Trump’s Escalating Assault on the Rule of Law: The True Ground for Impeachment

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By Frank Bowman

As many others have observed, the longer the Trump era continues, the more we become desensitized to almost-daily assaults on basic norms of republican government and the rule of law.

Today, the person in the White House issued a Tweet that, in any previous era, indeed even a year ago, would have summoned an avalanche of condemnation from every corner of the civic and political world.  He said:

Two long running, Obama era, investigations of two very popular Republican Congressmen were brought to a well publicized charge, just ahead of the Mid-Terms, by the Jeff Sessions Justice Department. Two easy wins now in doubt because there is not enough time. Good job Jeff……

In short, Mr. Trump is saying — openly, plainly, overtly, with no tinge of embarrassment or shame — that the United States Department of Justice should not indict crooked politicians if they are of the same party as the president.

The fact that the two congressmen in question are, without serious question, as guilty as it is possible to be — Duncan Hunter stole at least $250,000 in campaign funds and spent it on himself and his wife, and in 2017 Chris Collins was photographed committing insider trading while on the White House lawn — cuts no ice with Trump.  The idea that the job of the Department of Justice is to prosecute the guilty regardless of party is as far beyond Trump’s comprehension as the particulars of Einstein’s theory of relativity.  Every component of the federal government exists only to serve him. The Justice Department exists to punish his enemies and sweep the sins of his sycophants under the rug.  And he no longer bothers even to pretend otherwise.

Let us be absolutely clear on one point — No other president in the history of these United States has ever publicly said anything remotely approximating Trump’s outburst today.  So far as we know, only one other president has privately entertained such views … and when they became public knowledge in the Watergate scandal, he was forced to resign to avoid impeachment.

But as sure as eggs is eggs, the response from Republicans to this historic repudiation of a bedrock principle of American governance will be … silence.

And even among Trump’s opponents, outrage will be muted.  Because one can sustain fury, even when fury is merited, only so long.  And the outrage will be fleeting.  Because, since Trump knows nothing he says or does will evoke even a muted whimper of protest from the organization formerly known as the Grand Old Party that now cringes at his feet, tomorrow will bring a new abomination that will supplant memory of today’s. He is slowly — no, not slowly, but with frightening speed — warping our collective sense of tolerable behavior in public office, indeed of right and wrong itself.

Should Democrats win control of Congress in November, and should they be disposed to consider impeachment, this is where their attention should focus.  Not, for heaven’s sake, on whether he paid off two women of doubtful virtue (and even more doubtful discrimination in their choice of personal companions) to keep them quiet.  Not on whether Trump did or didn’t know in advance about the dodgy Trump Tower meeting with the Russian envoys.  The central impeachable offense here is not personal immorality, or incidental violations of this or that statute, or even an obvious willingness to accept electoral assistance from a longstanding national foe.  All of these are evidence of Trump’s primary impeachable offense, but are not the offense itself. The core of any impeachment effort must rest on Trump’s daily destruction of the norms of behavior that make constitutional government possible.

Since 1640, when Parliament impeached the Earl of Strafford for his efforts to elevate royal prerogative over the common law and substitute the will of the monarch for the judgment of Parliament, it has been an impeachable offense “to subvert the ancient and well established form of government … and instead thereof to introduce an arbitrary and tyrannical way of government.”  That’s what we face in the United States in 2018.  And we need to be bold and honest enough to do something about it.

NOTE: Since I first posted this yesterday, the Republican response (with the single exception of Sen. Ben Sasse R-Neb., who is not running for reelection) has, as predicted, been … silence.

Suing Trump over Free Speech Violations

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It was reported today that Donald Trump unblocked several more Twitter accounts pursuant to a ruling from May 23rd. U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald in Manhattan held that government official’s twitter accounts were public forums and that blocking users based on their political beliefs was a violation of their first amendment rights. Sonja R. West, of the University of Georgia School of Law, offers a more in depth analysis of the intricacies of bringing a first amendment lawsuit against the President in her article entitled Suing the President for First Amendment ViolationsThough she expresses some doubt about the capacity of one to sue the President for first amendment violations, West concludes: “courts should take into account the potential damage to our public debate if the President cannot be held accountable for violating the expressive rights of the people.” It would seem that Judge Buchwald agreed.

trump-on-phone.pngTheHustle.co

The Value of Weisselberg

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This Bloomberg article, written by Justin Sink, accounts for each of the Trump associates which are now helping to build a case against the President. Interestingly, included among their numbers is Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization. Information from Weisselberg could prove especially threatening to Trump.  He has been the C.F.O of the Trump Organization for years,  has worked with the Trump family in some capacity since 1970, serves as treasurer to President Trump’s personal foundation, and is the only non-family member that serves as a trustee to the trust that owns the Trump Organizations business interests. This is significant, because investigators have been previously unable to access Trump’s financial records. Now they have the next best thing. Weisselberg, with his intimate knowledge of the President’s finances, could provide the information previously sought from the records, such as evidence of Russian dealings or violations of the foreign emoluments clause. Even if this information is not sufficient to build a case, it could very well be sufficient enough to get a subpoena for the President’s records.

im-23399.jpgThe Wall  Street Journal

Impeachment for Concealing the Mistresses? Not Now, Maybe Later

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By Frank Bowman

On August 21, 2018, Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former lawyer, pled guilty to eight felony charges, including two campaign finance violations.  The last two impose criminal liability for Mr. Cohen’s role in paying two women involved in affairs with Mr. Trump to prevent their stories from becoming public before the election.  Critically, during his plea colloquy with the judge, Mr. Cohen stated under oath that, “I participated in this conduct … for the principal purpose of influencing the [2016 presidential] election,”  and acted “in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office” — Mr. Trump.

Cohen’s statement, if true, means that Mr. Trump is guilty of a conspiracy to violate election law under 18 U.S.C. Sec. 371, and of the election law violations themselves under a complicity theory, 18 U.S.C. Sec. 2.  Of course, as has been discussed ad infinitum over the past year, the Justice Department has a policy not to indict a sitting president and there is no indication that they intend to deviate from that policy now.

So lots of folks (including Chuck Todd of NBC, Bret Stephens of the NY Times, and my energetic student and blog co-author Sam Crosby) have jumped immediately to the suggestion that these campaign finance violations constitute proper grounds for impeachment.  I disagree, for both constitutional and political reasons.  At best, depending on how the Mueller investigation finally plays out, the payoffs could form part of a plausible impeachment argument.

First, some background.  The constitution defines impeachable conduct as “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” Treason and bribery are crimes, but “high crimes and misdemeanors” need not be.  The phrase is a term of art adopted from British parliamentary impeachments and was not limited to criminal conduct. Two centuries of American usage have confirmed this point. Commission of a crime is not a necessary precondition for impeachment.

Conversely, not every violation of the criminal code is impeachable. The constitution speaks of impeachment for ‘”misdemeanors” — or perhaps only “high misdemeanors” — but it is well nigh impossible to think of any modern crime classified as a misdemeanor that would justify removal of a president.  Jaywalking. Shoplifting stuff worth less than $300. Driving under revocation. Punching somebody in the nose in a fit of anger.  All misdemeanor crimes. But preposterous as grounds for impeachment.

Not even all felonies are proper grounds for impeachment. The basic rule that has evolved over the years is that “high crimes and misdemeanors” are serious offenses that either endanger the political order or demonstrate an official’s manifest unfitness to continue in office — which if the official is the president necessarily endangers the political order.

This is the lesson of the Clinton affair.  Did Bill Clinton commit the felony of perjury when he lied about sex with Monica Lewinsky? Surely.  He was impeached by the House of Representatives for doing so.  Yet he was acquitted by the Senate.  Not because he didn’t lie, but because many senators just didn’t think lying about sex was sufficiently important to merit removal of a president.

The parallel to Mr. Trump’s situation is plain.  Trump was engaged in extramarital sex.  He wanted to hide it. He arranged to pay off one of them and to reimburse the publisher of the National Enquirer for its payments to the other for the rights to her story.  Neither the sex nor even the payments were in themselves unlawful.  What made Michael Cohen a felon is that paying off the women to aid a candidate is a political contribution.  One of the payments was apparently made by the Trump Organization, and corporate contributions made directly to presidential candidates are illegal.  The other payment (to “Stormy Daniels”) was made by Cohen personally, but it far exceeded the legal limit of $2,700 per person per candidate.  Cohen made one payment and arranged the other.  Trump allegedly asked that he do it.  Hence, two crimes.

But the crimes were in the payments.  One from an illegal source, the other in an illegal amount.  What they bought — concealment of embarrassing sexual escapades — is completely irrelevant under election law.  Cohen (and Trump) would be equally guilty if the money was used to buy a shipload of red MAGA hats.

In Mr. Clinton’s case, his Republican opponents endlessly recited the mantra, “It’s not the sex. It’s the lying under oath.”  Here, Mr. Trump’s pursuers could (and some surely will) say, “It’s not the sex, it’s the concealment in violation of election law.”

One can argue that Trump’s violation of laws designed to protect the integrity of elections is more indicative of unfitness for office than Clinton’s perjury because Trump’s offense relates to the democratic process.  That is a key point, and I’ll return to it in a moment.  But the fact remains that the essence of Cohen’s payoffs of Trump’s former inamoratas is extramarital sex and a guy trying to cover it up.  The parallel to Clinton is just too strong for the Democratic Party to press for impeachment on this ground.  The cries of hypocrisy would be too loud … and they would in large measure be justified.

But what about the fact that Cohen says Trump helped him violate election law — statutes designed to protect the integrity of the democratic electoral process ?  The Founders were quite clear that efforts by a presidential candidate to corrupt the process by which he was selected would be impeachable.

At the Constitutional Convention, George Mason (who introduced the phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” into the constitution) maintained that a president who “procured his appointment” by corrupting the “electors” must be impeachable. Gouverneur Morris made the same point. By “electors” they meant members of the Electoral College because that regrettable institution was envisioned by the Founders as a body of illustrious men selected by the states who would exercise their independent judgment in selecting a proper president for the nation.  As originally designed, the process of picking a president had no place for voting by the citizenry.  The “electors” made the choice.

To the Founders, the only obvious way of corrupting the presidential selection process was to corrupt the tiny circle of eligible voters – the electors.  Today, of course, electors exercise no independent judgment.  They merely transmit the preference of the voters of their state.  Presidential elections are now supposed to be essentially, if sometimes imperfectly, democratic exercises that reflect the will of the people. Therefore, practical modern electoral corruption must take the form of distorting the judgment of the electorate, rather than the electors.

That sort of corruption, if of sufficient magnitude, might be impeachable — with two large caveats.

First, the arts of voter persuasion inevitably have some aspects of flim-flam.   Political spinning, concealment of one’s own flaws, factually questionable slurs on an opponent’s record or character, appeals to emotion rather than logic — all could be said to distort reasoned voter choice.  But just being an ordinary politician can’t be an impeachable offense.  Even concealment of a disreputable fact about one’s past surely cannot alone be impeachable. Everybody has skeletons.  Impeachments on this ground would permit relitigation in Congress of every presidential election.

Second, therefore an impeachment on grounds of corrupting the electorate would have to be based on behavior so far outside the elastic norms of modern political conduct that it both demonstrated the successful candidate’s contempt for the democratic process and put the fair operation of democracy at risk.

Mistress-payoff election violations are too inconsequential (and too obvious a parallel to the Clinton debacle).  To figure at all in a serious impeachment case, those payoffs would have to be part of a larger pattern of  illegal or plainly illegitimate conduct designed to give the candidate an unfair advantage or to deceive the electorate.  Better yet, they should be part of a pattern of conduct that does not merely give advantage to a candidate, but places him under an obligation to some person or entity or foreign power whose interests are inimical to the United States.  In short, all the stuff that Robert Mueller is looking into.

The suspense continues….

The Consequences of Pardoning Manafort

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Today marked the second day of jury deliberations for the trial of Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign manager. Manafort is being tried for 18 criminal charges for bank and tax fraud related to the time he spent working for a Ukrainian political party. Manafort refused to cooperate with the Mueller investigation, and it has been theorized that this decision was based on a belief that President Trump would pardon him if he were convicted.

Whether Trump will pardon Manafort is unknown; however he has used his pardon power politically in the past, and his former lawyer, John Down, apparently broached the subject of a possible pardon with Manafort’s lawyers. When asked whether he would consider pardoning Manafort, the President refused to say, but did comment that  “the whole . . .  trial is very sad.”

In an article written for the American Constitutional Society, entitled Why President Trump Can’t Pardon His Way Out of the Special Counsel and Cohen InvestigationsNoah Bookbinder, Norman Eisen, Caroline Fredrickson, and Conor Shaw write that “a prospective pardon of a witness in the Russia investigation might . . . constitute an obstruction of a criminal investigation . . . .” They are referring to section 1510 of title 18 of the the United States Code, which makes the “[willful endeavoring], by means of bribery to obstruct, delay, or prevent the communication of information relating to a violation of any criminal statute of the United States by any person to a criminal investigator” a federal crime. If President Trump did, directly or indirectly, promise Manafort a pardon in exchange for his refusal to cooperate with Mueller, then he may not only be subject to criminal indictment but yet another article of impeachment as well.

5b3f9a219e2a102f008b47ed-750-375.jpgDrew Angerer/Getty Images

 

British Impeachments & the Age of Trump

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By Frank Bowman

I’ve been pretty quiet on the blogging front for the the last month.  Travel and family have accounted for some of the silence, but mostly I’ve been working on my upcoming book on impeachment, due out from the University of Cambridge Press in 2019.

As I go, I’m developing some of the material into freestanding articles for publication in law journals. One that just went out is titled, “British Impeachments (1376-1787) & the Present American Constitutional Crisis.”  The abstract is reprinted below.  If you’re interested in exploring the topic, you can download the article from the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) for free by clicking on this link, and then pressing the “Download This Paper” button.  Enjoy.  Feedback welcome.

Impeachment is a British invention. It arose as one of a set of tools employed by Parliament in its long contest with the Crown over the reach of the monarch’s authority. British impeachment practice matters to Americans because the framers and ratifiers of the U.S. Constitution were the conscious heirs of Britain’s political evolution. The founders’ understanding of British history influenced their decision to include impeachment in the American constitution and their conception of how impeachment fit in a balanced system of ostensibly co-equal branches. It also produced two central features of American impeachment: the limitation of remedy to removal from office and the definition of impeachable conduct, particularly the famous phrase “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” adopted directly from British parliamentary language.

Therefore, at a moment when impeachment talk is rampant, a reexamination of British impeachments is in order. This Article is the first comprehensive analysis of the entire arc of British impeachments from 1376 to 1787 since Raoul Berger’s classic 1974 study. It gives particular attention to issues raised by the current presidency.

The Article traces the evolution of Parliament’s use of impeachment and of the categories of behavior customarily designated as impeachable. These embraced, but were never limited to, indictable crimes, and included: armed rebellion and other overt treasons; common crimes like murder and rape; corruption (particularly the abuse of office for self-enrichment); incompetence, neglect, or maladministration of office; and betrayal of the nation’s foreign policy interests. The last of these categories has not been emphasized in modern American scholarship, but assumes particular salience in the present moment.

Finally, and crucially, the Article concludes that, although Parliament sometimes used impeachment for less dramatic ends, its one indispensable function was removal of officials whose behavior threatened the constitutional order by promoting royal/executive absolutism over representative institutions and the rule of law. Critics of the incumbent president may find this thread of British precedent both poignant and potentially useful.

12 Agents, Butina, and Helsinki

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Good news! The Russian scandal now officially can be sung to the tune of the Twelve Days of Christmas: 12 Russian agents, Butina’s russian channel, election interference, PUTIN “STRONG AND POWERFUL!”  Which is good, because everything else is not sounding quite so festive.

The indictments of 12 Russian agents, for the hacking of the Democratic National Convention and the Clinton Presidential Campaign, and the filing of charges against Mariia Butina, a Russian woman who allegedly tried to broker secret meetings between President Putin and President Trump, further confirm  what the intelligence community already knew: that Russia interfered with the 2016 federal elections. As if that wasn’t frightening enough, our President doesn’t seem to mind. After meeting with Putin in Helsinki and asking him about the Russian meddling, Trump could only comment about the strength of Putin’s denial. Needless to say, Americans are feeling a bit miffed. But where does this leave us in the impeachment debate?

There are two arguments to be made here. The first and, most obvious, is that all this adds to potential charges of conspiracy to defraud the United States. The more certain we are that Russia interfered with the election, the stronger the case for collusion becomes. Of course to establish collusion, it would have to be shown that there was some agreement between Trump and Russia. To that point it helps that there are ties between the indicted Russians and members of Trump’s campaign. In addition, though Trump’s ongoing support of Putin is not direct evidence of conspiracy, it does have a suggestive quality and could indicate a more nefarious relationship between the two.

One may also consider Trump’s reaction as an example of his unfitness. It can be argued that a failure to reprimand the leader of a country which has taken action to defraud the United States is a failure of one of the most basic duties of the President: that of the Chief Diplomat. This can be added to the list of the President’s other shortcomings; however it is unclear how long a list is required to lead to removal.

download.jpgYURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images

 

Trump’s Foreign Policy Is Impeachable

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By Frank Bowman

By any objective measure, Donald Trump’s conduct of American foreign policy, particularly over the past six months or so, has been a catastrophe.  He has persistently — and quite consciously — alienated our most faithful traditional allies, disrupted critical trade arrangements, and undermined vital security relationships both in Europe and across the globe, while at the same time cozying up to vicious dictatorships and promoting authoritarian rulers even in recently democratic states.  He is systematically destroying a world order created over seventy years by American statesmen of both parties, an order that has not only maintained peace among the great powers and seen steadily improved standards of living worldwide, but has already made America first among the nations of the earth.

But what, you may ask, can be done about it between now and the 2020 election?  The answer, as always when dealing with this catastrophic man, is nothing … at least until Democrats win at least one house of Congress and at least some Republicans are sufficiently shamed by their craven abandonment of every foreign policy principle they ever claimed to stand for to join with Democrats in blocking Trump’s demolition of America’s position in the world.

If such a (concededly unlikely) epiphany were to occur among Trump’s Republican abettors — most likely as a result of a midterm electoral drubbing — then there is a remedy for Trump’s foreign policy carnage.  Impeachment.

This suggestion will, of course, be dismissed by the Trumpian chorus as a wild liberal fever dream. Certainly, the political obstacles to successful impeachment on any ground are daunting. But as a constitutional matter, indeed as a matter of the original intention of the Framers, there is no serious question that a president is impeachable for activities in the foreign policy sphere that seriously undermine the national interest.

Impeachment is a British invention, employed by Parliament beginning in 1376 to resist the general tendency of the monarchy to absolutism and to counter particularly obnoxious royal policies by removing the ministers who implemented them.

During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the delegates decided that presidents and other federal officers could be impeached, but they wrestled over what conduct should be impeachable. Various formulations were advanced.  As the convention rounded into the home stretch, the phrase that had taken hold was “treason or bribery.”

George Mason objected because he thought “treason and bribery” far too narrow.  Mason was a student of British impeachment and had authored the post-revolutionary impeachment provisions of the Virginia state constitution.  He wanted a federal impeachment remedy analogous to British practice at least in the conduct it covered, even if not in the sorts of brutal personal punishments Parliament could impose.

“Treason,” Mason said, “will not reach many great and dangerous offences. Hastings is not guilty of treason.” He was referring to the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings, Governor General India, just about to start in England. Mason wanted American impeachments to reach beyond the two indictable crimes of treason and bribery to important breaches of public trust in both the domestic and foreign sphere, the kinds of offenses charged against Hastings.

Mason’s solution was to add the word “maladministration” after bribery. But James Madison rose to object, saying, “So vague a term will be equivalent to a tenure during pleasure of the Senate.”

Mason thought the matter over and came back with a compromise. Omit “maladministration” but add to treason and bribery “other high crimes and misdemeanors.”  The new language passed 8 states to 3.

Mason’s choice of “high crimes and misdemeanors” was not whimsical.  Rather, he lifted it from British practice where, beginning in the 1600s, Parliament increasingly (though not invariably) used this phrase to describe conduct it charged as impeachable.  As a result, one of the perennial arguments in American impeachments is over whether the Framers intended “high crimes and misdemeanors” as a term of art limiting impeachable conduct to only those misdeeds impeached by Parliament prior to 1787.

My study of both British and American impeachments convinces me that “high crimes and misdemeanors” does not limit Congressional impeachment power to the necessarily idiosyncratic and antique list of misdeeds Parliament had addressed by 1787.  Both Parliament and the Framers were acutely conscious that the sorts of dangerous public misconduct for which impeachment is a necessary remedy could not easily be described in advance.

However, the Framers’ choice of “high crimes and misdemeanors” does set the baseline minimum for the scope of American impeachments. In other words, even if one accepts both the originalist approach to American constitutional interpretation and that the founders meant to restrict American impeachment within the boundaries set by British practice, that means American officials are properly impeachable for at least the range of conduct covered by British practice.

A persistent theme in British impeachments was the charge that the impeached minister had pursued a policy at odds with the nation’s basic foreign policy interests.  Impeachments on this ground were a constant beginning with the charges against William de la Pole in 1450 for his role in arranging the marriage of Henry VI to Margaret of Anjou.  The Duke of Buckingham was impeached in 1626 in part for loaning English ships to the French to employ against the Protestant Huguenots at Rochelle.  In 1678, the Earl of Danby was impeached for assisting King Charles in negotiations with France for British neutrality in the Franco-Dutch War.  Lords Oxford, Bolingbroke, and Strafford were impeached in 1715 for their advocacy of the Treaty of Utrecht, which was widely despised as selling out Britain’s Dutch allies in favor of making accommodations with Britain’s traditional enemy France. And Warren Hastings’ 1787 impeachment, so central to George Mason’s thinking, centered on fundamental disagreements about the proper relationship of Great Britain to its Indian possessions and the states that abutted them.   

Over and over again, Parliament employed impeachment to assert an authority independent of the royal executive to define the nation’s true foreign policy interests. That Congress has believed itself to have similar authority is demonstrated by the first impeachment in American history, that of Senator William Blount, charged in 1797 with conspiring to assist the British in acquiring Spanish territory in Florida.  Blount was acquitted, but only because there were doubts that senators are “civil officers” subject to impeachment and because he had already resigned.

President Trump’s disparagement or outright abandonment of long-established defense and trade relationships with democratic states in Europe, the Americas, and Asia in favor of self-destructive mercantilism, “America First” isolationism, and a growing affinity for authoritarian regimes such as Russia, China, Hungary, Turkey, and the Philippines is far more destructive of American interests than Senator Blount’s failed Florida adventure or any of the policies for which Parliament routinely impeached royal ministers.

A Congress with any sense of America’s true interests, or indeed with any sense of responsibility for the continued peace and prosperity of the world in general, would be entirely within its constitutional authority to impeach Donald Trump.

 

 

 

 

Kavanaugh, Kavanaugh, Kavanaugh

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Have you heard? A new Supreme Court Justice has been appointed. His name is Brett Kavanaugh, he hails from the U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit, and he’s got Democrats a little bit nervous. Why? Because they think he may try to shield Trump from the Mueller investigation.

Kavanaugh argued in an article written for the Minnesota Law Review in 2009 that sitting presidents should be immune from civil suit and criminal indictment. He cited the investigation of Clinton as a reason for this view, and has implied “that the Starr investigation distracted Clinton from focusing on Osama bin Laden.” Some find this view alarming — however, take a deep breath. As Noah Feldman points out, in an article published by Bloomberg Law, what Kavanaugh actually suggests is that Congress should pass a law that would protect the President. Inherent in that suggestion is an admission that the Supreme Court does not have the power to immunize the President itself. So worries that the Justices may, for instance, enjoin Mueller’s invesitgation, are probably unfounded.

That being said,  that doesn’t mean Kavanaugh cannot be of use to the President in other ways. Kavanaugh may rule that the President can pardon himself, as Trump has suggested in the past. Alternatively, Congress may just take Kavanaugh up on his suggestion and pass a law immunizing Trump. Much remains to be seen.

1200x-1.jpgAl Drago/Bloomberg