I have a piece up at Lawfare on former President Trump’s lawsuit to stop the National Archives from releasing his presidential records to the House committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
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.
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.
In preparation for the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, the Senate Judiciary Committee has requested that the National Archivist produce records of Kagan’s service in the Clinton White House, where she served first as Associate White House Counsel and then as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy. It appears that the documents related to her domestic policy position have been largely, if not entirely, released, but those relating to her service as counsel are still being reviewed.
These records are subject to the Presidential Records Act, 44 U.S.C. § 2201, et seq., which provides that the records of an outgoing administration belong to the public and are to be transferred to the National Archives for preservation and processing. After a specified period (up to 12 years depending on the type of record), the public may seek access to these records under the Freedom of Information Act.
Congressional committees are not subject to either the PRA’s time restrictions or to FOIA’s limitations on public access. Nevertheless, the PRA recognizes that congressional requests for presidential records may be subject to claims of privilege. 44 U.S.C. § 2205(2).
In 2001, President Bush issued an executive order on presidential records which was widely criticized for, among other things, broadly interpreting the rights of both the incumbent and former President to prevent the disclosure of presidential records to Congress. Bush’s order (1) allowed the former President a 21-day period to review records requested by a congressional committee and decide whether to assert a privilege, (2) gave the incumbent President a sequential 21-day period to make his own decision with regard to privilege, (3) permitted either to extend these periods indefinitely for “burdensome” requests, and (4) prohibited the National Archivist from disclosing the records unless both the former and incumbent Presidents agreed to do so.
President Obama, in one of his first official actions, revoked the Bush executive order and replaced it with a new executive order on presidential records. The Obama order more closely tracks the National Archives regulations than did the Bush order. Under the revised procedure, the Archivist is responsible for initially determining if records will be disclosed, whether in response to a congressional request or otherwise; the Archivist then provides the former and incumbent Presidents with a notice period (normally 30 days) during which either may invoke executive privilege. However, the Archivist is only bound to follow the privilege decision of the current President; he may choose, unless otherwise instructed by the current President or his designee, not to honor a privilege invocation by the former President. He must, however, provide the former President notice of this decision, thereby permitting the former President to seek judicial relief.
White House Counsel Bob Bauer has informed Senator Jeff Sessions, Ranking Member on Senate Judiciary, that “President Obama does not intend to assert executive privilege over any of the documents requested by the Committee.” However, Bauer notes that the documents are being reviewed by a representative of President Clinton, and he leaves open the possibility that Clinton may assert a privilege with respect to some of the documents. In that event, Bauer states that the administration would first try to reach a “mutually satisfactory accommodation” with the Committee and Clinton. He doesn’t say what would happen if an accommodation cannot be reached, but, under the regulations and executive order, the Obama administration could decide to accept or reject Clinton’s claim, or it could leave the decision up to the Archivist.
If Clinton decides to invoke executive privilege for documents related to Kagan’s service as White House counsel, it will likely raise a number of unsettled issues. Bush’s executive order, for example, claimed that executive privilege covers “legal advice or legal work,” but many in Congress hotly disputed this claim, arguing that common-law privileges such as attorney-client privilege are not part of the constitutionally-based executive privilege. Moreover, as a former President, Clinton’s ability to claim privilege is subject to further uncertainty as the executive privilege tends to erode over time.