An Obligation to Impeach?

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House Democrats are reportedly shying away from impeachment, even in light of Michael Cohen’s testimony, which may have implicated President Trump in acts of tax fraud, insurance fraud, and campaign finance violations. The New York times characterized the Dem’s approach to the impeachment inquiry as “a thousand cuts over a swing of the ax;” meaning a drawn out investigation has a greater chance of injuring Trump, by lowering his chance of reelection, than impeachment does, which could energize his base. However, the unwillingness to, at least doggedly, pursue impeachment, begs the question “is there an obligation to impeach?” Constitutional scholars have said no. Akhil Reed Amar wrote in his article On Impeaching Presidents, published in the wake of the Clinton Impeachment, about prosecutorial discretion in administering impeachment:

Article I, Section 2, of the Constitution gives the House the “power” to impeach, but imposes no duty to impeach. The Framers knew how to use the word “duty”–indeed they used it twice in Article II–and so there is no ambiguity here. House impeachment is about power, not duty–about choices, not obligations. Impeachment is never reducible to one question: Is the conduct in question impeachable? Instead it always also implicates a second question: Is it worth it? Just as a grand jury can legitimately decline to indict and a prosecutor may legitimately decline to prosecute as a matter of discretion– fairness concerns, resource constraints, bigger fish to fry, avoidance of undue harm to third parties–so too the new House may decide that the President and, more importantly, the nation have suffered enough. . . . The new House must be free to use this power as it sees fit. It is not a potted plant, and indeed enjoys greater democratic legitimacy than the lame-duck House that voted to impeach, contrary to the spirit of the people’s verdict in the November congressional election.

Regardless, Democrats should consider the value of precedent. Even if harming Trump’s chances of reelection has the same effect as his removal, it fails to set an example for future congressmen.

aeb39ce2-3c72-4653-8f31-900ad2bcbd3f-AP_Trump.jpgEvan Vucci, AP

House Democrats Targeting Trump’s Finances

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Democrats of the House of Representatives, specifically the House Financial Services and Intelligence committees, are planning to use their subpoena power to uncover President Trump’s dealings with Deutsche Bank, a German bank which has funded Trump’s real estate ventures over the years. The dealings are viewed with scrutiny because the bank previously played a role in Russian money laundering. Investigation into this area could determine whether the Trump Organization was also engaged in money laundering, and, if confirmed, strengthen the case for Russian collusion.

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Is Mueller Almost Finished?

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CNN Reported today that Special Counsel Robert Mueller may conclude his investigation as early as next week. Their information apparently came from sources familiar with Attorney General Bill Barr’s plan to announce the completion. But! Don’t get too excited. Though Mueller’s report may be finished soon, that doesn’t mean the public or Congress will get to see it.

The regulations which govern Special Counsels are contained in part 600 of title 28 of the Code of Federal Regulations. 28 CFR 600.8 says that when Mueller gets done, he needs to send his final product off to the Attorney General, Bill Barr. 28 CFR 600.9 says that Barr only has to tell Congress 1) that Mueller is done; and 2) if he disagreed with any of Mueller’s suggested actions because they were “inappropriate and unwarranted,” and an explanation of that conclusion. So what we’ll find out is, for the most part, at Barr’s discretion. However, Barr told Congress during his confirmation hearing that he intends to release his own summary of the report, and will be as transparent as possible within the confines of the law (for a thorough analysis of Barr’s statements, click here). If Barr releases less than what Congress would like, their remedy is a subpoena.

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The National Emergency; He’s Done It

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President Trump has declared a national emergency to help fund the construction of his border-wall between the United States and Mexico. The move could potentially increase funds from the $1.35 billion authorized by Congress to $8 billion, in part borrowed from Defense spending. Trump has simultaneously categorized the emergency as necessitated by the “invasion” from the south and admitted that he just wants to get the job done faster. Mixed signals such as these, as well as the general nature of what has been dubbed the President’s “vanity project,” have caused many to label Trump’s action as an abuse of his authority.

Professor Frank Bowman previously considered and wrote about the impeachability of Trump in light of such a flagrant declaration of national emergency. His post should be read in full and can be found here. However, to borrow from his conclusion, he wrote that whether such an action is impeachable depends in part on signals of its unconstitutionality. These signals can come in two forms: 1)  a majority vote in both houses of Congress to undermine Trump’s declaration; and 2) a decision by the Supreme Court that Trump’s action is unconstitutional.

Though both high hurdles, neither signal is impossible. It should be noted that several Republican Senators and Representatives have already spoken out against Trump’s declaration. Additionally, the first suit to challenge the constitutionality of the decision has already been filed by Public Citizen.

donald-trump-ap-01-jpo-190215_hpMain_16x9_992.jpgSusan Walsh/AP

President Trump and International Consequences

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Many of the positions President Trump has taken on important foreign policy issues and agreements have been unorthodox, even radical, and have caused public concern. Professor Bowman has argued they may even be impeachable. In fact, Trump’s foreign policy decisions have been so varied and strange, they can be difficult to account for.

Jack Goldsmith and Shannon Togawa Mercer have compiled an account of President Trump’s attack on international law in their forthcoming article International Law and Institutions in the Trump Era. They examine Trump’s decisions on trade, investment, climate, arms control, diplomacy, war, human rights, and his performance at international conferences, and write about their likely effect. Here is an excerpt:

President Trump has altered the United States stance toward international law and institutions in the first two years of his presidency in the following ways: He has verbally assaulted or threatened many of the major international institutions to which the United States belongs (most notably, the UN and several of its agencies, NATO, the WTO, NAFTA, and the G7); he has withdrawn from, or begun the process of withdrawing from, at least six international treaty regimes, including the Paris Agreement, the Iran Deal, and the INF Treaty; he has ceased negotiations for, or announced an intention not to conclude, at least two important trade agreements; he has begun a global trade war in possible violation of WTO rules; he twice attacked the Assad regime in probable violation of the Charter of the UN (UN Charter); and he sharply redirected United States human rights law policy along several dimensions and might have violated United States treaty commitments with his immigration policies.

For a comprehensive and academic review of Trump’s (possibly impeachable) foreign policy, check out the link above.

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Prof. Bowman on SLATE on Jeff Bezos’ allegation that AMI tried to blackmail him

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See this link to Professor Bowman’s discussion in Slate magazine of the Jeff Bezos extortion allegations, their effect on the non-prosecution agreement between the National Enquirer’s parent company, AMI, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, and how all this fits into the widening gyre around the White House.

The House is Coming Down

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The Democrat controlled House is beginning to pursue investigation of President Trump independent of Robert Mueller. Adam Schiff, House Intelligence Chairman, plans to expand the scope of his inquiry to determine whether Trump’s business interests are influencing his foreign policy decision in nations other than Russia. Additionally, the Ways and Means Committee, for whom Rep. Bill Pascrell has been speaking, has announced its intention to collect and examine President Trump’s tax returns. Notably, other House Democrats, such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have urged patience on that front.

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E-Discovery in the Trump Age

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Jason Krause’s article, “But their emails! Some of the Most Contentious Political Issues are E-Discovery Disputes” published in the ABA Journal, explores the e-discovery disputes surrounding the Trump campaign and presidency and modern politics in general. He notes:

A [large] debate over preserving electronic evidence continues to hang over national politics. Donald Trump Jr.’s meetings with Russians, Michael Cohen’s plea bargain, Brett Kavanaugh’s contentious confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court, Paul Manafort’s fraud convictions and an attempt at impeaching Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein all involve, at their core, electronic evidence.

Living in the computer age means our political disputes, especially those with criminal consequences, will frequently turn on electronic data and discovery. Interested readers should follow the link above.

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Rosenstein Assures Trump he is Not a Target of the Mueller Investigation — The News Cycle Repeats Itself

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Trump said yesterday, during an interview with the New York Times, that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein informed him that he is not a target of the Mueller investigation. Trump also added that he is not a “subject” of the investigation, but it is unclear whether that is a word Rosenstein used or a descriptor Trump added. He seemed to use the words interchangeably saying first “he told the attorneys that I’m not a subject, I’m not a target,” and then added  “[t]he lawyers ask him. They say, ‘He’s not a target of the investigation.’”

Readers will recall that Trump already received the news that he is not a target of the Mueller investigation from Mueller himself in April of 2018. As Professor Bowman wrote then, what that could mean, according to the definition of “target” in the United States Attorneys Manual, is that DOJ policy prevents Trump from becoming an indicted defendant and therefore a target. However, if that is not what Rosenstein meant and Trump could be a target, then it is significant that he has not, in the past 10 or so months, become one. What is more significant is if Trump is indeed not a subject of Mueller’s investigation. That could mean that there is not enough evidence to continue investigating Trump or enough evidence to have exonerated Trump.  That, however, seems unlikely.

rosen.jpegAndrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The Case for Impeachment of Donald Trump, Part 4 (Subversion of the justice system)

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By Frank Bowman

Much of the public conversation about possible impeachable conduct by Mr. Trump has centered on obstruction of justice in the narrow sense of a violation of criminal statutes defining obstruction. I have discussed the legal issues surrounding the application of those statutes to Mr. Trump at length on this blog (see this link for a list of those posts). I will do so again once the Mueller investigation is complete. Until then, I am reluctant to offer a definitive view on whether Mr. Trump’s conduct constitutes obstruction in the legal sense or on whether such legal violations are of the type that constituted so large a part of the impeachment case against Richard Nixon.

Nonetheless, if the case for technical obstruction of justice remains uncertain, the conclusion that Mr. Trump has systematically sought to corrupt and subvert the justice system as a whole is ironclad.  Inasmuch as the health of the justice system is essential to the health of constitutional order, a presidential effort to undermine it deserves consideration as impeachable conduct.

Throughout his pre-presidential career in business, Mr. Trump viewed the law from two perspectives.  As the operator of multiple businesses some aspects of which, at best, skirted the edges of legality, Mr. Trump viewed the government’s civil and criminal enforcement agencies as opponents to be thwarted or circumvented.  Conversely, he learned early to use his money to employ private civil litigation as a weapon against personal and business adversaries.  As of 2016, he and his businesses had been involved in more 3,500 lawsuits.

Mr. Trump has carried his prior attitude toward the law into the White House.  Early in his presidency, exasperated by the pertinacious refusal of James Comey to back off the Russia investigation and by Attorney General Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from that investigation, Trump famously asked, “Where is my Roy Cohn?”  The reference being to the notoriously hard-nosed and questionably ethical lawyer who acted as Trump’s legal fixer and attack dog early in his career.  More disturbing than the desire for a personal legal heavy is the fact that Mr. Trump plainly imagines the role of the Department of Justice and the rest of the federal law enforcement establishment as defending him against legal inquiries and standing ready to use the law to discredit or even imprison his critics and opponents. 

The essence of Mr. Trump’s defensive approach has been to appoint justice officials chosen for personal loyalty (e.g., Jeff Sessions and Matthew Whitaker) and simultaneously to attack any official, whether political appointee or career civil servant, who pursues matters that might implicate Trump, his family, or his supporters.  When Sessions disappointed Trump’s expectations of servility by recusing himself from the Russia investigation, Trump turned on him, calling him “weak,” “disgraceful,” and an “idiot” before finally firing him.  He has characterized the FBI as “in tatters” and the Justice Department itself as “an embarrassment to our country.”  His personal assaults have even reached down into the middle levels of the Justice Department bureaucracy, as exemplified by his baseless demonization of career DOJ official Bruce Ohr. The unifying theme of Trump’s assaults on all the men and women doing their duty by investigating matters that might implicate or inconvenience him is that they are corrupt members of the “Criminal Deep State.”

Trump’s denigration of the integrity of anyone who stands in his way is not restricted to officials and employees of the executive branch he heads, but notoriously extends to the federal judiciary.  Trump routinely attacks any judge or judicial panel that rules against him or any administration initiative.  The examples are too numerous to mention them all, but include:

During his 2016 candidacy, Trump said of U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, then presiding over suits against Trump University, that he should be disqualified because, as a person of Mexican heritage, he would necessarily be biased against Trump.  When U.S. District James Robart enjoined Trump’s travel ban on persons from certain Muslim countries, Trump tweeted, “The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes away law enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned.”  When U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick enjoined Trump’s executive order attempting to punish so-called “sanctuary cities,” Trump called the order “ridiculous,” and the White House put out a statement declaring, “The San Francisco judge’s erroneous ruling is a gift to the criminal gang and cartel element in our country, empowering the worst kind of human trafficking and sex trafficking, and putting thousands of innocent lives at risk. This case is yet one more example of egregious overreach by a single, unelected district judge.”  When U.S. District Judge Brian Morris of Montana enjoined implementation of President Trump’s order to proceed on the Keystone XL oil pipeline, Trump said, “It was a political decision made by a judge.  I think it’s a disgrace.” In response to a pointed rebuke of this kind of rhetoric from Chief Justice Roberts, Trump attacked the Ninth Circuit, asserted that “Obama judges” differ from persons “charged with the safety of our country,” and claimed that judicial restrictions on law enforcement will lead to “bedlam, chaos, injury, and death.”

Of course, throughout American history presidents have disagreed with particular decisions of federal courts and sometimes said so. Both Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson disagreed heartily with important opinions of Chief Justice John Marshall, with Jefferson swallowing them graciously except in private correspondence and Jackson being more outspoken. At the outset of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln simply ignored an opinion by Chief Justice Taney purporting to void Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus near vital rail lines Maryland. When the Supreme Court persistently voided New Deal legislation, Franklin D. Roosevelt fumed and mooted the possibility of inflating the number of justices — his famous “Court Packing Plan” — but never acted on the idea.

Trump’s defenders have attempted to analogize his routine denigration of the judicial branch to prior expressions of presidential unhappiness with legal outcomes. But the effort is strained and unconvincing. No president before Trump has ever made a staple of his ordinary public statements attacks on the integrity of individual judges or the legitimacy of the judiciary as a whole as arbiter of the meaning of the law.

This persistent pattern of questioning the integrity and legitimacy of the courts is not merely distasteful, or, as Trump’s defenders are apt to say, simply a matter of his personal “style.” It is instead overtly dangerous.  Court of Appeals judge Jay Bybee (a Republican appointee of impeccable conservative credentials) wrote in his dissent from the Ninth Circuit’s order upholding the injunction against Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban”:

Even as I dissent from our decision not to vacate the panel’s flawed opinion, I have the greatest respect for my colleagues. The personal attacks on the distinguished district judge and our colleagues were out of all bounds of civic and persuasive discourse—particularly when they came from the parties. It does no credit to the arguments of the parties to impugn the motives or the competence of the members of this court; ad hominem attacks are not a substitute for effective advocacy. Such personal attacks treat the court as though it were merely a political forum in which bargaining, compromise, and even intimidation are acceptable principles. The courts of law must be more than that, or we are not governed by law at all.
— Washington v. Trump, 858 F.3d 1168, 1185 (9th Cir. 2017) (en banc) (Bybee, J., dissenting).

Moreover, Mr. Trump’s abandonment of critical norms of presidential behavior in relation to the law have not been limited to questionable appointments decisions or ceaseless rhetorical denigration of legal officers, but has extended to placing pressure on the Justice Department and law enforcement agencies to open criminal investigations into his critics and opponents.  He has apparently been dissuaded from issuing direct orders for such investigations, but has made repeated calls for them in public declarations, most recently in response to the Roger Stone indictment.

Perhaps the most disturbing of Mr. Trump’s demands has been the endless harping that Hillary Clinton, his defeated 2016 rival, should be both investigated and jailed. The famous staple of his political rallies before and after the election — “Lock her up!” — can mean nothing else.

Even Republican stalwarts like former Attorney General Michael Mukasey have said that launching criminal investigations of defeated political candidates is un-American and akin to the practices of “banana republics.” He is right. The hallmark of successful democracies is the peaceful transfer of power from one elected administration to its popularly chosen successor. Such transfers reliably occur only if the electoral losers know that the sole consequence of the loss is return to private life. If a possible consequence of of losing is criminal prosecution by the winner, then losing becomes unthinkable and the contestants will be tempted to ever-more-extreme measures to prevent it. This is the all-too-common precursor to the death of democracy in the developing world. But regression is perfectly possible among mature democracies like our own.

In short, systematic public assault on the executive and judicial branch employees of the justice system is bad enough because it risks creeping corrosion of the public trust essential to the rule of law.  Far more troubling is employing, or even threatening to employ, the vast powers of the federal criminal apparatus against opponents because it places this or any country on a straight road to autocratic rule. 

The facts that the Justice Department has, so far, ignored Trump’s efforts at jawboning and forged ahead with investigation of the president and his associates; that judges have, so far, continued to rule against the administration when moved to do so by their reading of the law; and that the federal law enforcement apparatus has, so far, largely resisted Trump’s calls for retaliatory investigations of his critics does not materially diminish the seriousness of Mr. Trump’s deviation from American constitutional norms. Nor does it materially alter the impeachment calculus.  Federal agencies for the most part resisted Richard Nixon’s efforts to enlist them in efforts to obstruct justice or punish his enemies, but the House Judiciary Committee included Nixon’s unsuccessful efforts along with his more successful ones as grounds for his impeachment.

The Framers inserted the impeachment remedy into the Constitution precisely in order to deal with an executive whose conduct, in George Mason’s words, “subvert[ed] the constitution.” By “constitution,” Mason and his colleagues meant not merely the document they were drafting. They understood that their brief composition could only be the skeleton to which later generations would add the flesh and sinew of statutes, judicial decisions, customs, and behavioral norms that make up the true constitution of any mature state. A president who would subvert that constitution may be impeached.

Trump’s persistent shamelessness has dulled all our senses to the point that he has normalized behavior that would only two years ago have seemed unthinkable. Unthinkable because it strikes so deeply at the unwritten norms — here the impartial, apolitical, administration of the law — that sustain American constitutionalism. It behooves us to shake ourselves free of his narcotic influence to at least consider whether he presents a danger great enough to merit his removal.