Federal crimes in Charlottesville

The horrific events in Charlottesville yesterday have prompted a number of important questions associated with the political and moral necessity of condemning the evils of white supremacy and political violence: why did the President fail — once more — to specifically condemn white supremacy and explicitly disavow fascist and racist supporters? Will Republicans condemn the President’s anemic and equivocal response? Should we call this domestic terrorism, and why would that matter? Those are worthy questions.

Now that one person is in custody related to the car crash that killed a 32-year-old woman, however, it is also important to begin looking at the criminal law questions, as well as the political ones. The Justice Department — after an appropriate statement of condemnation from Attorney General Sessions — announced that it has opened a civil rights investigation. It is early, and we need to await more evidence before arriving at any conclusions about charges or guilt. Still, what might the Feds be looking for?

Most likely, investigators will focus on whether there was a conspiracy to violate civil rights of anyone, including the counter-protesters, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. 241. Investigators will also likely focus on 18 U.S.C. 245, which targets actions against those engaged in certain specific federally-protected activities; whether anyone was intentionally obstructed in the free exercise of their religion, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. 247; and whether this was a violent hate crime, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. 249. These latter three charges, in particular, would require evidence that the person had acted with some specifically proscribed animus, such as racial or religious animus. With respect to the car incident specifically, because death resulted from the actions of the driver, capital punishment is available under sections 241, 245, and 247, but not section 249, if those statutes applied.

But the Feds may not need to rely solely upon civil rights enforcement statutes here.  For example, 18 U.S.C. 33 makes it a crime for any person, acting “with intent to endanger the safety of any person on board” or “with reckless disregard for the safety of human life,” to damage, disable or destroy any motor vehicle “used, operated, or employed in interstate or foreign commerce.”  Section 33 also makes it a crime to, “with like intent,” disable or incapacitate “any driver or person employed in connection with the operation or maintenance of the motor vehicle, or in any way lessen[] the ability of such person to perform his duties as such.”  The video and photographic evidence from the scene in Charlottesville strongly suggests that Section 33 is a potential avenue for prosecution, though this would also depend upon other factors, such as evidence to prove the jurisdictional element (though that should ordinarily not prove to be difficult).

Section 33 does not specifically employ capital punishment, but it need not.  Section 33 is a part of Chapter 2. This is important because Section 34 provides that the death penalty applies to anyone convicted of a crime listed in Chapter 2, where the crime has resulted in a person’s death.

Another important question that remains is whether the driver is a member of, or acted on behalf of or at the direction of or in an effort to become a member of or increase status in, some specific entity, organization or association-in-fact. If so, this could potentially implicate the racketeering laws, notably the violent crimes in aid of racketeering (VICAR) statute, 18 U.S.C. 1959.  Unlike the RICO statute (sections 1961 and 1962), VICAR provides for capital punishment.  Of course, in addition to proving the underlying conduct, the Government would need to prove that the entity met the statutory definition of a racketeering “enterprise.”

Finally, it is worth noting that any mention of capital punishment is subject to both the procedural prerequisites of 18 U.S.C. sections 3591 and 3592, as well as the DOJ’s death penalty protocol.

Virginia has proven itself more than capable of handling high-profile homicide cases.  But in recent years, we have also seen the Justice Department take the position that federal action is required when civil rights enforcement is at stake.  It will therefore be important to find out whether investigators can uncover evidence of animus, or other evidence, that would be sufficient to implicate the federal civil rights statutes in Title 18.  But even without the civil rights statutes in play, federal prosecutors still may have an avenue for federal action, depending upon what the investigation reveals.  The question would then be, as it often is, whether the Feds would be content to let Virginia handle the case alone, whether Virginia would defer to the Feds, or whether there would be dual prosecutions, in which case the Feds would have to assert a unique federal interest that would not be vindicated by the state prosecution.  If the civil rights statutes are implicated, and if prior similar cases are any guide, the chances of a federal prosecution are very high.


Hate crimes enforcement continues, but under-reporting remains a concern

Although some questioned whether Attorney General Sessions would make hate crime enforcement a priority, I speculated that — particularly in light of the nature of the federal hate crimes law, which requires proof of willfully-caused bodily injury or an attempt to cause bodily injury through the use of certain dangerous devices or weapons, see 18 U.S.C. 249 — those concerns were likely overstated and that General Sessions would continue robust hate crimes enforcement.  So far, this has proven to be the case.

General Sessions recently delivered these encouraging remarks at a national hate crime summit, in which he said “hate crimes are violent crimes.  No person should have to fear being violently attacked because of who they are, what they believe, or how they worship.”  Moreover, the Justice Department announced back in April the creation of a special hate crimes subcommittee as part of its Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety.   And in recent months, the Civil Rights Division has announced several new hate crime indictments (see, e.g., here and here and here).

Still, less encouraging news came recently, regarding the under-reporting of hate crimes.  According to this new report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 54% of violent hate crimes were not reported.  Some media coverage here and here.  There are a variety of explanations for the under-reporting, as noted in the report.

I hope that by making hate crimes an enforcement priority, the Department can incentivize greater reporting participation and provide the public, and law enforcement partners around the country, with more accurate information about the frequency of, and risks associated with, hate crime behavior.  Any comprehensive national approach to violent crime should, as the Sessions Justice Department has thus far acknowledged, include attention to bias-motivated violence.



Extortion, deprivation of rights, and the myth of the Twitter counter-punch: Part II

In my last post, I focused on the potential civil rights issues arising from the account given by Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski concerning their allegation that the President, through his staff, asked them to apologize for negative coverage and make their coverage more positive in exchange for the President using his authority to stop publication of a potentially damaging story about them in the National Enquirer.  Again, there appears to be more to this story, the President denies Joe’s account, and it is unclear as yet whose version is correct.  My previous post discussed the federal statutes that make it a crime to willfully deprive a person of his rights, 18 U.S.C. 242, and to conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate a person in the exercise of a constitutional right, or because of his exercise of a constitutional right.  18 U.S.C. 241.  But because there has been some commentary on the potential extortion and reputational blackmail aspects of this story, I will now focus on those.

First, let’s begin with the statutes that proscribe extortion.  The Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. 1951, does so, but I think the Hobbs Act is problematic here.  This law makes it a crime to obstruct, delay, or affect commerce by extortion.  It further defines “extortion” in section 1951(b)(2) as the “obtaining of property from another, with his consent, induced by wrongful use of actual or threatened force, violence, or fear, or under color of official right.”

The problem is that, in this case, even assuming the truth of Joe’s account, there was likely no effort to obtain “property.”  Although intangible things can be “property,” the Supreme Court held in Sekhar v. United States that “property,” for purposes of Hobbs Act extortion, must be capable of transfer from one person to another.  It must be obtainable.  The Sekhar Court also distinguished between extortion and coercion, which, the Court said, is threatening another person to do or abstain from doing something that he or she has a legal right to do or abstain from doing.  Coercion, then, need not involve transferable, obtainable property; Hobbs Act extortion does.  And the Hobbs Act does not cover mere coercion.

The other statutes that might seem directly relevant here are those in the statutory scheme involving interstate communications, 18 U.S.C. 875.  In particular, consider subsections (b) and (d), both of which forbid threatening interstate communications made with the “intent to extort.”  They also require that the threats be to “injure the person of another” (as in (b)) or to “injure the property or reputation of the addressee” (as in (d)).  If Joe’s account is true, then if the President was threatening to greenlight a story that would cause reputational or financial jury to Joe and Mika, this would seem to fit the injury element, even though it is not physical injury as required by subsection (b) (that is, if we can say that “injury to the person” also includes reputational or financial injury; of course, this could also mean physical injury only).

Here the problem is that the mens rea element requires an “intent to extort . . . money or other thing of value.”  Even in Joe’s account, the President did not seek money.  The question, then, would be whether the President’s alleged effort to extract an apology, and thereby change the substantive content of Morning Joe’s coverage, would constitute extorting a “thing of value.”  One might argue that a political commentary show’s substantive coverage of the President is a “thing of value” because it is the show’s content that attracts viewers and advertisers, revenue and ratings.   Perhaps, it could be argued, Morning Joe’s viability would be affected if it changed the way it covered the President.  But this would seem to be a contested issue in a case under either section 875(b) or section 875(d).  And if Sekhar’s understanding of extortion in the Hobbs Act context also applies to the extortion provisions of section 875, then it would not be enough to simply show that there was merely intent to coerce.

A somewhat more viable statute in the section 875 scheme could be subsection (c), which also forbids interstate communications that threaten to injure the person of another, but does not require any intent to extort.  Thus, we can avoid the extortion/coercion problem that Sekhar acknowledged, as well as the tricky issues involving money and what a “thing of value” is.   The Supreme Court held in Elonis v. United States that section 875(c) requires that the actor send a communication with the purpose of making a threat, or with knowledge that the communication will be viewed as a threat.  Mere negligence will not suffice, but the Court did not address recklessness (Justice Alito’s separate opinion would have allowed a conviction based on recklessness — “conscious[ly] disregard[ing] the risk that the communication will be viewed as a true threat”).  Again, if a threat to injure reputation or to cause financial harm satisfies the “injury to the person of another” element, then this would seem to be a better fit than the more complicated extortion statutes.

In short, those who say this alleged incident might not fit the legal standards for extortion or reputational blackmail may well be right.  I am not sure, however, that failure to satisfy extortion or reputational blackmail is, or should be, the end of the matter.  Again, if the First Amendment protects Joe and Mika from a threat of the kind alleged, then sections 241 and 242 are potentially implicated, and section 875(c) is worth a closer look.  But even if, as is certainly possible, Joe’s allegations would be insufficient to support application of the criminal statutes I have mentioned, there remains the question of whether — if the facts are as Joe alleges them — this amounts to a serious abuse of power, one that implicates the First Amendment rights of the media and that deserves greater scrutiny by Congress, the institution charged with investigating presidential abuses.

Questioning the media, even in a combative tone, is one thing, and hardly new for presidents.  But if a president seeks to do harm to individual members of the media merely because the president dislikes the content of, and viewpoint expressed in, the media’s coverage of him, that is quite another thing entirely.  And constitutionalists should stand firm against such an authoritarian posture, whether criminal or not.

Extortion, deprivation of rights, and the myth of the Twitter counter-punch: Part I

I rarely comment on the President’s tweets, unless they implicate a legal or constitutional issue of relevance.  And I am confident that everything has been said already about the President’s repugnant tweets concerning Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough.  There is a follow-up issue on which I prefer to focus, but I will add only these thoughts on the tweet itself.

First, using a Twitter account to insult people is a rather pathetic form of “counter-punching,” and probably should not count as such.  In this context, “counter-punching” would be appearing in person on Morning Joe and saying to Joe and Mika’s faces exactly what the President said via Twitter.  Second, even if it is “counter-punching,” our civil society — and notably our criminal law — has always taken an unkind view of certain disproportionate forms of “counter-punching.”  If someone pushes me on the subway, or insults me on the street, or slaps me in the face, I do not have the right to shoot him in the forehead with a rifle.  Proportionality matters.

That said, another issue arose yesterday during Morning Joe that has received some attention.  During yesterday’s broadcast, Joe and Mika described a story in which, according to them, the President — through one or more of his staff at the White House — threatened to permit the publication of a story in the National Enquirer about Joe and Mika’s personal life together if they refused to call the President and apologize for their negative commentary on him.  If they called and apologized, Joe’s account goes, the President would use his influence and connections with the Enquirer to kill the Enquirer story.  The President denies the account as it was told on the show, but Joe claims to have documentary evidence to prove the version he told.

Several commentators have explored whether this amounts to criminal extortion or reputational blackmail.  I want to add just a bit more to the criminal law angle, but I will reserve a discussion of the extortion statutes for a separate post.  Instead, I will focus this post on the potential deprivation of constitutional rights and conspiracy to do so, both of which are serious federal crimes.

For purposes of this legal discussion, I will assume the accuracy of Joe’s description of the events, though we still do not know for certain what exactly happened and it is possible that Joe’s account leaves out salient details that could affect the legal analysis here.  I also interpret his account as not simply an effort by the President to seek an apology, but also to induce Joe and Mika to stop making negative comments about the President and to cover the President in a positive light (otherwise, what’s the point?).  So based on this, here are the legal issues that I think could be relevant that concern the potential criminal deprivation of civil rights.

If Joe’s account is accurate, then it is possible that the President has endeavored to coerce the media into doing something with its coverage, or refraining from doing something with its coverage, by threatening reputational or financial harm to television hosts based on the content of their speech (or, worse still, the viewpoint expressed).  If so, this has very serious First Amendment implications, and raises the question of whether the President has willfully deprived Joe and Mika of their First Amendment — and perhaps equal protection — rights under color of law, in violation of 18 U.S.C. 242.

As always, in any section 242 case, there is the question of what “willfully” means.  The Supreme Court said in Screws v. United States that this includes “open defiance or reckless disregard of a constitutional requirement which has been made specific and definite.”  There may also be some question as to whether the President was acting “under color of law,” if he was relying simply on his private relationship with the Enquirer rather than on any official power as President.  But there is case law holding that an official acts “under color of law” when he uses the victim’s fear of his power as a public official to induce the victim to do something or refrain from doing something.  See United States v. Giordano, 442 F.3d 30 (2nd. Cir. 2006).

And that connection is strengthened if the President used White House staff to communicate his threats.  Indeed, if Joe’s account is accurate, then the use of White House staff would seem to implicate 18 U.S.C. 241, which says that it is a crime for “two or more persons to conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person . . . in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having so exercised the same.”  The conspiracy problem is worse still if the President formed an agreement with the folks at the Enquirer in this regard, though the Enquirer denies any contact with the White House on this specific matter.  The conspiracy against rights statute does not require color of law, nor does it require an overt act in furtherance of the agreement.  Criminal liability attaches the moment that the agreement is formed.

Of course, presidents and other politicians often use their position to influence media coverage (granting special access, etc.).  Doing so is not typically thought to implicate the First Amendment.  The question here is whether, assuming the veracity of Joe’s account, there is something different — and constitutionally pernicious — about coercing a change in viewpoint by threatening to allow publication of potentially damaging information about a media figure’s personal life.  The act-omission distinction might also be important here under section 242 (if the allegation is simply that the President failed to do something), although the theory could be that the threat itself constitutes the deprivation.

All of this is subject to the usual caveats that, first, it is not clear that the President violated a criminal law; and second, even if he committed a criminal offense, he likely would not be prosecuted while in office.  Still, as I have said before, this would not immunize him from a congressional investigation or impeachment.  Some may think that further discussion of this story makes a mountain out of a molehill.  But if Joe’s account is true — if the President used his office, and those in his charge, to communicate to prominent cable news hosts that he would greenlight, or at least not intervene to stop, a potentially damaging story about their personal lives as a way of coercing them into apologizing for negative content and giving him more positive coverage — then it is hard to imagine how this would not constitute a serious abuse of power and a threat to the First Amendment of the Constitution.  And it is surely worthy of a congressional inquiry.

When does robbery of a local brothel substantially affect interstate commerce? Apparently, pretty much always.

Last year, I posted about the Supreme Court’s review of, and unsurprising decision in, Taylor v. United States.  That case, up from the Fourth Circuit, held that the jurisdictional element of the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. 1951, is satisfied where there is a robbery involving a drug dealer.

This past week, the Fourth Circuit issued another opinion raising a similar question about the application of the “affects commerce” element of the Hobbs Act to an unlawful business operation.  This time, rather than drug dealers, the court in United States v. Lopez considered the 2007 robbery of a Maryland brothel.

As the court described the facts of the case, the Prince George’s County brothel was located in a first-floor apartment, staffed by a Adelaida Garcia-Calderon and a doorman/money collector.  Two young men entered, demanded money, tied the doorman’s feet and hands, and then one of them raped Garcia-Calderon at knife-point.  Another man, Carlos Cordon, walked in on the robbery and was stabbed to death by one of the perpetrators; Cordon’s body was found behind the apartment building.  Garcia-Calderon and the doorman survived, but the case remained unsolved for several years.  Finally, local police were able to match the DNA from the crime scene to Miguel Ramon Cerros-Cruz, an MS-13 member, and Alexsi Lopez.  Police also had the testimony of an MS-13 member who was incarcerated with Lopez and overheard Lopez confess to the brothel robbery and killing, while also implicating Cerros-Cruz.

Lopez was indicted for violating, and conspiring to violate, the Hobbs Act.  (Although he was 17 at the time of the crime, Lopez was 24 at the time of trial, and was subject to trial in federal district court; the five-year statute of limitations was also extended because of the DNA testing, see 18 U.S.C. 3297).  Cerros-Cruz pleaded guilty; Lopez went to trial and was convicted.  The court sentenced Lopez to 20 years in prison.  (Though I remain curious: if there was evidence that the perpetrators committed the robbery, rape, or killing in order to maintain or increase their standing with MS-13, why not charge the case under VICAR, 18 U.S.C. 1959?).

The Fourth Circuit rejected Lopez’s claim on appeal that there was insufficient evidence to show the required effect on commerce.  Citing the familiar line that the Hobbs Act requires only a de minimis effect on commerce, the court noted that a brothel — like drug dealing — is an “inherently economic enterprise.”  Moreover, the court noted, in many cases, including this one, the brothel workers will travel across state lines.  The Government also provided evidence that the brothel used condoms manufactured out-of-state, and that Lopez and Cerros-Cruz targeted the brothel because of its nature as an illegal business that dealt in cash.

Although this case feels much like Taylor, that case expressly limited its holding to situations involving drug dealers as targets and to “drugs or drug proceeds,” because the federal government has jurisdiction over those markets.  “We do not resolve what the Government must prove to establish Hobbs Act robbery where some other type of business or victim is targeted,” the Court said.  After Taylor, it is worth asking whether a small-scale, local brothel engages in the kind of commercial activity over which the United States exercises jurisdiction the way that it does with respect to the controlled substance market.  After all, the Taylor decision was arguably inevitable in light of Gonzales v. Raich, which expressly decided that Congress had the power to regulate the interstate drug marketplace by reaching even wholly intrastate, locally grown marijuana.

The Fourth Circuit did not have a similar precedent on which it could rely with respect to federal jurisdiction over an interstate brothel marketplace.  Still, existing Hobbs Act case law seems to support the Lopez holding. This includes the more general rationale offered in Taylor — citing Raich — with respect to aggregation of economic activity and Congress’s ability to reach intrastate incidents of an activity that is part of a broader class of activity that is within Congress’s reach.  See also Perez v. United States.  Just as drug dealing is a “moneymaking endeavor,” as Taylor described it, so, too, is prostitution.   To reach this activity through the Hobbs Act, though, one must conclude that robbery of a brothel would also effect an interstate brothel marketplace over which the United States exercises jurisdiction.

In addition, multiple lower federal court cases recognize that where the robbery depletes the assets of a commercial establishment, then this is enough to satisfy the jurisdictional element.  But does the Lopez case involve the depletion of assets of a business, or simply of the individual sex worker or brothel manager?  Presumably, of course, someone else  — to whom Garcia-Calderon answers — is getting a cut of the cash.  But is that cash used for purposes connected with the business (such as to buy condoms, or bed linens, or other items associated with pursuing a business that involves sexual activity)?  Also, the fact that the condoms came from out-of-state provides a thin basis for satisfying what should be a more demanding jurisdictional analysis, unless the robbers took condoms, as well.  Nonetheless, federal courts have found the Hobbs Act satisfied on much thinner grounds than exist in Lopez.

Still, it is worth considering the gravamen of Justice Thomas’s Taylor dissent, and the efforts that Justice Alito made to limit the reach of the Taylor holding (perhaps to satisfy some of Justice Thomas’s concerns).  If the Fourth Circuit is correct that the brothel’s character as a commercial establishment, even an unlawful one, is by itself sufficient to satisfy the Hobbs Act (and thus the Commerce Clause), then it would seem that any robbery of any business — no matter how small, or how local, and no matter the volume of its business nor the amount of money that it makes — would be enough to justify the exercise of federal jurisdiction under the statute.  One wonders whether that rule would be consistent not only with the statutory definition of “commerce,” but also with a Constitution that denies a general police power to the federal government.

Perhaps the Fourth Circuit, even if ultimately correct, could have offered a more substantial analysis with respect to the effect on commerce.  It is one thing to acknowledge that the Hobbs Act incorporates all of Congress’s commerce power.  It is quite another to interpret the Hobbs Act in a way that gives Congress more than that.


Can the President commit a crime or an impeachable offense even when exercising constitutional power?

America’s civic education continues.  Although much of what we have endured recently is not particularly good news for the Nation, it should at least be heartening that nearly 20 million people watched the (underwhelming) Comey hearing.  If only that many Americans took such an interest in congressional hearings more generally.

We have also heard lately about the theory of the unitary executive, which some observers have used to explain why the President’s actions with respect to James Comey are neither criminal nor otherwise improper.    Former Speaker Newt Gingrich asserted something like this recently when he said that the President “cannot obstruct justice,” citing the fact that the President is the chief executive  (as others have duly noted, such as in the linked article from The Hill, Gingrich voted to impeach President Clinton on obstruction of justice grounds).  Gingrich’s quote calls to mind President Nixon’s 1977 assertion to Sir David Frost that, “when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

At its core, the unitary executive posits both an obvious textual notion (that the executive power is vested in “a” president) and a structural one (that the president enjoys all executive power and thus controls anyone who assists him in exercising such power).  But the unitary executive model does not really answer two critical questions that have been raised by the Trump-Comey saga: first, when, if ever, does the exercise of constitutional power by the president amount to a punishable crime?; and second, at what point does the exercise of a constitutional power constitute an abuse of such power?  These two questions are at the heart of a distinction that has become lost in the debate over criminality, and that is the distinction between violations of the existing federal criminal law and the political world of impeachable offenses (see my earlier post here).

Because the President has the power to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” he has the power to determine who will be prosecuted and investigated.  Therefore, as some have argued, the President had the authority to instruct Comey not to continue pursuing former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn, and doing so cannot be obstruction of justice.  And, the argument continues, because the President has the appointment power, as well as the Take Care Clause power, firing the FBI Director also cannot be obstruction.  I have before elaborated (in the above linked post) upon the obstruction statutes and explained why I think reliance on those statutes is problematic in this case.  But let’s set aside the applicability of the statutes as a matter of statutory interpretation and federal prosecutorial practice, and focus instead upon the question of how far the President’s power extends.  Do his motives matter when exercising his powers?

Suppose, as a hypothetical example, that the President gathered the FBI Director and Attorney General in the Oval Office and gave the following order, pursuant to his Take Care Clause powers: in an effort to root out terrorists, the FBI shall enter and search, without a warrant and without any particularized suspicion, the home of any Muslim living in the United States.  The FBI and AG agree and the order is carried out.  Such action would implicate not just the Fourth Amendment, but also the federal civil rights statute relating to willful deprivations of rights, 18 U.S.C. 242, as well as the civil rights conspiracy statute.  18 U.S.C. 241.  Is the President immune from subsequent criminal prosecution merely because he has the power to direct federal investigations and prosecutions?  Could the President be impeached for issuing such an order, on the ground that even though he has the power to direct investigations, this was a serious abuse of that power?

Let’s take another example.  Suppose the President agrees with a representative of Defendant D that the President will order the Justice Department not to prosecute D for a crime that D has committed.  In exchange for that official act, the President accepts from D one million dollars.  Is this conduct bribery, notwithstanding the fact that the official act for which there is a quid pro quo is a constitutional power vested in the President?  Is it impeachable? (remember that the Impeachment Clause of Article II, section 3 specifically lists bribery as impeachable).

Or, to take the example of another power vested solely in the President — the power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States — suppose the President granted a pardon to D in exchange for a payment of one million dollars.  Is the President’s motive for the official act of granting the pardon irrelevant simply because the corrupt motive, and the quid pro quo, are tied to the exercise of a constitutional power vested in the President?

I ask these questions because I think it is important to note that even if we accept the unitary executive model, and even if we believe that directing criminal investigations and prosecutions is a core executive function over which the president should have control, we can still acknowledge that what motivates a President in carrying out that function could still have legal significance.  In my bribery examples, for instance, the power of ordering the DOJ not to prosecute, or the power of actually granting the pardon, are not, without more, the problem; the problem is that those exercises of power were intended to facilitate bribery.  Indeed, because bribery requires an official act, it seems clear from its inclusion in the Impeachment Clause that the Framers understood that a President can still be held legally accountable even when the offense arises from an exercise of official power.

It may very well be that President Trump has committed neither a crime nor an impeachable offense.  But whether he has committed either cannot, I think, depend merely upon whether his action was based on the exercise of a constitutional power.  Perhaps the President’s state of mind matters.  After all, implicit in an “abuse of power” is the existence of an official power that can otherwise be legitimately used.

Which leads to a final point about the distinction between criminality and impeachment.  Much of the attention will fall upon the Special Counsel.  But the congressional investigations here are also important because, unlike the Special Counsel’s investigation (which is criminal in nature), the Congress can gather facts and evidence regarding abuses of power that may not meet the defined elements of a crime or be prosecutable.  The congressional investigative power is at once broader and more narrow than the Special Counsel’s work — Congress cannot criminally prosecute the President, but it can engage in oversight of the executive, which includes the power to impeach and convict.  That distinction is critical if one assumes that a sitting President cannot be criminally prosecuted.  Problem is, would a Republican Congress ever allow impeachment to proceed?  To answer that, we need to take a deeper dive into the existing dynamics of a Senator or Representative’s institutional loyalty to Congress, rather than to the President or the Party.


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.