to Kavanaugh’s nomination and that requesting the latter would unreasonably delay the process. Accordingly, the committee requested that NARA produce only the White House counsel documents. While people may disagree with Grassley on this, the decision was one for him to make (and, for what it’s worth, seems reasonable to me).

The problem arises from the fact that the committee did not receive all of Kavanaugh’s White House counsel documents. Instead, some 27,110 documents (amounting to 101,921 pages) were withheld entirely from the committee on grounds of constitutional privilege. Other documents were withheld for other reasons (e.g., lack of responsiveness) and some documents were produced to the committee on a confidential basis, but it is the roughly 100,000 pages of material withheld as constitutionally privileged that present by far the most important issue, both in terms of compliance with constitutional and legal requirements and from the perspective of obtaining the information most relevant to Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

For purposes of discussion, we will assume that all of the documents in question were plausibly within the scope of constitutional privilege (or, as it is more commonly called, executive privilege). It should be understood that the word “plausibly” is doing a lot of work here. The scope of executive privilege is a highly contested matter, and executive branch lawyers (not surprisingly) tend to take a broader view than others. Moreover, as anyone who has had to review documents for privilege can attest, applying even an agreed-upon standard to particular documents is often more of an art than a science. So if one starts with a broad view of executive privilege and errs on the side of withholding anything that might arguably fall within that broad scope, one can “plausibly” withhold quite a bit of material. Indeed, one might be able to withhold nearly everything from Kavanaugh’s records that would be of actual relevance to assessing his performance as a White House lawyer.

So what exactly was withheld from the committee? According to a letter from a private law firm retained by former President Bush, the “most significant portion of these documents reflect deliberations and candid advice concerning the selection and nomination of judicial candidates, the confidentiality of which is critical to any President’s ability to carry out this core constitutional executive function.” One can certainly understand why the executive branch might be reluctant to share these files with Congress. Presumably they would contain candid discussion, including negative information and opinions, regarding actual and potential judicial nominees. To give one hypothetical but realistic example, there could be a file on a candidate who was not nominated because of alleged misconduct that may or may not have occurred in the distant past. The potential leak of such information might undercut the ability of future presidents to find qualified judicial candidates and to obtain information and candid advice regarding the exercise of the nomination power.

Of course, it is possible that the nomination files would have information that would be in some way relevant to Kavanaugh’s confirmation. They might show something about his judgment, about what qualities he thinks are important in a judge, or about his inclinations with regard to judicial philosophy. Nonetheless, I can see a strong argument that the relevance of this information is outweighed by the potential harm to the president’s nominating power and collateral damage to the judicial branch. (Needless to say, nothing in the events of the past week has inspired confidence in the ability of Congress to avoid such consequences). Thus, the withholding of judicial nomination files seems relatively defensible.

Less so is the withholding of the remaining documents at issue, which include “advice submitted directly to President Bush; substantive communications between White House staff about communications with President Bush; and substantive, deliberative discussions relating to or about executive orders or legislation considered by the Executive Office of the President.” These categories seem broad enough to encompass all of Kavanaugh’s work that would be of the most interest, including the subjects I discussed in my last post.

Let’s take one of those subjects as an example. As I mentioned previously, Kavanaugh was intimately involved in a controversial Bush executive order regarding the procedures for complying with the requirements of the PRA. (Yes, it is ironic, as Amy Howe notes, that we are discussing the use of the PRA to obtain access to documents involving legal work on the interpretation of the PRA). The documents produced to the committee confirm Kavanaugh’s deep involvement in the subject; Howe notes “another White House lawyer jokingly referring to him as ‘Mr. Presidential Records.’” Thus, there are hundreds if not thousands of pages of printouts of public or external materials related to the PRA (legal opinions, law review articles, court pleadings, congressional testimony and correspondence, etc.).

What is missing, as far as I can tell, is any evidence of Kavanaugh’s legal analysis, his participation in drafting and promulgating the executive order, or his role in deciding how to respond to criticism of the executive order by Congress and others. To illustrate the point, take a look at a printout of an August 15, 2001 email from Kavanaugh to White House counsel Alberto Gonzales. The subject is “New draft Presidential Records EO.” The brief email states: “The plan is to get this into the OMB process by the end of the week. Note new Section 5, which both is accurate and should deflect criticism.” And a handwritten note on the printout, apparently from Gonzales, instructs Kavanaugh to “prepare a cover memo . . . explaining what this is and the need—as well as possible negative repercussions.”

Although this non-substantive email was produced to the committee, the attached draft executive order was not, nor was the memo that Kavanaugh presumably prepared in response to Gonzales’s instruction.  Among other things, there is no way to tell how Kavanaugh initially drafted the executive order (if he did), what legal analysis or policy thinking underlay that draft or subsequent revisions, what the problem was with the troublesome Section 5 or how it was fixed, or what Kavanaugh’s memo identified as the need for the new executive order or the “possible negative repercussions.” All of the documents that would provide insight into Kavanaugh’s actual work on this matter appear to have been withheld.

Again, we can concede that internal deliberations related to the executive order were plausibly within the scope of executive privilege at the time they occurred (2001-03). It should be noted, however, that at least 15 years have elapsed since these deliberations took place, and the Supreme Court has recognized that executive privilege is “subject to erosion over time after an administration leaves office.” Nixon v. Administrator of General Services, 433 U.S. 425, 451 (1977). In contrast to the judicial nomination files, it is difficult to identify any particularized harm that might occur from making these materials public, still less from making them available to the committee on a confidential basis.

Even more important than the question of whether these documents could be properly withheld on grounds of executive privilege is whether the decision was made in a legally authorized manner. Because there is a wide range of views on when executive privilege can or should be asserted, it is essential that the decision to assert the privilege be made in a proper and accountable manner. As recognized by the PRA, the primary interest in asserting executive privilege in presidential records, particularly with respect to matters that do not involve classified information or state secrets, belongs to the former president from whose administration they originate. See Hearings Regarding Executive Order 13233 and the Presidential Records Act Before the House Subcomm. on Gov’t Efficiency, Financial Mgt. & Intergovernmental Relations of the Comm. on Government Reform 24 (Nov. 6, 2001) (testimony of Acting Asst. Atty. Gen. Edward Whelan) (“In short, in enacting the PRA, Congress envisioned a balancing act—an orderly process for making presidential records ‘available to the public as rapidly and completely as possible,’ while preserving opportunities former Presidents, at least, to assert constitutionally based privileges as grounds for withholding documents from mandatory disclosure.”) (citations omitted). Even where the privilege constitutionally may be asserted, moreover, there is nothing in the Constitution requiring that it must be asserted. Id. at 29.

Here President Bush did not assert executive privilege. Instead, Bush’s lawyers have informed the committee that they have withheld documents on grounds of executive privilege because “the White House, after consultation with the Department of Justice, has directed that we not provide these documents.” NARA, while still at an early stage in terms of reviewing Kavanaugh’s documents, has informed the committee that certain records are being withheld based on the determination by “representatives of the former and incumbent Presidents” that the documents concern “internal assessments about the qualifications of a judicial candidate, the confidentiality of which is critical to the process of advising the President regarding potential nominations.” This is clearly not a claim that President Bush has asserted executive privilege.

To be sure, Executive Order 13489, the executive order currently governing presidential records (which replaced the Bush executive order previously discussed), provides for the possibility that the incumbent president may assert executive privilege with respect to the records of a former president even where the latter has declined to do so. However, section 3(c) of E.O. 13489 provides specific procedures under which the issue must be presented to the incumbent president by the White House counsel and Attorney General, and section 3(d) requires that the president’s decision to assert executive privilege be specifically documented by the White House counsel. No one has suggested that the issue has been presented to President Trump or that he has made any such decision, nor has the required documentation been generated. Thus, it seems clear that no proper assertion of executive privilege has been made pursuant to the PRA or E.O. 13489. See also 44 U.S.C. §2208(b)(1) (“For purposes of this section, the decision to assert any claim of constitutionally based privilege against disclosure of a Presidential record (or reasonably segregable part of a record) must be made personally by a former President or the incumbent President, as applicable.”).

In short, the decision to withhold more than 100,000 pages of White House counsel records from the Senate Judiciary Committee on grounds of executive privilege is substantively questionable with regard to those documents other than judicial nomination files, and the entire withholding appears to be procedurally improper under the PRA and E.O. 13489. Apart from legal infirmities, moreover, the broad withholding of these documents appears to have defeated the purpose of the committee’s request by depriving it of any information that would provide a significant insight with regard to how Kavanaugh performed his duties as a White House lawyer.

 

Of Special Counsels and Congressional Investigations: Questions for Judge Kavanaugh

Note: click here to access full piece.

As you may have heard, President Trump has nominated Brett Kavanaugh, currently a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court. There has been a good deal of discussion about how a Justice Kavanaugh might approach issues of executive power, and in particular how he might rule on certain (at this point hypothetical) questions arising from the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

I would like to propose a different line of questioning for Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, one that is not designed to score points for the pro-confirmation or anti-confirmation teams, but instead to illuminate the legal/constitutional framework within which allegations of presidential misconduct must be addressed. The jumping-off point for this discussion is Kavanaugh’s repeatedly expressed preference for congressional, rather than criminal, investigation of presidential misconduct. As we will see, this preference is not (or at least should not be) controversial, but it is in some tension with Kavanaugh’s efforts to hinder congressional oversight during his time as associate White House counsel.

Some background on Kavanaugh’s career: after graduating from Yale Law School in 1990, he spent several years clerking, culminating in a clerkship for Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose seat he has been nominated to fill. Kavanaugh went on to work for Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel appointed to investigate the Whitewater and Lewinsky matters. After a brief stint at Kirkland & Ellis, he joined the new George W. Bush administration, spending the first couple of years in the White House counsel’s office and then becoming the president’s staff secretary. President Bush appointed Kavanaugh to the D.C. Circuit in 2006.

Along the way, Kavanaugh authored three works relevant to our discussion today (there may be more, but I haven’t read them). Two are law review articles that have garnered a lot of attention. The third is Kavanaugh’s 2013 opinion in In re Aiken County, which I have mentioned previously but which has escaped widespread notice until recently.

The full piece is too long for a blog post but it may be accessed here. To sum up briefly, these are the three most important points I would aim to establish during Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing:

1.  According to Kavanaugh, Congress is or should be the sole entity to determine whether the conduct of a sitting president warrants a sanction. The special counsel should not (or perhaps constitutionally may not) indict or prosecute a sitting president. (I think Kavanaugh is right about this, but it is important that Congress and the general public understand this view).

2.  Congress must have investigatory powers as strong as (or stronger than) those of the special counsel, at least when it is investigating presidential misconduct. Kavanaugh has recognized that a special counsel has a right of broad access to executive branch information, and he should do the same for Congress. Whether or not Kavanaugh accepts this proposition (or will speak to it at all), it seems to me a logical corollary of the first point. Otherwise we would be in a “catch 22” situation where only Congress can judge the conduct of a president but only the special counsel has access to the information needed to make that judgment.

3.  During his time at the White House counsel’s office, Kavanaugh was a key architect/defender of legal positions allowing the Bush administration to withhold information from Congress, including with respect to several congressional investigations involving serious and credible allegations of executive branch wrongdoing (the campaign finance, Boston FBI and Clinton pardon investigations). Kavanaugh should be pressed to explain the apparent inconsistency between those positions and points 1 and 2 above by, for example, acknowledging that the Bush administration positions were ill-considered and/or distinguishing them on the grounds that they are inapplicable to an investigation of a sitting president.

Wright on Executive Privilege with Some Additional Thoughts Hazarded by Stern

Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist in the Trump White House, has refused to answer questions from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) regarding his time in the White House and on the presidential transition team. Bannon claims these subjects may implicate executive privilege and is deferring to the White House counsel’s office as to whether the privilege will be invoked.

I was going to post some comments on this issue, but almost everything I was going to say is admirably covered by Professor Andy Wright here. Wright’s key points are (1) Bannon’s status as a former government official is irrelevant to the legal merits of the privilege claim, though it could impact how the matter is resolved procedurally (more on that in a minute); (2) the privilege belongs to the president, not to the subordinate official; (3) it is thus appropriate to provide the president, with the advice of White House counsel and other executive branch lawyers, an opportunity to decide whether to invoke the privilege formally; (4) if negotiations do not resolve the issue, HPSCI must move forward with a formal contempt process; (5) while it may ultimately be decided that executive privilege does not attach to presidential transitions, the question at this point is an open one; and (6) even if the privilege does apply, HPSCI will still have strong arguments in favor of requiring Bannon to answer some or all of its questions.

One point of qualification. While I agree with Wright that issues of executive privilege have to be decided on a question-by-question basis, the burden is not on Bannon to make sure that specific questions get asked. In other words, if Bannon issued a “blanket refusal [to answer] about all swaths of time during his transition and White House roles,” as Wright indicates, it is still incumbent on HPSCI to make a record of the specific questions it wants answered. Failure to do so could undermine its legal position or delay resolution of the merits should the dispute reach the courts.

This brings us to the procedure HPSCI should employ to resolve this matter. As Wright notes, there are three avenues available (criminal contempt, civil litigation and inherent contempt). Each has its drawbacks and none is guaranteed to work (or work in a timely fashion) even if one assumes HPSCI would win the executive privilege issue on the merits.

As we discussed in connection with the Comey matter, however, the procedure followed with regard to a former official might differ from the norm. If Bannon takes the position that he will abide by HPSCI’s rulings on executive privilege unless otherwise directed by a federal court, the burden would be on the executive branch to bring a civil action and obtain a speedy order (presumably a TRO) directing Bannon not to testify.

On the other hand, Bannon might say that he will abide by the president’s instructions even if it means being held in contempt by HPSCI and the House. If so, the House could consider employing the rarest form of testimonial compulsion, inherent contempt. In this procedure, Bannon would be arrested by the Sergeant at Arms and brought before the bar of the House. If he continues to refuse to testify, the House could remand him into the custody of the Sergeant at Arms until he changes his mind (or convinces a court to release him on a habeas petition). This is a drastic remedy, which has not been employed by the House in about a century. But if the House is serious about reasserting its institutional prerogatives, there could hardly be a more inviting target than Mr. Bannon.

Anyway, there is something about incarcerating Bannon in the basement of the Capitol that seems like where 2018 is going, don’t you think?

P.S. RIP Geoffrey Hazard.

 

 

Harriet Miers and Assertions of Executive Privilege for Former Officials

Several months ago we discussed whether the president could assert executive privilege to prevent a former official (in that case, former FBI Director Jim Comey) from providing information to Congress, even if the former official wanted to disclose the information. Eric Columbus, a lawyer who had served in the Obama Justice Department, argued that the answer is no. The core of his argument was that there was no legal mechanism to prevent a former official from voluntarily disclosing privileged information to Congress or to anyone else.

In response to Columbus, I noted that executive privilege belongs to the president, not to subordinate officials, and “it is hard to see why the availability of the privilege should turn on the subordinate’s preferences.” The issue I saw was procedural. If the former official declines to obey the president’s instruction to assert executive privilege, and the congressional committee declines to allow the administration to raise its objections directly, the burden would be on the administration to bring a lawsuit to restrain the former official from testifying. An analogous suit was brought by the executive branch to prevent AT&T from complying with a congressional subpoena in the 1970s. See United States v. AT&T, 567 F.2d 121 (D.C. Cir. 1977).

In a subsequent article, Columbus acknowledged the possibility of the executive bringing such an action, but argued that it “would almost surely be laughed out of court.” He contended that “[a] court could not enjoin Comey from testifying unless it could fathom a rationale that would also bar Comey from revealing the same information by writing a book, going on the Sunday shows, taking to Twitter or chatting at his local bagel shop.” The premise of Columbus’s argument was that because Comey was eager to provide information to Congress and/or the general public, there was no way for a court (or anyone else) to stop him. Columbus distinguished Comey’s situation from that of a “reluctant” former official, who does not “really” want to testify or provide the information demanded by Congress.

In going through some files the other day, I came across materials related to Harriet Miers, who served as White House counsel in the Bush administration and who is Columbus’s example of a “reluctant” former official subpoenaed by Congress. Contrary to Columbus, it seems to me that the Miers case is basically on all fours with the Comey situation, and I will take this opportunity to explain why. (It also enables me to clean out some old files, so yah!)

About 10 years ago the House Judiciary Committee, then chaired by Representative John Conyers (D-Mich.), conducted an investigation of the Bush administration’s firing of certain U.S. attorneys. In the course of this investigation, the committee issued subpoenas for documents and testimony to several current or former White House officials, including Miers.

Continue reading “Harriet Miers and Assertions of Executive Privilege for Former Officials”

Comey’s Choice: Congress or the Press

Former FBI Director Jim Comey’s decision to “leak” (a word which itself has generated controversy in this connection) the contents of his memos of conversations with President Donald Trump to the New York Times has led to much pontificating, but indulge me while I engage in a little more. My interest focuses on the question of why Comey chose to make his revelations first to the media, rather than to Congress.

Much of the commentary seems designed to attack Comey’s credibility by demonstrating that the disclosure to the Times was illegal or improper or, conversely, to bolster his credibility and undermine his critics by arguing the opposite. But the legal and ethical questions surrounding the “leak” (last time in quotes, I promise) are sufficiently murky that their relevance to the believability of Comey’s underlying testimony (particularly if that testimony is supported by contemporaneous memoranda) seems somewhat tangential. Frankly, under the circumstances I can understand how Comey would have been sorely tempted to bend the rules regarding disclosure if that were the only way to get his side of the story out.

Put yourself in Comey’s shoes. It is May 9, 2017, and you have just received a letter from President Trump, along with two enclosures, a letter from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and a memorandum from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. The Rosenstein memo explains that you made “serious mistakes” in your handling of Secretary Hillary Clinton’s emails, as a result of which “the FBI’s reputation and credibility have suffered substantial damage” and “the entire Department of Justice” has been affected. The memo, while not quite explicitly recommending you be fired, concludes by saying “the FBI is unlikely to regain public and congressional trust until it has a Director who understands the gravity of the mistakes and pledges never to repeat them.”

The one paragraph letter from Attorney General Sessions to President Trump recommends that Trump remove you as FBI director. Sessions explains that “[b]ased on my evaluation, and for the reasons expressed by the Deputy Attorney General in the attached memorandum, I have concluded that a fresh start is needed at the leadership of the FBI.”

Last but not least, Trump’s own letter informs you that he is accepting the “recommendation” of the attorney general and deputy attorney general, and “you are hereby terminated and removed from office, effective immediately.” The president goes on to elaborate (graciously, he no doubt thinks): “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.”

For purposes of discussion, we will assume you are well aware that many, many people have criticized your handling of the Clinton email investigation, and not a few of those have urged you be removed as FBI director. But you believe that this is not at all why Trump decided to fire you. And you have the evidence to prove it, in the form of contemporaneous memoranda recording a series of meetings and telephone discussions with the president over the past 5 months. These documents show (at least in your view) that Trump fired you because of your handling of the Russia investigation, including the failure to show adequate personal loyalty to Trump in the conduct of that investigation, the failure to “let go” of an inquiry into certain activities of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and your unwillingness or inability to “lift the cloud” which the Russian investigation had cast over the Trump administration.

I think you can understand that anyone in this situation would feel impelled to come forward and bring these memos to the attention of the public and the proper authorities. What I find more difficult to explain is why Comey thought it necessary to have a friend anonymously leak the story to the New York Times, when he could have simply informed the relevant congressional committees, including the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, that he was in possession of the memos and prepared to testify about their contents.

There are situations where press coverage is needed to attract public and congressional attention to a particular issue, but this was certainly not one of those. Even Michael Schmidt, the New York Times reporter who first wrote about the Comey memos, acknowledged as much on the day Comey was to testify before SSCI:

Q. Has Comey been called to testify in front of the Senate today because of your reporting?

Schmidt. It was certainly a catalyst, but Comey was going to have to go up there at some point and they were going to want to hear from him.

N.Y. Times Podcast, The Daily, 6-8-17 at 9:08.

With this background, let’s look at the legal and ethical issues raised by Comey’s leak to the Times.

Continue reading “Comey’s Choice: Congress or the Press”

Comey and Executive Privilege (with Update)

[See Update below]

Former FBI Director Jim Comey is scheduled to testify before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) next week. He is expected to be asked questions about certain subjects, including his personal conversations with the president, that might be the subject of executive privilege claims. However, because Comey is testifying voluntarily and presumably would like to share this information with the committee, the question arises whether there is any effective method for the administration to stop him from answering questions it believes to be invasive of executive privilege.

In a Twitter thread, Eric Columbus, a former lawyer in the Obama administration, argues that the answer is no. He contends that the privilege only protects a witness from being compelled to provide information. It does not apply, he suggests, to the voluntary testimony of a former government official, just as it does not prevent former officials from writing books or giving interviews in which they discuss conversations with the president or other communications that might fall within the scope of executive privilege. As Columbus puts it, “I know of no precedent for blocking a FORMER official who WANTS to testify.” (all caps in original; its Twitter after all).

To the extent Columbus is suggesting that the applicability of executive privilege turns on whether the former official wants to testify, this seems wrong. The privilege belongs to the president, not to the subordinate official, and it is hard to see why the availability of the privilege should turn on the subordinate’s preferences.

Columbus makes an interesting point about the fact that former officials often write books or make other public disclosures about matters that could be covered by executive privilege. It could be that executive privilege, having developed as an evidentiary doctrine in formal proceedings, simply does not apply to such situations or, alternatively, that it does apply but there is no method of enforcing it. Broad gag orders against former executive branch officials (e.g, requiring them to get preclearance before speaking about their time in office, or threatening sanctions if they make public disclosures that in the judgment of the president or his lawyers violate executive privilege) would raise some tricky First Amendment issues, which we have discussed in the context of analogous prohibitions on congressional staffers. But these issues do not have much bearing on Comey’s testimony in a formal congressional proceeding.

The real problem here is procedural. Assuming for the sake of argument that the president has a valid or at least plausible executive privilege objection, how can that objection be raised in this situation?

The most straightforward answer would be for the executive branch to communicate to Comey (presumably through a lawyer who would attend the hearing) which questions it believes intrude upon executive privilege. Comey would then inform the committee of this objection, and it would then be up to the chairman to decide how to proceed. Comey might refuse to play this role, but I doubt he would do so. It is in his interest to remain above the fray to the extent possible, and to let the real parties in interest (the committee and the executive branch) battle it out.

Even if Comey declines to cooperate, the committee would probably allow the executive branch to raise its objections directly (presumably by having its lawyer stand up and object on a question by question basis). This would be a highly unusual procedure, and it might be contended that the committee’s rules do not permit it. SSCI Rule 8.6 provides that “[a]ny objection raised by a witness or counsel shall be ruled upon by the Chairman or other presiding member, and such ruling shall be the ruling of the Committee unless a majority of the Committee present overrules the ruling of the chair.” The “counsel” referred to here is counsel for the witness, and in this case the government counsel would not be appearing in that capacity. I suspect, though, that SSCI would make an allowance for this unusual situation.

Assuming the executive branch has the opportunity to raise the objection, it is up to the chairman to rule on the objection in the first instance. I imagine there could be some dispute as to whether Rule 8.6 requires the chair to rule immediately or permits him to take the matter under advisement, but let’s assume eventually there is a final ruling from the chair/committee. At that point I expect that Comey would comply with the ruling, as he is under no obligation to risk being held in contempt. This procedure would therefore leave the resolution of the issue ultimately in the control of the committee.

The administration’s only alternative would seem to be to bring an action in federal court against Comey (the Speech or Debate Clause prohibits it from suing the committee). The suit would ask for declaratory and injunctive relief prohibiting Comey from testifying on certain subjects or providing certain information to Congress. The executive branch used this method in the 1970s in an attempt to prevent AT&T from complying with a congressional subpoena. See United States v. AT&T, 567 F.2d 121 (D.C. Cir. 1977). Although that case involved national security information, there is no reason in principle why the same method could not be used to resolve a different type of executive privilege issue. Whether the Trump administration wants to take the political heat from bringing such a suit, or whether it is confident that its legal position would ultimately be vindicated in court, are different questions.

UPDATE:

In a follow up exchange on Twitter, Columbus expresses doubt that a court could grant a remedy to the executive branch under the circumstances here. His argument is that the court could not enjoin Comey from discussing the same matters outside of Congress (e.g., it couldn’t stop him from going on the Sunday talk shows to discuss his conversations with the president) so logically it could not enjoin him from talking to Congress either. Essentially he is arguing that because the court cannot grant effective relief, it should dismiss the executive branch’s (hypothetical) lawsuit against Comey for lack of standing.

I agree that a court might accept this argument, but I don’t think it is a slam dunk. To begin with, it assumes that a court would take as a given that a former executive official cannot be enjoined from publicly disclosing confidential (but non-classified) presidential communications contrary to POTUS’s instructions. As far as I know, no such case has been brought, much less decided. While I tend to agree with Columbus that there would be serious problems with such a suit (including First Amendment prior restraint issues), the matter is not so clear that a court would necessarily want to predicate its decision in our hypothetical suit on a prediction about the outcome of this different and more novel case.

Moreover, even if we assume Comey could not be enjoined from disclosing presidential communications outside Congress, it does not follow that such disclosures would be legal or proper. Nor is it guaranteed they would be without consequence. For example, a former official might find his security clearance in jeopardy or face a bar complaint (if, like Comey, he is a lawyer). These potential consequences make it less likely a court can simply assume that Comey (or any former official) would be free to divulge presidential communications in a public setting.

Finally, a court’s view of this issue may very well depend on the position Comey himself takes in our (hypothetical) litigation. As a long time executive branch lawyer, Comey would probably be reluctant to suggest it is generally appropriate for former officials to divulge confidential presidential communications. Such a stance would be at least in tension with the executive branch’s approach to executive privilege, and it might have ramifications for the ability of future presidents to have candid discussions with their FBI directors. I am also not sure Comey would want to open himself up to questioning generally about his discussions with Presidents Trump, Obama or Bush. So I would guess he would be cautious about asserting any general right (much less intent) to make public disclosures about these matters.

I would note that in the course of my exchange with Columbus, a number of tweeters chirped in with comments along the lines of: “If Comey can’t testify before Congress, why wouldn’t he just go on Rachel Maddow or some other cable show and spill the beans there? That’s what I would do!”

The short answer to this is: “Because he’s Comey, not you.” The somewhat longer answer is that I don’t know what Comey might do, but I think he has a number of personal and institutional incentives, alluded to above, not to do that.

In any event, I agree with Columbus that there is a risk that the hypothetical lawsuit against Comey could be dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, but I don’t assess this risk as being as high as he does. If I were advising the president, I would be more concerned with the political cost of bringing such a lawsuit in the first place, as well as the distinct possibility that the executive branch could lose on the merits.

Based on the latest news, though, it sounds like the administration is backing away from asserting executive privilege at all with respect to Comey’s testimony before SSCI.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fast and Furious Decision: Can Congress Make Lemonade Out of Lemons?

The Court’s Decision

Judge Amy Berman Jackson recently issued her decision in the subpoena enforcement action brought by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (COGR) against the Attorney General. The case arose out of an October 11, 2011 subpoena from COGR to then-Attorney General Holder seeking documents in the “Fast and Furious” investigation. Holder refused to produce certain responsive documents on the ground that they were protected by the deliberative process privilege.

On June 19, 2012, the day before COGR was to vote on a resolution holding him in contempt, Holder asked President Obama to assert executive privilege with regard to the disputed documents. The next day Deputy Attorney General Cole informed COGR that Obama had done so. COGR and the House then proceeded to find Holder in contempt, and COGR was authorized to bring a civil enforcement action in federal court.

Continue reading “The Fast and Furious Decision: Can Congress Make Lemonade Out of Lemons?”

If the Washington Administration Had an Office of Legal Counsel . . .

To:  Edmund Randolph, Attorney General of the United States

From:  Paul Colborn (J.D. expected May 1793), Office of Legal Counsel

Date: April 1, 1792

Re: Assertion of executive privilege in response to congressional requests for information

In preparation for tomorrow’s cabinet meeting, you have requested the opinion of this office on a matter of some delicacy. On March 27, the House of Representatives appointed a special committee to conduct an investigation of recent military operations initiated by Major General Arthur St. Clair, the governor of the Northwest Territory. As this represents the first time the House has authorized an investigation of this sort, our response will set an important precedent.

To briefly review the relevant facts, for the past several years the United States has been engaged in both diplomatic negotiations and military conflict with Indian nations in the Northwest Territory. Pursuant to orders from President Washington, in 1790 St. Clair sent General Josiah Harmar to lead a punitive expedition against the more recalcitrant elements of the indigenous population. This effort did not go well. Harmar lost about 200 men in battle and did not achieve his objective.

Last year St. Clair personally led another offensive against the Miami Indians in the Ohio region. The results were even worse. On November 4, 1791, St. Clair’s army was surrounded and completely destroyed by Indian forces. In a letter to the Secretary of War, St. Clair described this “as unfortunate an action as almost any that has been fought.” 3 Annals of Congress 1055. St. Clair is now considering an early retirement.

The House has empowered its committee “to call for such persons, papers and records, as may be necessary to assist their inquiries.” 3 Annals of Congress 493. Pursuant to this authority, the committee has made a broad request to the President for documents that might shed light on the causes of St. Clair’s defeat. We view this as a “fishing expedition” for politically explosive or embarrassing information that might gain the committee members some attention in the press.

The President has asked his cabinet for advice on how to respond to the committee request. Specifically, he wishes to know whether the House has the constitutional authority to seek the information requested and whether he may or should withhold any of the responsive documents.

We accept that the House is an inquest and is entitled to request documents and other information from the executive branch. See generally Mort Rosenberg, Congressional Oversight Manual (1st ed. 1791). However, this principle must be limited by a doctrine we have termed “executive privilege,” which subsumes the privileges set forth below: Continue reading “If the Washington Administration Had an Office of Legal Counsel . . .”