Revitalizing Congress

Congress does not work for the President.  Congressional staff do not work for the President (let’s set aside the detail problem for now).  Just as Congress should not endeavor to destroy the President, neither should it seek to protect him.  It is not Congress’s duty to clear a path for the President or to help him deliver on presidential campaign promises.  It is, rather, the responsibility of Congress to check the President and to assert its own institutional prerogatives, using the limited tools that the Constitution has afforded it.  Unfortunately, loyalty to the president or to a political Party has usurped what should be the Senator or Representative’s ultimately loyalties: the legislative branch they serve, and, chiefly, the Constitution.

The entire enterprise of congressional oversight and investigation of the executive branch depends upon accepting the premise of institutional defense.  Senators and Representatives must accept that Congress must gather facts and evidence from the President and his subordinates in order for Congress to fulfill its constitutional role in the separation of powers.  That is, congressional oversight and investigation of the executive depend upon a recognition that the institutional interests of Congress are paramount to any loyalties owed to the President or to the Member’s political Party.

When congressional oversight and investigation are viewed merely as extensions of Party politics and political campaigning, however, oversight and investigation become meaningless as legislative prerogatives.  Congress consequently becomes weakened institutionally.  While there are certainly important bipartisan exceptions, Members of both Parties, over time, have too often either abused or ignored their responsibilities to conduct effective and meaningful oversight and investigation in aid of Congress’s constitutional functions, instead serving as blockers for the president during the opposition’s pass-rush.

Madison, in Federalist 51, described legislative power as the predominant authority in a republic.  He explained that this requires dividing legislative authority (into distinct bodies) and fortifying the executive (as with a veto). Hamilton, too, acknowledged in Federalist 73 the “superior weight and influence of the legislative body in a free government.”  (Hamilton, in fact, spent considerable time in The Federalist defending the veto, worrying about the accumulation of legislative power, and explaining how the executive could defend itself against the legislature, even noting the “hazard to the executive in a trial of strength with that body.”  How quaint.)  And the Supreme Court has consistently recognized that the power to investigate is a function of Congress’s power to legislate.  But modern politics have changed the way the institution operates, the way it is perceived, and the way the executive relates to it.

The over-sized modern presidency has far greater national stature than even the most high-profile Senator or Representative, and exerts tremendous influence over individual Members, influence that enables the President to dictate the content of national legislation and, often, the path of legislative oversight.  For its part, the modern Congress has contributed to the weakening of its place in the constitutional system.  The “dysfunction” of Congress is a subject well-covered in the literature, and although it is likely the case that many Democrats and Republicans privately enjoy cordial relationships, that privately held goodwill rarely manifests itself in the day-to-day public work of the institution.   The end result is that the venerable institution of Congress appears to be a mere wing of each Party’s national political infrastructure.  And when the majority in either chamber shares the President’s Party, that chamber’s majority appears to be transformed into a mere clerk of the executive.  This persistent quiescence with the executive further weakens the institution and minimizes its public stature.

But Congress can, at long last, fight back.  Oversight and investigation offer a good place to start, because this is an area in which Members from different parties can coalesce in defense of institutional interests.  Congress can also staff up, and increase the budget for congressional staff, so that Congress can compete with the other branches (especially the executive branch) in securing and keeping highly-qualified professionals.  Via our friends at Leg Branch, this recent piece in the Washington Post explains some of the difficulties.

The current controversies have given the Congress the opportunity to revitalize itself, to assert its institutional independence from the President and the dominant Parties.   If it does not (and there are signs that many individual Members are not interested in doing so), it will remain feckless and weak.  Madison and Hamilton were right to worry about the legislature’s ability to absorb the powers of the other departments.  The President, as Hamilton argued, should have tools for his defense.  But the accumulation of power into the executive is no better than accumulation in the Congress.  And Hamilton properly explained in No. 73 that the partitioning of power among the branches also teaches us that the branches should be independent.  Congress does not work for the President — and its Members should not be satisfied with perpetuating the appearance that it does.

 

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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.

Helpful commentary on the constitutionality of Syrian airstrikes

Despite the relative popularity of the President’s use of airstrikes last week in Syria, the argument continues as to whether the President’s action was constitutionally problematic.  The Congress has not debated, much less approved, a new authorization for force in Syria, whether against the Syrian government or ISIL (and it is notable that we have now taken hostile action against both sides of the conflict there).  And there is no question that the President could not rely upon the existing AUMFs for last week’s airstrikes.  Therefore, his only reservoir of power for this action is Article II of the Constitution.  The President’s report to the Congress pursuant to the War Powers Act is here.

The folks at Lawfare have typically excellent commentary on the matter.

John Bellinger’s piece on the War Powers Report is here.

Andrew Kent’s piece is here (with a good discussion of originalist views on war powers allocation).

Jack Goldsmith’s piece is here.

If the President has a longer-term military strategy in Syria, his ability to engage there without approval from Congress is, legally, probably substantially limited.  But because a federal court is unlikely to police the allocation of constitutional war powers, it is for Congress to defend its own prerogatives.  Even without seeing a plan from the President, Congress should long ago have been debating the American military role in the Syrian conflict, or, at a minimum, the scope of presidential powers to attack ISIL.  As long as Congress remains silent, however, it will continue to send a signal to this and other Presidents that it acquiesces in any military action.  It is possible that members of Congress are reluctant to take a position on the use of force abroad, fearing being stuck with their vote if the mission goes poorly.  But the use of American military force — and the blood and treasure of the American people — is not a matter on which the legislative branch should be perpetually silent.

 

The constitutional education of America, and of its President

The Ninth Circuit has ruled that President Trump’s Executive Order could remain subject to a stay issued by the District Court in Seattle.  The opinion is here.  This is not a ruling on the merits, though the emergency relief standard was applied and the Court concluded that there was not a likelihood that the Government would succeed on the merits of the case.  The court’s holding was, in my view, a dubious one, though not an unreasonable one.

Regardless of one’s position on either the wisdom or legality of the Order (and I believe the arguments for its legality are far stronger than the arguments for its wisdom), the entire episode has served as a kind of civic education for the American people.  Americans are confronted with serious questions about the scope of presidential power, of constitutional rights, of the place of religion in the scheme of law and policy, and of the role of courts in cases where rights and security intersect.  We have had other such moments in our history.  But it is difficult to think of a time in recent memory when so many valuable questions of constitutional government arose over a single official act.

Americans, regardless of party or viewpoint on the Order, should take time to carefully consider these matters and what they mean for the Republic.  That does not mean that they should all crack open a copy of The Federalist Papers (though we could all do much worse than to spend a few moments with Publius these days), or study The Steel Seizure Case by the fireside with a glass of chianti.  It does mean, though, that Americans ought to savor the opportunity to reflect on what it means to live under a rule of law and a venerable Constitution that diffuses government power.  They should reflect on what it means to have limited government, to have checks that prevent presidents from simply acting at will and checks that prevent judges from ruling as philosopher-kings.

One hopes, too, that the President will savor the same opportunity.  His actions for the past two weeks (nearly two years!) have created serious questions about his commitment to the rule of law and to constitutionalism, questions I raised during the campaign and that have persisted despite my dim hope that his authoritarian tendencies might be tempered by institutions, by an appreciation of history, and by the sheer weight of his office.  The one bright spot in this period was his nomination of Judge Gorsuch.  But as I said during the campaign, it is not enough that Presidents appoint judges who are constitutionalists.  The President himself must demonstrate that same fidelity.

Presidents can be critical of the courts.  The judiciary is not immune from criticism, nor should it be.  Lincoln, before his presidency, thoughtfully criticized the Dred Scott decision.  FDR’s tussles with the Supreme Court were so tense that he proposed packing the Court with Justices who would approve his economic recovery programs.  President Bush respectfully criticized the Supreme Court’s war on terror decisions that disfavored his expansive view of presidential power.  President Obama criticized the Court’s Citizens United opinion during the State of the Union Address.  It is fair, and proper, that political leaders disagree with judges from time to time.  But criticism that seeks not merely to disagree with, but rather to de-legitimize, courts and judges does violence to the separation of powers and a politically independent judiciary.  This is, unfortunately, President Trump’s modus operandi.  He prefers to de-legitimize a critic or opponent, often ad hominem, rather than contest them on the merits.  It is the last refuge of a man who is out of his element on substance.

So, rather than make any one of the credible substantive arguments he could have made in defense of the Order, naturally the President chose instead to personally insult Judge James Robart as a “so-called judge” (never mind the judge’s unanimous confirmation by the Senate).  And perhaps worst of all, he then asserted that federal judges who opposed the Order would be held responsible for a terrorist attack – it is hard to think of a more insidious presidential assertion about the judiciary.

To worsen things, he also fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates for her refusal to enforce the Order.  This was admittedly a somewhat more complicated matter.  Yates’s directive to the Justice Department would have been stronger had she set forth more precisely her legal arguments against the Order, arguments that almost surely would have been vindicated in the 9th Circuit’s opinion (though surely she could have articulated grounds for the Order’s defense, as well).  And there is no question that the President had the power to relieve her of her duties.  But firing her on the spot did little to inspire confidence in his judgment; it was a rash display of raw power that sent the wrong message and failed to consider the longer-term consequences.  Imagine now how Attorney General Sessions must feel.  General Sessions has been placed in an untenable position, and one that diminishes his capacity for independence from the President.  Even the most ardent defender of the Unitary Executive must shudder at the thought of an Attorney General who may have to choose between defending the Constitution and losing his job.

To some extent, the President’s constitutional schooling of late may include a lesson on a truth that his critics repeatedly noted during the campaign: words matter.  Lately, the President has been reminded of his disgraceful pander that called for a “complete and total shutdown of Muslims” entering the country.  But the problem goes even deeper.  The Government’s claim in litigation that the President should be entitled to great deference in matters of national security is a sound, if imperfect, claim.  But when giving deference to Presidents, it may well be that courts generally trust that the President is knowledgeable and credible on those matters, that his judgment is worthy of deference because he has thought seriously about the problem and vetted his decisions through the collective expertise of the military, intelligence, and security communities.  This President, by contrast, is the one who said he knows more than the generals about ISIS, appeared to suggest that the CIA was using the same tactics as the Nazis, heaps bizarre praise on Russia’s ruling dictator while heaping scorn on genuine American heroes like John McCain and John Lewis, and said our military leaders had been “reduced to rubble.”  And it is becoming increasingly clear that the vetting of this Order was shoddy, at best.   Is it any wonder, then, that informed jurists would be reluctant to defer to this President’s judgments?

Does all of this make the Trump Presidency hopeless?  It does not.  On the Executive Order, the Government retains considerable arguments in favor of its constitutionality – or at least in favor of substantial deference to the President’s national security decisions, in light of the limits on the judiciary’s expertise in such matters – though the prudent course may be to scrap the Order altogether and start over.  Judge Gorsuch will likely make an outstanding Supreme Court Justice.  Tax reform is a real possibility.  And this President may be able to play to his strengths in securing a major infrastructure package on a bipartisan basis.

But the President needs to right this ship in a hurry.  The collection of rash, impulsive, and even bitter statements over the past two weeks has created a portrait of a President who views his official powers as a one-way ratchet.  He has created the impression that the law must bend to his will, lest a tantrum follow.  Of course, Americans should have seen some of this coming.  But the people, through their representatives in the Electoral College, elected him anyway.  Perhaps, then, it is fitting to be reminded of Madison’s admonition in Federalist 51 on the importance of separated powers: “A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”

Day One

I have gone quiet for awhile.  It seems like everything I could say has been said by the various talking heads throughout the 24-hour news cycle.  And my work responsibilities have prevented me from having much time to write, here or elsewhere.  But a few thoughts might be appropriate here on Inauguration Day.

I never voted for Barack Obama.  I believed John McCain and Mitt Romney to be better suited to the presidency, and I had too many disagreements with Obama on substance.  But I never understood why Republicans treated him with such disdain and disrespect.  I attribute most of that to the bare-knuckle, zero-sum game of American politics in which every member of the opposing party must be painted, characterized, demonized, and rejected.  I think very little of that brand of politics, and regret that it dominates so much of American life today.  I also think President Obama did little to endear himself to Republicans, especially in the early years when the Blame Bush strategy seemed to be stamped to his team’s every move.  Still, President Obama was an elegant, thoughtful, intelligent man who brought his own brand of gravitas to the office.  I agreed with him at times; disagreed more often.  But he tackled difficult moments with grace and understanding, and demonstrated respect for his office and his role in American life.  In turn, he has earned the respect and gratitude of Americans, even those of us who questioned and criticized him at times.

I am hopeful that President Trump will embrace the constitutional presidency, even more strongly than did his predecessor.  Day One did not raise my confidence in that.  His uninspiring inaugural address made no mention – not one – of the Constitution, or even of the Congress (constitutional references were a regular practice among early inaugural addresses, but have been largely abandoned by contemporary chief executives).  “America First” is a catchy campaign slogan but it is not a policy.  More importantly, it conveys no relationship of the president to his place in our system of constitutional government, nor does it convey anything about the role of constitutional government in securing liberty, justice, and tolerable order for the American people to whom the President pledged his loyalty.  He said his oath was an oath of allegiance to all Americans, but neglected to note that it is chiefly an oath of fidelity to the Constitution.  The address was not memorable, at least not for the right reasons.

The most important thing that happened on November 8 was not the election of Donald Trump, important as that was.  Rather, it was the election of Republican majorities in both houses of Congress.  The President’s pre-inaugural actions, including his cabinet choices, would perhaps have looked much different if Democrats had won one or both chambers.  The burden is now on congressional Republicans to assert the prerogatives of their respective institutions, rather than serve as errand boys for the President.  Standing up to the President will be much easier if the President’s approval numbers remain low.  Their challenge will be to defend their own institutional roles even if the President becomes more popular.  The meaning of the Constitution does not change with the President’s poll numbers.

President Trump has the chance to deploy his notorious private charm in service of the presidency’s soft powers, persuading allies and adversaries alike.  That can be useful.  But he should not confuse the soft powers of the office with the hard ones, those set forth in the formal arrangements of the Constitution.  And it is his fidelity to those arrangements – rather than his Party affiliation – that conservative constitutionalists, and congressional Republicans, should be giving their attention.

 

On prosecuting political opponents

I have endeavored to avoid jumping into the fray regarding the Trump tape that surfaced last Friday.  Others have adequately said everything there is to say.  And there can be no debate among intelligent people that Trump’s comments there are worthy of condemnation in the strongest possible terms (of course, I have been doing that for over a year now, and have openly wondered why so many others are so late to the party).  And then there are the allegations that emerged last night (see Politico’s piece here).  Governor Pence has attempted to rationalize his continued place on the ticket by emphasizing the nature of Christian forgiveness and grace.   That is surely a ground for forgiving Trump’s sins; it is not, though, a ground for establishing his character and fitness for the Presidency.  That a person has done something for which they should be forgiven is not to say that the person should be elected to high office.  Moreover, someone should ask Governor Pence: wouldn’t the idea of Christian forgiveness, and of God’s grace, extend to Bill and Hillary Clinton, too?  Or are those gifts available only to Republicans?

Additionally, the “Bill Clinton Is Also A Bad Guy” strategy is both illogical and self-defeating.  I am not sure how it benefits Trump to get into a morality contest with Bill Clinton.  Moreover, those who are firmly in the Trump camp already despise the Clintons.  Trump’s goal should be not to preach to the converted, but to expand his support by reaching educated, suburban Republicans (chiefly women, but men, too) who do not yet support him but who generally are not fans of the Clintons, either.  Most likely, the people in that category voted for George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole.  So saying to these folks, “but what about Bill Clinton?!?  Don’t be a hypocrite!” gets Trump nowhere.  The response from this cohort is readily apparent: “I didn’t vote for Bill Clinton, either.”  In other words, these folks cannot be accused of hypocrisy in refusing to support Trump on the grounds that he lacks the character and decency to be President.  And they do not regard Hillary Clinton and her husband as equally culpable in this regard.

But, of course, there are many, many other reasons not to vote for Donald Trump.  Throughout the past year, I have identified two chief reasons why Trump is categorically unacceptable, especially for conservative Republicans: (1) he does not appear to know, or care, anything about the nature and scope of constitutional government in America; and (2) he does not appreciate the importance of limits, of restraint, of boundaries.  These shortcomings have been amply displayed throughout Trump’s campaign.  And the second one is clearly implicated by the Access Hollywood tape and the allegations against him that he has kissed or groped women without their consent, and invaded the dressing room of pageant contestants in a state of undress.  But both flaws were revealed on Sunday night in St. Louis, and that is where I wish to focus, because this race is not over.

In particular, Trump said that he would have his Attorney General appoint a special prosecutor to consider whether to prosecute Hillary Clinton.  It was not clear to me the grounds on which such a prosecution would be undertaken.  Trump meandered between accusations regarding the Clinton emails, the Clinton Foundation, and her interview with the FBI.  Of course, her FBI interview occurred this past July, well after her service in the federal government had ended.  So it was not clear whether he wanted to prosecute her for actions while Secretary of State, or after.  Perhaps he meant all of the above.

In any event, the major problem is one that others (see, e.g., here and here) have now readily identified.  In this country, we generally do not condone a president’s use of prosecutorial power to imprison his political opponents.   It is especially problematic when the president has used prosecuting his opponent as a line of attack during a campaign.  While it is true that federal prosecutors work for the President, and that the President has power to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” there is a notable tradition of keeping Presidents distant from the exercise of day-to-day prosecutorial power, particularly when the President’s political interests or personal animosities would create the appearance of using such power improperly.  To say nothing of the fact that Trump seems to be ignoring the existing federal law on how special prosecutors get selected.  There is a legal framework for doing this kind of thing, and that framework does not include presidential whim.

Still, this matter is more complicated than it has been made out to be.  Indeed, some (see., e.g., here at NR) have argued that Trump’s statement at the debate was different.  This is not, they say, a case of Clinton being prosecuted because of her status as a political opponent.  Rather, they argue, there is credible, objective evidence that she committed federal crimes that generally would warrant prosecution.  Categorically refusing to prosecute her merely because she was the Democratic nominee for President would, the argument goes, effectively place her above the law.  Trump’s suggestion does not, then, have the same “banana republic” feel that it would have if there was no evidence of Clinton’s criminality.

That is not an unreasonable line of argument.  But it has several flaws when viewed in light of Trump’s own public comments.

First, Trump complicated that argument at the debate.  When Clinton said it was good that someone with Trump’s temperament was not responsible for law enforcement, Trump interjected, “That’s because you’d be in jail.”  Trump’s childish retort therefore makes it difficult for him to argue that the whole purpose of a special prosecutor is to carefully and objectively investigate the facts and weigh the evidence, regardless of where it may lead.  His statement effectively functions as a categorical determination of her guilt.  It therefore undermines any sense of objectivity, even with a special prosecutor at the helm (federal regulations require special prosecutors to be objective and to have no conflicts of interest).  Indeed, Trump’s rallies have repeatedly been characterized by the chant “lock her up,” and that is something to which Trump explicitly agreed recently.  Passing it off as an non-serious quip (a dubious explanation) still doesn’t help.

To make matters even more complicated, Trump spoke openly about his own administration – with no mention of a special prosecutor – prosecuting Clinton well before the FBI Director publicly discussed the nature of the evidence and its own findings.  I posted about this many months ago, discussing even then the complex constitutional and legal questions that such a presidential action would involve.  The fact that Trump was pressing this matter – not just her potential criminality, but his intention to personally use the powers of the presidency against her – months before she had even been interviewed by the FBI, and before the FBI released its own decision, suggests that Trump had already formed a conclusion about her guilt.  Now, he was not the only one.  Many (far more thoughtful and intelligent) people had expressed views about her alleged criminality prior to the FBI’s recommendation and the DOJ’s decision.  But the difference is clear: there is no evidence whatsoever that Trump’s earlier statements about prosecuting her were based in any way on a careful analysis of the facts and the law.

In other words, Trump may have had a more credible basis for seeking prosecution of Clinton if he had only kept his big mouth shut.  But by constantly making public statements about his view of her guilt and condign incarceration, without any meaningful legal analysis, he has created the appearance that any subsequent investigation would be a sham, even if done by a special counsel.

I am not among those who believe that it is easy to separate politics entirely from the criminal law.  The creation and definition of crimes often involve political calculations; the chief law enforcement officer and her subordinates are political appointees, who serve at the pleasure of an elected official.  Presidents and their politically-appointed subordinates make decisions about enforcement priorities, budgets, etc.  But I would distinguish these kinds of political considerations from the exercise of prosecutorial discretion on partisan or electoral grounds.  The exercise of federal prosecutorial discretion must be objective, apolitical, and non-partisan; it must be based solely on the facts, evidence, and law; and it must carefully consider the federal and public interests in bringing a prosecution, including whether the interests of justice can be served in other ways.  I have said before that “politicization of the Justice Department” is an overused charge.  But where it is true, it is gravely dangerous to the rule of law and to constitutional government.

So Trump’s threat to investigate and prosecute Clinton may arguably be defensible on some abstract theory, but it is surely ill-advised.  The fervor of his public comments – “lock her up,” Crooked Hillary,” etc. – including those he had made earlier in the campaign, have created the appearance that any investigation and subsequent prosecution would be based in substantial part on personal animus against Clinton.  Even if there remained a good faith legal basis for a criminal prosecution, the hostility that Trump has personally shown toward Clinton, and his repeated incantations about her imprisonment, would have the effect of transforming an otherwise legitimate inquiry into an attack on the rule of law.  And it would represent yet another instance in which Trump’s pettiness, petulance, and self-absorption led him to ignore appropriate boundaries.