The President Is Not Above the Law

The Wall Street Journal’s June 1-2 Opinion piece entitled “Congress Can’t Outsource Impeachment” (at A13) is remarkable both for its deliberate distortion of the facts about the Mueller Report and the illogic of its arguments dressed in the sheep’s clothing of constitutional rigor.

One of the authors is David B. Rivkin, Jr., a partner in a big Washington DC law firm, who, according to the Federalist Society, is “lead outside counsel for the 28 States that have challenged the constitutionality of EPA’s Clean Power Plan…. He also has represented the 26 States that have challenged the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act [Obamacare].” The other author, Elizabeth Price Foley, is “of counsel” to the same law firm and a professor at Florida International University College of Law.

The Opinion piece consumes two-thirds of an entire page of the WSJ. The essential argument is that, consistently with the constitutional separation of powers, Congress may not “outsource” an investigation of the president’s conduct to any part of the Executive Branch by demanding that the Department of Justice turn over documents obtained in its own, probably unlawful, investigation of the president. Instead, according to Rivkin/Foley, Congress must somehow conduct an independent investigation, not relying on the prior work of the Executive Branch, and then only about “open and notorious” crimes and misdemeanors. Such an independent investigation, with possible impeachment as its sole possible outcome, must “articulate clear evidence” of the alleged crimes at the outset.

The article goes on to conclude that since the president oversees the Executive Branch, investigations of a sitting president by the prosecutors in that government division are also inappropriate and invite a “coup.” Thus, absent some open and obvious violation of a law, the president, in the authors’ view, is immune from accountability except by being voted out of office in the next election. He is, as a practical matter, a King of the United States while he serves. These ideas resemble very closely the thoughts and words of the current sitting president but are at total war with the meaning of the Constitution and a politically driven misrepresentation of the separation-of-powers scheme set out there.

In reaching these astonishing positions, the Opinion piece misstates the conclusions of the Mueller Report, not once, but six times! Let’s take a closer look.

The authors note that the Mueller investigation “found no wrongdoing by President Trump” and after two years of work, the Mueller team “did not find that Mr. Trump had committed crimes.” While it’s certainly true that Mueller, feeling bound by DOJ policy that forbids indicting a sitting president and for reasons of fairness (unfair to accuse but hold no trial) did not state ultimate conclusions that crimes were committed, he did in fact lay out in detail the evidence of multiple explicit attempts by Trump, directly and through subordinates, to quash/deflect/control and actually terminate the Mueller investigation. The Report then applied the law to the facts and … stopped there, for the reasons stated. But in the end,

“… if we had confidence … that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” [Mueller Report at 394]

There is no ambiguity about that statement, particularly considering the detailed legal analysis that preceded in, an analysis that thoroughly demolishes the argument of Trump’s attorney that when the president fires the FBI Director, he is exercising his constitutional authority and may not be questioned about it no matter what his motives. In those circumstances, the president argued, he is per se immune from challenge. Mueller demolished that argument in the closing sections of his report.

Rightly or wrongly [see Note at end], Mueller believed he could not reach a traditional prosecutorial finding, but that did not stop him from finding the facts and laying them against the legal standards for obstruction of justice. Mueller walked the investigative horse right up to the trough but did not drink — a far cry from finding the president was innocent. The Mueller report makes no finding that Trump did not obstruct justice and any suggestion to the contrary is, to put the best light on it, political gaslighting.

Rivkin/Foley have conflated what Mueller stated about ultimate conclusions with what Mueller reported about the facts and legal elements of obstruction of justice. The authors say that it was then Attorney General Barr’s “duty” to make the findings that Mueller declined to make, but the source of that “duty” is neither clear nor obvious. Trump’s appointed AG himself blatantly misrepresented what Mueller had found by claiming that Trump was in fact “exonerated” when Mueller explicitly said otherwise.

Rivkin/Foley repeat their misstatement of Mueller’s conclusions multiple times: “the nation’s law enforcement officials have concluded Mr. Trump has not committed any crimes;” “he was cleared by the Mueller investigation;” “criminal accusations that prosecutors have rejected;” “second-guessing the prosecutors and recasting Mr. Trump’s conduct as criminal law violations.” Repetition does not make the statements any truer. All are plainly contrary to the facts and of a piece with AG Barr’s false narrative. Indeed, it seems virtually certain that they are based entirely on Barr’s misrepresentations about the Mueller report rather than the report itself.

Distilled to its central ideas, the Rivkin/Foley argument comes down to this:

  • Congress must conduct its own investigation of the facts if it wants to consider impeaching the president – it can’t just collect the documents Mueller found/created because Mueller doesn’t work for Congress; that would be “outsourcing” and outsourcing is bad;
  • The only potentially impeachable conduct is “open and notorious” such as an overt refusal to follow a law directed at the president’s execution of his duties; they cite the example of Andrew Johnson’s firing of War Secretary Edwin Stanton in “open defiance” of the Tenure in Office Act;
  • Impeachment can only begin when Congress is able to “articulate clear evidence” of high crimes and misdemeanors.

The practical effect of this approach is that the president can be neither investigated nor impeached by either the Executive Branch (FBI/DOJ) or Congress.

How then is Congress to “articulate clear evidence” when it has to, in effect, recreate the entire Mueller investigation from scratch? If the standard is that the “high crimes and misdemeanors,” in order to be impeachable, must be conducted openly and obviously in public by refusing to follow an explicit statutory command, how does the country deal with a president who, like Donald Trump, operated behind the public screen, using intermediaries to direct much of his dirty work of suppressing investigation, urging/threatening witnesses to secure false testimony and all the rest that is set out in nauseating detail in Mueller’s report?

Rivkin/Foley want this both ways, with the end result that the president cannot be investigated or held to account for obstruction of justice at all. And, in truth, they concede this at about the two-thirds mark in their exegesis when they dispute Mueller’s argument that the president may be guilty of obstruction of justice, even when purportedly carrying out his Executive Branch authority, by firing the FBI Director when he has corrupt motives to protect himself personally rather than to execute some policy within his constitutional authority. In the authors’ view, the president is simply and totally immune from accountability in such cases. Neither the Executive Branch nor Congress can investigate him and, since the courts are not equipped to conduct such activities at all, there is no one left but King Donald.

With all due respect, there are no kings in America. That’s one of the main reasons the Revolutionary War was fought. So much blood was not shed to put in place a system in which an elected executive becomes a ruler above the reach of law. Mueller’s report, at 181, states it well:

… the protection of the criminal justice system from corrupt acts by any person – including the President – accords with the fundamental principle of our government that “[n]o [person] in this country is so high that he is above the law. [case cites omitted; italics added]”

Note to Readers: I have finished reading the entire Mueller Report, all 448 pages. While I appear to be defending the Report in the above post, I rely on it mainly to prevent the distortion of its meaning, however constrained, as Trump’s supporters continue trying to rewrite history in his favor. I am convinced that Mueller made catastrophically poor decisions in the course of the investigation that led to outcomes far short of what was justified by the facts uncovered, among other shortcomings. I will shortly be posting a series of articles analyzing the Report in detail, so stay tuned.

4 thoughts on “The President Is Not Above the Law

  1. shiningseausa Post author

    That phrase is not in the Constitution. It is the “creation” of the authors of the WSJ article. As best I understand the concept, it would work like this. Congress loses its mind and appropriates billions for Trump’s border wall but specifies that the money can only be spent for a wall 6 feet high. Scenario 1: Trump issues an Executive Order for a wall 30 feet high. That “open and notorious flaunting of the law would be an impeachable offense. Scenario 2: Same law passes. Trump Executive Order says “thanks.” Trump in private meetings secretly orders Secretary of Homeland Security to build a 30 foot wall. Not “open & notorious.” Not impeachable.

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      1. shiningseausa Post author

        Third Scenario would raise the issue whether the power to declare emergencies is absolute or subject to some limitations related, among other things, to the personal interests of the president in, for example, stopping/deflecting an investigation of his possible criminal conduct while in office. Third Scenario may be coming, most likely in form of “the election of 2020 was rigged against me and I will not recognize it.” Since Trump is not a student of history, or apparently anything else, he will fail to understand that the people will not accept a full-on dictator. Blood will likely then be spilled in the Second American Revolution. Let us hope that those around him are sane enough and still attached to the country sufficiently to prevent him from going that far. Time will, as usual, tell.

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