Is Trump trying to lure Democrats into “Impeachment Trap”?

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By Frank Bowman

There’s a good deal of talk about whether Mr. Trump is purposely trying to goad Democrats into a formal impeachment investigation, on the theory that doing so poses little risk of ultimate conviction in the Republican-dominated Senate and is politically advantageous insofar as it enables him to paint himself as a victim and simultaneously divert attention from his substantive policy failures.

I had a talk with Greg Walters of Vice News on this subject, and he was kind enough to include a quote or two in his story on the subject, link here.

I have two basic reactions to this hypothesis, one constitutional and the other political.

On the constitutional score, it is hard to see how Congress (by which, in practice, we mean the House of Representatives) can avoid serious consideration of impeachment if the Trump Administration persists in its current blanket denial of cooperation with all requests for information from the House, regardless of subject, regardless of the originating committee, and regardless of whether the House merely asks politely or serves a subpoena. This posture of total resistance is without historical precedent. All presidents wrangle with Congress over information disclosure, but none has ever simply refused all cooperation. Trump’s current absolutist position, if left unchallenged, would establish a precedent essentially neutering congressional oversight and, in consequence, badly fracturing constitutional order. A presidency and an executive branch immune to question is an executive dictatorship in all but name.

The constitutional challenge presented by Trump’s maximalist intransigence leads toward impeachment in two ways.

First, the longer Trump persists in stonewalling all congressional requests, the more ominous — and obvious — the threat to basic separation of powers principles becomes. Thus, a total refusal of cooperation with congressional investigative authority can itself become impeachable conduct. At a certain point, although we may not yet be there, a formal impeachment inquiry becomes (or should become) an imperative for any Member of Congress committed to maintaining both the prerogatives of his or her own branch and a constitutional order centered on an independent and powerful legislature.

Second, as I wrote in Slate not long ago, congressional investigative power is at its strongest when that power is expressly asserted in aid of the impeachment power. Investigative authority in aid of Congress’s general oversight power is derivative of legislative power and is therefore conditional on legitimate legislative objectives. By contrast, the power to impeach is expressly and exclusively granted to Congress and necessarily implies the power to ascertain, from whatever source, the facts necessary to judge whether impeachable conduct has occurred. Both logic and the precedent of the Nixon era compel the conclusion that not even classified matters or the most intimate details of presidential consultation with his advisers are immune from disclosure in an impeachment inquiry. Thus, Congress strengthens its legal case for judicial compulsion of testimony and material withheld by the executive the moment it announces an impeachment investigation. A blanket presidential refusal to comply with all informational requests premised on oversight power almost compels Congress to invoke its impeachment authority.

The agonizingly tricky bit for constitutional patriots who also happen to be Democrats is that Trump may be right if he calculates that an impeachment contest is a political winner. The uncomfortable fact is that the general populace neither knows nor cares very much about constitutional balance. The electorate may even reward Trump in 2020 for being “tough” against a congress that nobody is very fond of.

And public disdain for and disinterest in an impeachment fight is likely to be particularly acute if Russia and the Mueller Report remain the focus of the contest. The Mueller Report did “exonerate” Trump on Russia to the extent that it found insufficient evidence of pre-election conspiracy. The public knows this and no careful explanation of why Trump’s behavior vis-a-vis Russia in 2016 remains profoundly troubling is going to dislodge that impression among either Trump supporters or the bulk of casual followers of political news.

As for the obstruction portion of Mueller’s report, it paints a shocking picture of presidential misconduct. Nonetheless, Mueller’s decision to end his report with a no-call, Barr’s choice to make his own call exonerating the president, and the resulting narrative that this was, at worst, a president blocking an investigation into what proved to be a non-crime are likely to deprive a long impeachment fight focused on obstruction of justice of much of its public bite. Just as the general public doesn’t know or care much about the constitutional niceties of checks and balances, it tends not to know or care very much about abstractions like prosecutorial independence, the rule of law, unitary executive theories of presidential power, and so forth.

Accordingly, if Democrats, whether for reasons of constitutional principle or partisan politics, feel compelled to proceed with a formal impeachment investigation, they would do well to broaden its scope beyond Mueller. Only if matters like emoluments violations, misuse of office or influence for private gain by the Trump family, connections with Russia not directly involving the 2016 election, destruction of the nation’s foreign policy and alliance structures, and pervasive dishonesty are added to the mix does an impeachment battle seem likely to prove politically advantageous.

Why efforts to stop Mueller’s testimony are probably fruitless

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By Frank Bowman

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of talking with Alberto Luperon of Law & Crime Network about whether the Trump Administration would be likely to succeed if it tried to stop special counsel Robert Mueller from testifying to Congress. His article about that conversation appears here.

AG Barr cowers at prospect of proper cross-examination

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By Frank Bowman

This weekend brought a subtle, but important, bit of good news for those interested in effective congressional investigations of the Trump administration.

Attorney General Bill Barr is threatening to refuse the request of the House Judiciary Committee that he testify later this week. Reportedly, Barr is balking because the Committee will deviate from the pattern of recent congressional hearings in which members do all the questioning and every member gets a paltry 3-5 minutes to ask questions of the witness, with no opportunity for follow-up. Instead, House Judiciary Chair Jerrold Nadler is delegating some of the questioning to committee lawyers who will have 30 minutes to pursue lines of questioning to their logical conclusions. There may also be a private session about any classified materials in the Mueller report.

The “get every Member on camera for 5-minutes” mode of proceeding has long had those of us who are trial lawyers tearing our hair and screaming at our TV sets (or computer screens). It is guaranteed to be ineffectual for three reasons: First, cross-examination, particularly of reluctant or hostile witnesses, is the single most difficult trial skill. To do it well takes training and years of practice. Perishingly few members of either the House or Senate have the professional background to have mastered it. For most of those few, the experience was years in the past and they’ve lost their edge.

Second, the best cross-examiner in the world can do little if confined to an arbitrary 5-minute limit. Thus, even the rare talented congressional interrogator can be filibustered for five minutes by any reasonably self-possessed witness.

Third, sequential questioning by members could be made fractionally more effective if all the members (or at least all the members of one party) carefully coordinated the topics and lines of questioning to be pursued. But there is little indication that this is ever done, and it would require a degree of diligence, focus, and cooperative spirit improbable in a group comprised of office-seekers eager to get individual, and distinctive, facetime.

If you want an eye-opening contrast to the aimlessness and patent grandstanding of most modern congressional hearings, go watch the proceedings of the Senate and House committees investigating Nixon and Watergate. Three key differences jump out: first, the committee’s professional counsel did much of the questioning; second, they were unconstrained by artificial time limits; and third, the senators and congressmen of both parties were prepared for their turns at questioning and were obviously interested in learning the truth. Moreover, in order to promote candor and avoid concerns about unfairly besmirching reputations, a number of the key hearings were held in private.

The result was that, in Watergate, both the Senate and House hearings were genuine factual inquiries in which witnesses were compelled to answer questions comprehensively and explain inconsistencies in their stories. Both sets of hearings maintained coherent narratives and exposed important facts that would not otherwise have come to light.

It is extraordinarily heartening to see that Chairman Nadler seems to have learned a lesson from history. Mr. Barr’s anguished cries at the prospect of a modest move back toward earlier and more productive modes of procedure should be seen as what they are — the vain protestations of a lawyer who knows the power of competent cross-examination and desperately wants to avoid having it directed at him.

That said, Nadler’s proposal is only a modest step in the right direction. The staff questioning will still be broken up into 5-minute alternating chunks between majority and minority counsel, which is sadly reminiscent of the clumsy experiment by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Republican majority in the Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

Chairman Nadler should do two things. He should stick to his guns in this confrontation with Barr. And in future, he should move even more firmly in the direction of procedural rules that, in living memory, facilitated the discovery of truth. Committees of both the House and Senate who want facts should follow and build on his example.

Prof. Bowman in NY Times on impeachment for obstruction

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Adam Liptak, the distinguished Supreme Court reporter for the New York Times, has an article out today discussing whether, as a matter of historical precedent, obstruction of legal processes can be an impeachable offense. He is kind enough to quote Professor Bowman extensively. The link is here.

Prof. Bowman in SLATE debate on impeachment

In addition to syndicating Professor Bowman’s article from this blog on the Mueller report (link here), the good folks at Slate were kind enough to invite him to participate in an online discussion/debate about whether impeachment is now likely or desirable in the wake of Mueller’s work. The link to the debate is here.

The Mueller Report

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By Frank Bowman

This is how it’s done. In the endless, degrading cacophony of the Trump era, in which the “tweet storm,” the “flame war,” the sneering insult, and the facile certainty of cable punditry have become the customary form of legal and political discourse, I had almost forgotten what the language of the law sounds like. But there it is in the 448 pages of the Mueller report
— logical, cautious, painstaking, measured, dry, yet inexorably compelling. One may quibble about details, but taken as a whole, Mueller’s product is an exemplar of the prosecutor’s craft and a powerful reminder of why a Justice Department imbued with norms of independence and professionalism is an essential counterweight to both presidential overreach and partisan hysteria.

The legal craftsmanship of the report is also an unanswerable refutation of the endlessly repeated canard that the Mueller investigation was a baseless partisan “witch hunt” by a hostile “deep state.”

In one sense, of course, the report is the work of the “deep state,” if by that foolish term one means the career professionals of American law and government. If some of those professionals are hostile to Trump and Trumpism, it is only because their lives are based on values — the dogged pursuit of truth, a commitment to fairness and due process, respect for the law, support of constitutional government — that Trump openly flouts.

Nonetheless, Trump should thank his lucky stars that Mueller’s team was composed of such old-fashioned folks. Had they indeed been the “thirteen angry Democrats” of Trump’s splenetic imagination, persons of the disposition and caliber of, say, Devin Nunes or Lindsey Graham, but of the opposite political valence, the resultant report would surely have been very different. As it is, the professional values and institutional norms by which good prosecutors live produced a report exonerating Trump of actual crime in relation to Russian election interference and withholding judgment on the legal question of obstruction.

Trump and his enablers are, of course, claiming vindication. But the caution and restraint of Mueller’s style cannot obscure the facts he meticulously reports. And those amount to a devastating portrait of a man by conduct, character, and temperament unfit for the office of president.

The section of the report on Russian election interference does clear Trump and his campaign of conspiring with the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 election. It nonetheless unequivocally affirms that the Russians did interfere. And it depicts Trump campaign operatives, including members of the Trump family, who were aware of the possibility that Russia was trying to intervene to help Trump by hacking and leaking material damaging Clinton, but saw no problem with such Russian meddling and would happily have conspired in it given the chance.

The reality of Russian intervention and the dangerous, if perhaps not quite provably illegal, proximity of Trump intimates to it frames the question of Trump’s obstruction quite differently than his defenders would like. Despite Trump’s endless denials, the Russians did meddle. As a matter of national security, that required investigation. Likewise, Trump associates and family did have troubling contacts with Russian emissaries. That, too, required investigation. Given the facts, both those long publicly known and others now laid out in Mueller’s report, investigation of neither point could, except in the mind of a willfully blind partisan, amount to a “witch hunt.”

Moreover, a truly independent inquiry into Russian electoral interference represented a political threat, or at least grave embarrassment, to Trump, because it raised the possibility that his victory was tainted by the assistance of a hostile foreign power. In addition, by no later than early 2017, Trump knew that his family and associates had, at the very least, come dangerously close to illegal entanglements with Russian representatives. Thus, Trump had powerful motives to quash the Russia investigation.

The crime of obstruction of justice depends on proof of two basic points — first, actions that obstruct or impede an investigation, and second, corrupt motive. Although a president may lawfully limit or even halt investigations for reasons genuinely related to the national interest, doing so to advance one’s partisan political prospects or to protect oneself or one’s family or friends from criminal exposure or personal embarrassment is to act corruptly.

The second volume of Mueller’s report lays out eleven different incidents or sequences of events that might amount to obstruction — from Trump’s efforts to convince FBI Director James Comey to lay off the investigation of Gen. Michael Flynn, to his repeated attempts to stop or limit the Mueller investigation, to his public and private efforts to induce witnesses Flynn, Manafort, and Cohen not to testify or to hew to Trump’s preferred view of reality.

Space precludes a blow-by-blow analysis of each of these categories, but Mueller’s conclusions — though guardedly, even opaquely, phrased — are evident and damning. He concludes that on multiple occasions Trump engaged in behavior that either did, or was intended to, obstruct or impede criminal investigations. As to some of the enumerated categories, Mueller concludes that, even if obstructive conduct occurred, there was insufficient evidence of “corrupt” motive. But as to at least five sequences of events, Mueller unmistakably believes that there is persuasive evidence of both obstructive conduct and corrupt motive. These included repeated efforts to remove special counsel Mueller; an attempt through Cory Lewandowski to induce Attorney General Sessions to limit the scope of the Mueller probe to future Russian interference in elections; a brazen attempt to convince White House Counsel Don McGahn to lie about the fact that Trump had ordered him to arrange the firing of Mueller; Trump’s efforts to influence the cooperation and testimony of Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort; and Trump’s efforts to induce Michael Cohen not to cooperate or to shade his testimony in Trump’s favor.

Mueller’s conclusions are unmistakable despite his careful refusal to go the last step and say plainly that Trump obstructed justice. If there were any doubt on the point, it is removed by the report’s inclusion of a devastatingly thorough legal rebuttal of Attorney General Barr’s apparent view that a President cannot commit obstruction by stopping or limiting a criminal investigation. The only reason to include such an argument is if Mueller concluded that, on the facts, the president violated the law. Otherwise, the legal question is moot and a legal craftsman like Mueller would never have included such surplusage.

In the end, of course, whether a president can or cannot technically commit the crime of obstruction is itself a moot point. As I have argued many times, Bob Mueller was never going to defy DOJ policy and seek indictment of a sitting president. As to the president, therefore, Mueller’s job from the beginning was to determine the facts and present them to Congress and the public in order that a political judgment about the president’s fitness for office could be made — whether through the impeachment process or at the polls.

The picture of the current president painstakingly etched in the Mueller report is of a man with three dominant characteristics.

First, his narcissism overwhelms all other considerations. Even a more balanced and self-aware person would have found the Russia inquiry politically and personally troublesome. But one cannot escape the feeling (to which Mueller obliquely alludes) that a primary factor in Trump’s desperate efforts to squash the investigation was the fragility of his ego — a manic determination that the epic achievement of his election not be tarnished by even a hint that forces other than Trump played a role.

Second, Trump believes that, having been elected, the powers of government are to be wielded for his personal and political benefit and the law exists only as a tool to serve his ends. No institution, no law, no set of traditional norms, no professional standard, certainly no moral consideration deserves any deference if it stands in the way of his immediate wishes.

Third, the thread running through the entire report is Trump’s essential falsity. Mueller confirms that Trump not only lies constantly as part of his public act, but does so privately among his advisers and intimates and he expects others to lie for him on command. Among the most revealing vignettes is Trump’s effort to convince Don McGahn to lie about the fact that Trump ordered him to secure Mueller’s firing. McGahn, to his credit refused and showed Trump his notes documenting the order. Trump exploded in astonishment that, “Lawyers don’t take notes…. I’ve had a lot of great lawyers, like Roy Cohn. He did not take notes.” That a subordinate might have personal integrity and be unprepared to sacrifice it on Trump’s command had seemingly never occurred to him.

One other curious theme recurs throughout the report as a kind of counterpoint to Trump’s lawlessness. Even though Trump repeatedly ordered people to crush or divert or hobble the Russia investigation, over and over they refused to comply, either to his face or simply by failing to carry out his directives. Revealingly, those who resisted told Mueller that they did so because they didn’t want to be responsible for another “Saturday Night Massacre,” or they didn’t want to be another Robert Bork.

This is heartening in a sense. The example of Watergate seems to have restrained at least some Trump subordinates and helped buttress, at least for awhile, the tottering citadel of the rule of law. But the Mueller report is about yesterday’s White House. Those with historical memory, and perhaps more imbued with personal integrity and professional values, are largely gone. Quit in disillusionment. Or purged because they refused to bend to Trump’s lawless whims. In considering what to do about Donald Trump, Congress should ponder that they now confront a Trump unchanged in his essence but increasingly surrounded by aides who may prove unwilling to provide even the modest restraint on his worst impulses documented in Mueller’s report.

Whether Donald Trump violated a particular federal obstruction statute is in the end a peripheral matter. The fundamental lesson of the Mueller report is simply that he is fundamentally unfit for office and presents a persistent danger to the integrity of the American constitutional order. That is the question that Congress and the country must now address.

Trump and Pardon Power

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Tyler Brown’s article, “The Court Can’t Even Handle Me Right Now: The Arpaio Pardon and Its Effect on the Scope of Presidential Pardons,” published in the Pepperdine Law Review, examines the effect the President Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio will likely have on the law and Trump’s political standing:

The Constitution grants the president the power to pardon individuals for offenses against the United States. Courts have interpreted this power broadly, and the American public has historically accepted its use, even in the face of several controversial pardons over the last five decades. However, after President Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio—a former Arizona sheriff who was held in criminal contempt of court for continuing to illegally detain suspected undocumented immigrants—scholars, activists, and political figures questioned whether this pardon was unconstitutional. This Comment discusses the Court’s interpretation of the pardoning power, controversial pardons in modern history, and the details of the Arpaio pardon and the public’s response. After comparing the Arpaio pardon to previous pardons, analyzing constitutional arguments, and laying out the legal and political impact the pardon may have on the Trump administration, this Comment ultimately concludes that the Arpaio pardon is constitutionally suspect, but the current Court is not likely to make any changes to the pardoning power’s broad interpretation.

AP19003760665159.jpgAssociated Press