Could the President assert executive privilege to block Comey’s Senate testimony?

Now that James Comey is slated to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee next week, there has been some speculation as to whether President Trump will try to block Comey’s testimony with an assertion of executive privilege.  To be precise, such an assertion would only apply to testimony involving presidential communications; it would not cover any and all aspects of Comey’s testimony about his work as FBI director, so “blocking” is not entirely accurate.  Though I believe in a robust executive privilege where appropriate, I am skeptical of the use of executive privilege under these circumstances.  Still, I think it is fair to say that we are entering (mostly) uncharted waters next week.

The leading case on executive privilege is United States v. Nixon.  Although it recognized the constitutional dimensions of executive privilege, the Court ultimately found that the privilege is not absolute and rejected President Nixon’s assertion of the privilege.  This, of course, set the stage for Nixon’s resignation, after the House Judiciary Committee had adopted articles of impeachment.  The reasons for the Court’s ultimate decision are instructive.  According to the unanimous opinion by Chief Justice Burger, “when the privilege depends solely on the broad, undifferentiated claim of public interest in the confidentiality of such conversations, a confrontation with other values arises.”  The Court then stated, “[a]bsent a claim of need to protect military, diplomatic, or sensitive national security secrets, we find it difficult to accept the argument that even the very important interest in the confidentiality of Presidential communications is significantly diminished” by requiring in camera review by a federal district court.

Much of the Nixon case proceeds from there to explain why a generalized assertion of presidential confidentiality should yield to the demands of justice in a criminal investigation.  The privilege is rooted in the separation of powers and should ordinarily be accorded deference, but, again, is not absolute.  There is also, the Court acknowledged, constitutional dimension to the need for evidence in criminal cases.  Consequently, the Court held, where the claim of privilege is merely generalized (not specific to a particular military, diplomatic, or national security secret), “it cannot prevail over the demands of due process of law in the fair administration of criminal justice.  The generalized assertion of privilege must yield to the demonstrated, specific need for evidence in a pending criminal trial.”

Nixon’s application to the Comey testimony is therefore imperfect, but useful.  Two dimensions of executive privilege, as understood in Nixon, are important in relation to the upcoming Comey testimony: first, the nature of the proceeding; and second, the subject matter underlying a claim of privilege.

Nixon is really about the role of the privilege in criminal cases.  Comey is testifying in a congressional investigation, not a criminal one.  It is not clear precisely how Nixon is to apply in the congressional committee setting.  Because of the constitutional dimension of executive privilege that derives from the separation of powers, and the need to not simply protect the prerogatives of the presidency but also to protect against Congress, to quote Madison in Federalist No. 48, “drawing all power into its impetuous vortex,” there is a natural concern about compelling the disclosure of presidential communications to the legislative branch.

And yet, while executive privilege is constitutionally based, so is Congress’s power to investigate.  Congress has institutional prerogatives, too.  Claims of executive privilege therefore have often conflicted with claims about the need for information in a congressional inquiry; the implications for the separation of powers are obvious.  These conflicts are normally handled through a process of mutual accommodation and compromise by the legislative and executive branches.  Judicial review in such situations is not unheard of, but is rare.  And the Supreme Court has never had occasion to address the matter specifically.

Still, the relationship between this particular congressional investigation and the existing criminal investigation being conducted by the Special Counsel is undeniable, and likely close.  Moreover, although the congressional investigative setting is not strictly criminal, it can display attributes that look much like a criminal inquiry.  Congressional committees must respect legitimate invocations of the privilege against compelled self-incrimination; can grant immunity to witnesses; and have even referred individuals for criminal prosecution.  There is often a Congress-as-Prosecutor quality to congressional investigation and oversight, even though Congress lacks any formal criminal prosecution powers (even inherent contempt is not strictly criminal, though it looks the part).

So while it is tempting to distinguish Nixon by relying upon the formal difference between a criminal proceeding and a congressional investigative hearing (and there is a difference), the nature of this particular hearing and its connection to an ongoing criminal probe in the executive branch suggests that this scenario may be more like Nixon than it first appears.  Nevertheless, there is something to the notion that a claim of executive privilege should be taken quite seriously when the legislative branch is seeking to pierce the deliberative processes of the presidency.

This brings us to subject matter.  To make any assertion of the privilege palatable, the President would likely have to be very specific about the subject matter of his claim — he would have to assert that some military, diplomatic, or national security secret would be divulged as a result of Comey’s testimony, or, at a minimum, that the testimony relates to the decision-making functions of the presidency.  An assertion of privilege is also complicated here by the fact that the President has spoken openly and publicly about his private conversations with Comey.  This also raises the question of whether the President has waived any claim of privilege because he spoke publicly on the subject matter (I personally think this is a dubious argument as it has been couched by some, though it is a stronger argument with respect to testimony about very specific subjects; in other words, public statements about one subject would not necessarily serve as a waiver with respect to all conversations with Comey).

But waiver is not the only concern with respect to those public statements.  Rather, another major concern is that the President has implicated Comey’s own credibility (which Comey should have the right to defend), and has made statements that vaguely suggest, if not criminality, at least the possibility that the President has failed to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” as required by Article II.  That is a subject worthy of congressional oversight and inquiry.  Nixon’s concern about an undifferentiated claim of confidentiality conflicting with “other values” therefore seems useful in this context, given what we know about the need for information in this particular congressional investigation and the need to explore the veracity and implications of the President’s own public comments on the matter.

As a practical matter, Comey is likely to prefer to keep his testimony narrow, so as not to compromise the Special Counsel’s investigation.  But to the extent that it could cover his communications with the President, it remains unclear whether the President will attempt to intervene with a claim of executive privilege.  I suspect that doing so would be politically unwise, further contributing to an already damaging “what-is-the-Trump-Administration-hiding-now?” narrative.  Legally, the question is more complicated.  But if the Nixon decision is an authoritative guide in this situation, then that decision, along with the rule of law concerns that animate it, likely militates against recognizing the privilege here, unless the President can show something more than a mere general interest in confidentiality.


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