THE MEMO!!!! A tragicomic face-plant by Congressman Nunes

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By Frank Bowman

Well, after much angst, the Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee were able to get THE MEMO released.  Here it is, if you haven’t already seen it.

This document was supposed to reveal a scandal bigger than Watergate!  It was supposed to prove that officials in the Justice Department and the FBI criminally abused surveillance laws to undermine the Trump Administration!  It was supposed to expose a deep, nefarious conspiracy against the rule of law itself!

Instead, what we have is a whimpering anticlimax.  A document so devoid of substance and so transparently doctored for partisan effect that, in any other era, it would be instantly and universally branded as a cynical farce and its authors driven out of public life as embarrassments to the republic.

Stripped of the folderol, this is what the memo says:

It asserts that the Justice Department applied for and obtained a FISA surveillance warrant allowing interception of communications with Russians by Carter Page, a former affiliate of the Trump campaign, and that DOJ based its application for the warrant in some (unspecified) part on information derived from a “dossier” of material compiled by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele.

The GOP letter does not identify which information derived from the dossier was used in the warrant application. Critically, the letter does not describe the rest of the information in the warrant application or describe how information from the dossier relates to the application as a whole.  The letter does not reveal whether, and if so to what extent, information derived from the dossier and included in the warrant was corroborated by other sources. In fact, the letter does not even claim that the information from the dossier used in the warrant application was inaccurate.  Indeed — and incredibly — the letter does not claim that any information in the dossier was inaccurate.

The sole argument of the letter is that the Justice Department should have revealed to the FISA court which issued and renewed the warrant information suggesting political bias on the part of Mr. Steele.  In particular, the letter argues that the application should have disclosed that Mr. Steele’s research effort was — at one point during his work — funded by attorneys working with the Democratic National Committee. (Of course, the GOP letter rather comically omits the fact that Steele’s firm was first engaged by Trump’s Republican opponents.) Similarly, the letter reports that, by the fall of 2016, Mr. Steele had become “passionate” about Mr. Trump not becoming president and implies that this should have been told to the court.  That’s it.  That’s the whole bowl of bananas.  That’s all Nunes and friends have got.

To be as fair as possible to Mr. Nunes, it’s generally a good idea to include in warrant applications some information about the possible biases of one’s sources.  It helps a reviewing court assess the strength of the evidence in support of the application. In a case where the warrant application turns entirely on the credibility of a single witness, that’s especially crucial.  But in Mr. Steele’s case, it’s essential to note that (so far as I know) he is not himself a witness and indeed is not an actual source for any of the information in the dossier.  He is merely the owner of a firm that collected information from other sources. In such a case, far more important than the possible bias of the collector of information is independent corroboration of the facts he collected.  Of course, in that capacity, he could, in theory, falsify or misreport information.  But the GOP letter never claims that he did.

Critically, the GOP letter conspicuously omits any discussion of the degree to which the FBI independently verified the dossier’s information, either in general or as it related to this warrant application. And Mr. Nunes and his GOP fellow travelers have blocked the release of all the information that would be necessary to determine if their reading of this affair is correct,

The bottom line of the GOP letter is this transparently faulty syllogism:

  • Some information derived from the Steele dossier was used in a FISA surveillance warrant for Trump campaign operative Carter Page.
  • The warrant application didn’t specify that Steele’s firm was paid by Democrats (and Republicans) who did not want Donald Trump to be president, or that, after investigating Trump for some months, Steele concluded that he did not want Trump to be president.
  • Therefore, no information originating in the dossier can be believed, the warrant should not have been issued, no one should remember to ask what the surveillance of Page actually uncovered, and we should all dismiss the entire investigation into Trump-Russia collusion as a political witch hunt by traitorous conspirators in the Deep State.

The whole business is yet another example of  the strange, logically inverted, world into which Mr. Trump and his abettors would lead us. In Trump World, the mere fact that one opposes Mr. Trump (or is simply insufficiently slavish in one’s devotion) is conclusive proof that one cannot be believed. Perhaps the most revealing line in the GOP’s letter is its breathless recitation of the fact that, in September 2016, Mr. Steele confessed his “passionate” opposition to a Trump presidency.  The letter’s authors apparently view this sentiment as proof of irrational bias, which if disclosed to the FISA court would have discredited all Mr. Steele’s work.

They have it exactly backwards.  A far more plausible view is that, by September 2016, Mr. Steele had discovered so much about Trump’s Russia connections that the prospect of his occupancy of the White House evoked nothing but horror.  Certainly that’s the way I would have read the statement had I been on the FISA court.  As such, even though it would have been prudent to identify the funding sources for Mr. Steele’s intelligence efforts, the omission of Steele’s personal views about Trump from the FISA warrant application  was, if anything, a laudable exercise of professional restraint.

The bottom line here is that THE LETTER is, as the British say, a damp squib.  Its only consequence lies in the possibility that Mr. Trump will use it as an excuse to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and thereafter Robert Mueller.  Were that to happen, we will cross into uncharted and dangerous ground.

 

More on Mueller’s Endgame: Unindicted Co-Conspirators & Other Stuff

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By Frank Bowman

Under current Department of Justice policy, Special Counsel Robert Mueller is not empowered to seek an indictment against a sitting president. Yesterday, I discussed here and on Slate two ways Mueller could nonetheless ensure that Congress would be informed if he concluded that Mr. Trump had committed crimes.

Several colleagues and commenters on the blog have raised questions that may have occurred to others.  I try to answer them below:

Uninidicted co-conspirators: A colleague remembered that President Richard Nixon was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in a case brought by Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski He wondered whether that might provide an avenue for disclosing Mr. Mueller’s conclusions and the evidence supporting them. It could. Theoretically. But the reason I didn’t mention this option is that listing unindicted co-conspirators by name in an indictment has been sharply criticized by courts and is strongly discouraged by Department of Justice policy. Formally identifying someone as a criminal without formally charging him imposes a damaging public stigma without a mechanism for removing it. Therefore, the general rule is that, if prosecutors have sufficient evidence to charge someone with a crime, they should do so, which both triggers their obligation to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt and gives the person named an opportunity to defend himself.

Accordingly, Section 9-11.130 of the U.S. Attorney’s Manual states: “In the absence of some significant justification, federal prosecutors generally should not identify unindicted co-conspirators in conspiracy indictments.”

Jaworski evidently felt that naming Nixon was justifiable, presumably for reasons that would appeal to Mr. Mueller, such as a desire to avoid the complications entailed by indicting a sitting president, while at the same time letting Congress and the public know about his legal judgment that Nixon had committed a crime.  Mueller might come to feel the same way. However, while Jaworski seems to have enjoyed a substantial amount of operational freedom due to the firestorm that resulted from the firing of his predecessor Archibald Cox in the infamous Saturday Night Massacre, it’s pretty plain that any decision by Mueller that directly touches on Mr. Trump is going to be carefully scrutinized by his DOJ superior.  That superior (whether it is Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein or someone thrust into that role by Mr. Trump’s evident desire to fire him) could easily justify refusing to allow Mueller to name Mr. Trump as an unindicted co-conspirator on the ground that it violated DOJ policy and was not supported by a “significant justification.”

To be clear, if Mr. Mueller concludes that Mr. Trump conspired with others to commit crimes, he can certainly draft indictments of those others, and structure his case against them, in a way that makes Mr. Trump’s wrongdoing fairly clear without naming him as a co-conspirator.  In the end, that is perhaps the easiest way for Mueller to proceed.  However, that approach necessarily saves Mr. Trump from two legally and politically important events — the formal and public judgment by Mr. Mueller, expressed in his signature on an indictment, that Mr. Trump committed a crime, and the formal and public conclusion by a grand jury of ordinary citizens, expressed by approving the indictment, that Mr. Trump probably committed that crime. Leon Jaworski named Richard Nixon precisely because he appreciated the significance of these solemn pronouncements.

Reader questions: Tye Simpson asks: “How do you square the special counsel’s congressional authority in section [609](c) to prosecute if there’s no authority to indict? In the event of conflict shouldn’t a general departmental policy or practice be subordinated to a specific congressional authority?”

The key is the reader’s characterization of Mueller’s authority to prosecute as “congressional authority.”  It’s not.  The regulation I referred to in yesterday’s post is an internal Department of Justice regulation, not a congressionally authorized statute.  And the regulation, 28 CFR 600.6, merely gives Mueller the same authority granted the U.S. Attorney in a federal judicial district.  Like all U.S. Attorneys, Mueller is subject to DOJ regulations and the DOJ chain of command.  The regulations give Mueller’s superiors the power to bar him from doing things that are contrary to DOJ policy.  Indicting a sitting president is against DOJ policy.  Therefore, Mueller’s superior, now Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein, can prevent Mueller from doing it.

Tye Simpson also asks: “For a non-lawyer: What about: 600.9 (c) “The Attorney General may determine that public release of these reports would be in the public interest, to the extent that release would comply with applicable legal restrictions…”? Currently, R. Rosenstein’s call?”

The reader refers to the DOJ regulation governing disclosure to Congress and the public of reports on instances when higher DOJ authority blocks a special counsel from pursuing some action he wants to pursue.  The short answer to the question is “yes.”  That is, if Mueller recommended indicting Mr. Trump and was ordered not to do it, the Justice Department would be obliged to report that event and the reasons for it to Congress.  That’s the provision I’ve suggested Mueller could use to force disclosure to Congress of a conclusion that Mr. Trump committed a crime.  Disclosure to Congress in those circumstances is not optional.

However, the section to which the reader alludes, 28 CFR 609(c), governs disclosure to the public.  And those disclosures are discretionary.  In this case, the discretion would presumably be exercised by Rod Rosenstein.

Mueller’s Endgame: How a Failure to Indict the President Could Lead to Impeachment

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By Frank Bowman

Over the past few weeks, the interwebs have been teeming with confident declarations that this or that new tidbit of information amounts to the final proof — or at least another link in the chain of proof — that will allow Special Counsel Robert Mueller to conclude that Mr. Trump has committed the felony of obstruction of justice.  The problem with all this barstool lawyering, a problem sometimes acknowledged but more often ignored or glossed over, is that Mr. Mueller has no independent authority to secure an indictment against a sitting president.

A still more fundamental problem, at least if one hopes for Mr. Trump’s removal from office, is that even a felony conviction would not eject him.  Only impeachment performs that trick.  Therefore, all the fevered speculation about Mr. Mueller’s progress is futile unless there is a way for a prosecutor who cannot indict his most prominent potential target to place the case for that target’s criminality before congress, the only body authorized to determine whether criminality should mean impeachability.

There are at least two ways it could be done, and done in full compliance with both Mr. Mueller’s limited mandate and the internal rules of the Department of Justice.  First, Mueller could prepare a report and recommendation that Mr. Trump be indicted after he leaves office and trust that congress would find means of obtaining the report. Alternatively, Mueller could recommend immediate indictment, fully expecting rejection of that recommendation, and rely on the technicalities of the Justice Department’s own rules to ensure transmission of his recommendation and reasons to congress.

Let’s begin with a quick refresher on the limitations of Mr. Mueller’s office:

  • Mueller is a “special counsel” appointed under Department of Justice regulations, not an “independent counsel” of the Kenneth Starr sort appointed under the now-lapsed post-Watergate Ethics in Government Act of 1978.
  • An “independent counsel” exercised virtually the full powers of the Department of Justice and was not subject to supervisory control by the Attorney General.  Mr. Mueller has only the authority granted any United States Attorney. He remains subject to the chain of command of the Justice Department. In ordinary circumstances, he would answer to the Attorney General. Because Jeff Sessions has recused himself from this matter, Mueller answers to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
  • As special counsel, Mr. Mueller is subject to the “rules, regulations, procedures, practices and policies of the Department of Justice.” And while the regulations accord him an unusual degree of autonomy, his superior, here Mr. Rosenstein, can overrule him if he proposes doing something contrary to DOJ policy.

The “policy” of the Department of Justice, expressed in several legal opinions issued by the Office of Legal Counsel, is that federal prosecutors may not indict a sitting president. An OLC opinion is not “law” in the sense of binding anyone outside of the DOJ itself. But it does bind DOJ employees.  Therefore, if Mr. Mueller were to propose indicting Mr. Trump, that proposal would be contrary to Department policy. Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein could, and almost certainly would, order Mueller not to present the indictment to a grand jury.  Mueller would have to follow that order. Failure to do so would be an entirely proper ground for removing him.

Given this internal restriction on Special Counsel Mueller’s authority, one might ask whether Mueller has the power even to investigate whether Mr. Trump has committed any crime. The answer is plainly yes.  The letter commissioning Mueller charges him with investigating coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign and any crimes, such as obstruction, committed in an attempt to interfere with that investigation. It does not bar him from investigating the activities of persons who may be legally or practically immune from criminal prosecution. In this regard, Mr. Trump is no more immune from Mueller’s inquiries than Russians who might assert diplomatic immunity.

Mueller’s appointment letter also empowers him to prosecute any crimes discovered in the course of his investigation. The only question is whether DOJ rules restrict this authority in the case of a president.

Internal DOJ policy precludes prosecuting a president while he is in office. It does not claim that presidents cannot be prosecuted.  Indeed, any such claim would be untenable inasmuch as Article 1, Section 3, of the Constitution specifically provides that persons impeached “shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to law.” At a minimum, this means that a president may be indicted after he leaves office (subject to any problems created by statutes of limitation, a tricky legal problem for another day).

Mueller’s appointment letter granting him prosecution authority does not require that he prosecute the crimes he discovers immediately. Accordingly, if the Mueller investigation yielded evidence that Mr. Trump committed a crime, Mueller would be entirely within his mandate to prepare a report setting out his findings and recommending that Mr. Trump be indicted as soon as he left office.

The difficulty with this option from the perspective of those hoping to base an impeachment inquiry on Mueller’s work is that he has no independent authority to release such a report to Congress or the public.  And it seems quite likely that a Justice Department under increasing pressure from the White House would make every effort to keep the report secret.  On the other hand, there is nothing in the special counsel regulations or any applicable law that requires secrecy in such a case. If it were to become known that such a report existed, someone in congress would request it.  And if Democrats gained control of either house of Congress in 2018 — a precondition for impeachment in any case — they would also gain the power to subpoena the report.

Suppose, however, that Mr. Mueller were to decide that Mr. Trump has committed crimes and that Congress should know of that conclusion promptly. Suppose further that Mueller were not disposed to rely on the vagaries of midterm elections, and still less to wait for the expiration of the Trump presidency. In that case, there is another path.

DOJ’s special counsel regulations provide that, if a special counsel proposes an action that the Attorney General (here Deputy Attorney General) rejects because it would be “inappropriate or unwarranted under established Departmental practices,” then the Attorney General must notify both the chairs and ranking minority members of both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees of the special counsel’s proposed action and an “explanation” of the reason for rejecting that action.

Hence, Mr. Mueller would be operating entirely according to protocol if, while not actually presenting an indictment to a grand jury, he recommended to Mr. Rosenstein that Mr. Trump be indicted. He would, of course, realize that doing so would contravene an existing OLC opinion. However, there would be nothing untoward if he concluded, with the concurrence of the superb appellate lawyers on his staff, that the OLC opinion should be reconsidered.  OLC conclusions are subject to internal re-evaluation all the time.

Of course, we can fairly predict that Mueller’s arguments, however learned, for changing DOJ policy on this point would be rejected.  But rejection of Mr. Mueller’s recommendation for indictment on the ground that it contravened “established Departmental practices” would trigger the mandatory report to congress required by 28 C.F.R. 600.9. Et voila!  Member of Congress from both parties, and in due course, the public would know that Mueller believed Mr. Trump committed a crime.

As clean as this second approach seems, there are two potentially significant flies in the ointment. First, the mandatory reporting requirement of 28 C.F.R. 600.9 is triggered only “upon conclusion of the Special Counsel’s investigation.”  One reading of this language is that it applies only after the Special Counsel completely wraps up all his responsibilities.  Deploying that interpretation, a Trump-influenced Justice Department could justify withholding congressional notification until Mueller finished not only investigating, but trying, all pending cases. Given that at least Manafort and Gates remain untried, trials could delay things a long while. Alternatively, the reporting requirement could be read as arising once the purely investigative phase of Mueller’s work ends, without regard to the resultant litigation. But that interpretation would carry the day inside the Department only if the person making the call were principled, courageous, and more committed to institutional integrity and the rule of law than to protecting the president.

Regardless of how the reporting requirement were read, if Mr. Mueller thought it central to his mission that his conclusions about Mr. Trump be reported to Congress expeditiously, he could abandon or fast-track pursuit of smaller fry, close up shop, and insist that the Department’s own rules be followed.

The second potential obstacle to this gambit is one not of law, but personal psychology. Mr. Mueller, by reputation a man who operates strictly by the book, might not be willing to formally propose indicting Mr. Trump knowing that the proposal would be summarily rejected as violating existing DOJ policy.  On the other hand, as a lawyer of no mean talent, he might find considerable satisfaction in deftly employing the letter of the law in the service of the Republic.

I like to think that, as a both an undoubted patriot and a career public servant not unaccustomed to harnessing formalism to larger ends, Mr. Mueller would not be averse to engaging in a bit of bureaucratic Kabuki theater in the interests of revealing Mr. Trump’s conduct to congress while there is yet time to do something about it.

We shall see.

 

 

FBI Deputy Director McCabe’s Resignation

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By Frank Bowman

It was reported this morning that FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, long a target of Mr. Trump’s ire, has resigned.

McCabe has been under attack from the White House and its allies because his wife received campaign donations during her unsuccessful 2015 bid for a Virginia legislative seat from a political action committee associated with Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, who in turn was a prominent supporter of Hillary Clinton. The implication has been that McCabe was biased against Trump and in favor of Secretary Clinton during the FBI investigation of the Clinton e-mail scandal and somehow influenced the outcome.

Of course, as carefully reported here by Politifact, the facts don’t support the allegation.  As Politifact summarizes the matter:

At the time of the contribution, the candidate’s husband was not directly involved in the FBI probe of Clinton’s email server, according to the FBI. The bureau says that by the time he had some oversight role in the Clinton investigation, the election involving his wife had been over for three months. Meanwhile, the decision not to charge Clinton was a recommendation made by the director of the FBI [not by McCabe].

I am of two minds about McCabe’s departure.  On the one hand, in the short term, it may be just as well to have him out of the picture.  Regardless of the facts of the matter, it is not helpful to the Bureau in the present moment to have a Deputy Director with family links, however attenuated, to Secretary Clinton’s political allies. McCabe’s resignation means one less distraction from the substance of the investigations swirling around Mr. Trump.

On the other hand, McCabe’s departure is profoundly disturbing for at least two reasons. The first is that an honorable public servant should not have his career cut short by unsubstantiated slurs from the President of the United States.

The second, and deeper, concern is that the attack on McCabe is yet another Trumpian assault on essential norms that have long governed relations between the White House and the career civil service generally and federal law enforcement agencies in particular. Central to a functioning modern state is confidence that the government’s ordinary employees perform their tasks free of partisan political bias. To help ensure that civil servants will do so, the Hatch Act of 1939 requires that career federal employees surrender some of the rights of political participation enjoyed by everyone else.  Conflict of interest regulations go still further to prevent, so far as possible, even the appearance of favoritism or bias. Equally importantly, the civil service has for many decades cultivated an ethos of political neutrality, offering professional diligence in the service of the law and the agency’s mission, rather than the party of the moment.

This ethos is particularly strong in the Justice Department and federal criminal justice investigative agencies.  Anyone who has served in these bodies through several changes of administration recognizes that new presidents bring policy changes at the margins, but the focus of the career people remains on finding facts and enforcing the law. The internal norm is that personal political affiliations don’t matter and are usually unknown to one’s co-workers. No one worries that career prosecutors or agents will go harder on targets who are of the opposite party or easier on targets who share their political affiliation.

To be fair, these norms of professional even-handedness are sometimes strained in the highest profile cases. But to an impressive degree federal law enforcement agencies have lived up to the expectation of neutral professionalism.  Which is why both congress and the public have traditionally accorded the results of DOJ investigations a degree of respect they would never offer to the work of state or local governments.

It is precisely in order to protect the tradition of independent judgment so essential to its institutional mission that the Justice Department (of which the FBI is a component) has long jealously resisted White House efforts to meddle in investigations or prosecutions.

Trump’s now-successful attack on McCabe is an assault on the federal civil service in general, and the independence of the Justice Department more particularly.  In effect, Mr. Trump’s argument against McCabe is that a career FBI agent cannot be trusted if his wife ran for state elective office on the ticket of the party opposing the president. And that, in turn, is fast translating into the demand from Trump adherents and their media cheerleaders that no Democrat, or indeed any Republican not slavishly attached to Mr. Trump, can participate in investigations that might reflect adversely on the present administration.  And, of course, Mr. Trump has already embraced the view that he is entitled to “loyalty” — and protection — from “his” Attorney General and “his” FBI Director.

I have written before about the continuing Trumpist subversion of the Justice Department and the grave consequences that will flow if it succeeds.  McCabe’s resignation takes us a tiny step closer to the point of no return.

Russian Bots Preferred Trump

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The Senate Judiciary Commitee’s probe of social media platforms uncovered data concerning the number of retweets Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton each received from Russian robots between September 1st and November 15th. While Trump received 470,000 retweets from the Russian bots, Clinton only received 50,000.  C-NET reports that Twitter has around 450,000 suspicious logins (possibly from bots) a day, and as such the number of retweets the candidates received is relatively insignificant. However, it does establish the Russian bots had a preference for retweeting Trump. Additionally, this preference cannot be said to be a mere reflection of the candidate’s rate of tweeting, as their daily average was more or less on par with each other.

This information falls far short of establishing collusion. Even if we could take the data to mean that the Russian government supported Trump, it does not show that Trump solicited said support. However, it does help to further establish Russian interference with the 2016 election. To look at the Committee’s complete report click here.

download (1).jpegJosh Haner/New York Times/Redux

Much ado about titillating tidbits in the Mueller investigation

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By Frank Bowman

In the last week,  several items surfaced in relation to the Mueller investigation that set the media atwitter, in both the traditional and social media senses.

First, as my invaluable RA and blog co-author Sam Crosby noted, the New York Times reports that last June Mr. Trump ordered the firing of special counsel Robert Mueller, but backed down after White House Counsel Donald McGahn threatened to resign if he followed through with the order.  Since the story broke, commentators have tended to fall into three camps.  Mr. Trump himself called the report “fake news.” (Notably, neither Mr. McGahn nor anyone else from the White House has so far denied its veracity.)  Those who accept the report as true but are disposed to defend Mr. Trump have argued that he was just blowing off steam, which is no offense.  Those who view Mr. Trump less favorably have suggested either that this event is evidence of Mr. Trump’s state of mind in relation to obstruction of justice (i.e., it tends to prove that actions like firing James Comey were undertaken for the purpose of obstructing the Russia investigation), or that the rescinded order was itself an attempt to obstruct justice.

On this one, I’m more sympathetic than usual to the pro-Trump camp. Standing alone, Trump’s reported order is of no consequence.  NEWS FLASH: President decides to do something politically stupid and possibly illegal, but is talked out of it!  That’s not a crime. It’s not an impeachable offense. At most it demonstrates, as if more demonstration were needed, the extraordinary variability of our wayward chief executive’s brain.

As for the multiple commentators straining to make Mr. Trump’s almost-firing of Mueller part of the mosaic of evidence in a case of obstruction of justice, well, yeah, I guess it adds a teensy bit to the argument that Mr. Trump had a corrupt purpose in firing Mr. Comey.  But, let’s face it, not much.  Bob Mueller’s job, after all, is to be a highly public thorn in the president’s side.  The temptation to sack him would be intense, even for a president who was both entirely innocent and far more temperate than Mr. Trump.  Nearly yielding to that temptation, but pulling up short of actually doing it, just doesn’t prove much.

The week’s other big Trump-Mueller story was Mr. Trump’s apparently off-the-cuff declarations that he’d be happy to talk on the record, under oath, to Mueller’s investigators.  This was treated as earth-shaking news, perhaps signaling confidence by White House counsel and Mr. Trump’s private lawyers that the Mueller investigation would be winding up soon with nothing untoward to report about Mr. Trump.  This interpretation survived for a few hours — roughly the period it took for Mr. Trump’s lawyers to pick themselves up off the floor, swear colorfully at their client’s incorrigible refusal to listen to their advice, knock back a neat whiskey or two, and then get on the phones to start walking the story back.

Personally, I put Mr. Trump’s assertion that he looks forward to talking with the Mueller team, under oath or otherwise, in the same bin with his statements  during the campaign that he would release his tax returns once they were no longer under audit.  Mr. Trump’s whole life is a saga of promises blithely made and even more blithely broken.  His egotism may persuade him that he could dance nimbly through the minefield of an encounter with really good prosecutors.  But my bet is that his lawyers will dissuade him from a voluntary interview by Mr. Mueller, and that they will resist any effort to compel an appearance before a grand jury.

In short, nothing much of consequence happened this week on the Mueller front. Stay tuned.

Trump Called to have Mueller Fired

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Reports that President Trump called to have Special Counsel Robert Mueller fired surfaced last night. The request came only a month after Former FBI Director James Comey was fired, and soon after it was revealed that Mueller would be invesitgating potential charges for obstruction of justice against the President. Apparently, White house counsel Don McGahn refused to initiate the firing, because he did not agree with the President’s reasons for doing so (the President cited several conflicts of interest he believed Mueller had).

Trump denies that he asked that Mueller be fired, and Former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci said the accusation was irrelevant because Mueller was not actually fired. However, it may not be so irrelevant. As discussed by Professor Bowman previously on this blog, 18 United States Code, Section 1512(c) outlaws a corrupt attempt to obstruct, influence, or impede an actual or impending proceeding. If the President’s request that Mueller be fired could constitute a corrupt attempt, that may mean additional charges for obstruction of justice against Trump.

mueller-fbi.jpgJ. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/AP

The Firing of Flynn and Comey

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Special Counsel Robert Mueller is  seeking to interview President Trump about the firing of former FBI Director James Comey and the departure of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Comey was in the midst of an investigation of Trump’s campaign’s connections with Russia when he was fired by the President, and Flynn resigned, apparently under pressure from the President, for lying about his contacts with the Russian Ambassador, Sergey Kislyak.

The firing of Comey has often been cited as obstruction of justice, and the removal of both Comey and Flynn could indicate that the President is guilty of collusion. Regardless of whether that is the case, however, Mueller’s attempts to interview the President indicate that he is nearing the end of his investigation. Whether the President will submit to an interview remains to be seen.

170517210646-comey-mueller-super-tease.jpgNicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

 

FBI Director Pressured to Remove Deputy Director

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FBI Director, Christopher Wray threatened to resign if Deputy FBI Director, Andrew McCabe, was removed from his post. Attorney General Jeff Session apparently pressured Wray to remove both McCabe and the FBI’s lawyer James Baker from their posts (though it is unclear whether that meant firing or transfering the two). Baker was reassigned last year. President Trump has also made his distaste for the Deputy Director known via twitter, apparently for the way he handled Hillary Clinton’s email scandal.

The pressures Wray is facing remind me of the firing of former FBI Director James Comey, who was in the midst of investigating Trump’s connections with Russia when his position was terminated. Commentators feel that the firing of James Comey could constitute obstruction of justice, a potentially impeachable offense. The pressure to remove to McCabe would likely not constitute further obstruction of justice, as it unclear that McCabe is currently involved in the investigation of Russian collusion. However, the pressure put on Wray does show a pattern of interference with the FBI which paints the President in a negative light. One would think that after the firing of Comey, the White House would take a hands off approach.

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Impeachment in the states: Missouri governor edition, Part 2

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By Frank Bowman

In yesterday’s post, I discussed the basics of the impeachment provisions of the Missouri state constitution and how they compare with federal practice.  Today I turn to how Missouri’s rules intersect with the publicly reported facts of Governor Eric Greitens’ sex scandal.

The Basics

To recap, under the Missouri constitution the procedure for impeaching state judges and all elective officials is as follows:

The official must first be impeached by the state House of Representatives. Curiously, the state constitution does not specify a minimum vote threshold for approving articles of impeachment, but presumably, as with federal impeachment, approval requires a majority vote.

Once articles of impeachment are approved by the House, the trial of the allegations is held, not in the state senate, but by judges.  For all officials except members of the supreme court and the governor, impeachments are tried before the supreme court.  Impeachment of the governor or a member of the supreme court is tried to “a special commission of seven eminent jurists to be elected by the senate.”

Article VII, Section 1 of the Missouri constitution lists as impeachable conduct “crimes, misconduct, habitual drunkenness, willful neglect of duty, corruption in office, incompetency, or any offense involving moral turpitude or oppression in office.”  As I discussed in detail in my last post, this apparently very broad standard has been interpreted by the Missouri Supreme Court in Matter of Impeachment of Judith K. Moriarty, 902 S.W.2d 273 (1994), to include only conduct that is a violation of some other law, i.e., some law other than Article VII, Section 1.

The legal violation need not be criminal. Nor does there seem to be a requirement like that in the federal constitution that the impeachable behavior be a “high” or great offense.  Even, as was the case in Moriarty, a minor civil regulatory infraction could apparently suffice. Moreover, it does not appear that the impeached official must have been previously found guilty or adjudged liable by any tribunal other than the impeachment court.

[NOTE: After this article was first posted, an astute reader who worked in the statehouse at the time of the Moriarty impeachment e-mailed me to point out that, prior to her impeachment, Ms. Moriarty was indicted and convicted in Cole County for a misdemeanor election law violation in connection with the same transactions that led to her impeachment. Curiously, however, in its opinion convicting Ms. Moriarty of the articles of impeachment, the Supreme Court never mentions the prior conviction or any criminal infraction.  It merely finds that she knowingly violated the civil election statutes, as alleged by the House.]

Finally, the Missouri Supreme Court held in Moriarty that judges sitting as a court of impeachment should not make political judgments about whether the charged conduct is serious enough to merit removal.  The practical effect of this limitation is that, while judges should not convict in an impeachment case unless the charged conduct violates state law, any proven violation of any state law, however minor, should result in conviction and removal so long as the Missouri House of Representatives deemed the conduct worthy of inclusion in an article of impeachment in the first place.

Is Governor Greitens impeachable?

These ground rules have significant implications for any effort to impeach Governor Greitens.

First, because the governor cannot be impeached unless he somehow violated the law, we must begin by determining whether any of his reported conduct did so.  Here’s a rundown of the major possibilities:

  • Adultery: A surprising number of states still make adultery illegal.  But Missouri is not among them.
  • Sexual offenses or false imprisonment:  Media accounts of the sexual contact between Mr. Greitens and his former hairdresser suggest that it was consensual.  In an interview today, Mr. Greitens resolutely insisted that this was the case. However, the woman’s account of the relationship includes at least one sexual encounter in which she was bound, a point Mr. Greitens has not so far denied. So long as the woman consented to the binding and all sexual contact occurring while she was bound, there would be no crime.  That said, if either the binding or any of the particular kinds of sexual contact that occurred while the woman was bound was non-consensual, the non-consensual behavior could be criminal.  Sexual contact without consent can constitute a series of crimes, ranging in seriousness from the misdemeanor of Sexual Abuse, RSMo 566.101, to felony Second Degree Rape, RSMo 566.031.  Either binding the woman without consent or declining to release her after she withdrew consent could in theory amount to false imprisonment (now known as third degree kidnapping), RSMo 565.130.  It must be emphasized that at this point there is no evidence of anything other than a consensual sexual encounter with somewhat unusual, shall we say, rules of engagement.  And that’s not a crime.
  • Blackmail or extortion: During a conversation with her husband in which she confessed to the affair with Mr. Greitens, the woman asserted that while she was bound, unclothed, and blindfolded, she saw a flash, which she interpreted as Mr. Greitens photographing her. She also said that Greitens threatened to release the photo to the public if she revealed the affair.  Mr. Greitens has denied that he took a picture or threatened to release it. There has been widespread media speculation that this conduct, if proven, might amount to “blackmail.”  The legal difficulty with this speculation is that there is no Missouri crime of blackmail.  If a person threatens public release of embarrassing material unless the victim turns over money or something else of economic value, that constitutes “stealing” by “coercion” – which includes a threat “to expose any person to hatred, contempt or ridicule.”  But there is no allegation here that Mr. Greitens sought money or anything else of economic value. Similarly, Missouri has no extortion statute.
  • “Revenge porn”: Some jurisdictions make it an offense to release publicly indecent images of another person without consent.  But Missouri has no such statute. And Mr. Greitens released nothing.
  • Invasion of privacy (the alleged picture):  Regardless of whether Mr. Greitens committed any crime akin to blackmail, if he simply took a picture, without the woman’s consent and while she was fully or partially unclothed, that would be a plain violation of Missouri’s invasion of privacy statute, RSMo 565.252.
  • Tampering with physical evidence: If the alleged photograph was ever taken, it has not surfaced, and the woman in the case says that Mr. Greitens told her he erased / destroyed the picture. However, if there was a picture and Mr. Greitens erased it for the purpose of preventing its disclosure in any “official proceeding or investigation,” that would be the crime of tampering with physical evidence, RSMo 575.100. Of course, if such a picture once existed, but Mr. Greitens destroyed it either out of remorse for his bad behavior or to prevent its discovery by, say, his wife, that would be no crime.

The bottom line here is that, if the woman is telling the truth, Mr. Greitens committed at least one crime under Missouri law – invasion of privacy for taking a non-consensual nude photograph.  The offense is only a misdemeanor, but as noted above, Missouri’s impeachment provisions set no minimum level of severity for impeachable offenses.

The most obvious impediment to proving conclusively that Mr. Greitens violated the invasion of privacy statute is the absence of the alleged photograph.  That said, even in ordinary criminal cases, physical evidence is not necessary to establish contested facts.  In criminal court, Mr. Greitens could be charged with and convicted of invasion of privacy purely on the testimony of the woman in the case.  As a practical matter, this would require her cooperation (trying to prove the case with only her taped statement to her husband would probably run afoul of the rules of evidence). But if she testified consistently with her taped statement, nothing would prevent a judge or jury from convicting Mr. Greitens because they believed her story and not his denials.

The same is true of an impeachment proceeding.  The Missouri House of Representatives could frame an article of impeachment based on violation of the invasion of privacy statute and the panel of judges appointed to hear the matter could convict the governor because they found her more credible than him. That said, without some corroboration that a photo ever existed, it seems somewhat improbable that either a prosecutor or the House of Representatives would proceed.

The most interesting legal question an impeachment case for invasion of privacy would present is whether a state official can be impeached for conduct that occurred before he took office.  The Missouri constitution doesn’t address this issue.  And the final intriguing twist on the matter is that we cannot be sure that the issue is what lawyers call “justiciable.”  In other words, the Missouri constitution delegates the task of trying impeachment of a governor to a special commission of judges appointed by the state senate.  In the federal system, the decision of the U.S. Senate on whether or not to convict an impeached officer is generally understood not to be reviewable by the courts. The Missouri constitution certainly implies that the decision of the special commission is final, but inasmuch as no such commission has ever been convened, we cannot know whether its decision would be deemed final by the regular courts.

As a final note, I have not discussed here the fact that the FBI is also apparently taking a preliminary look at this case.  I may return in a later post to consider whether any federal statute could possibly have been violated and whether a violation of federal law would be grounds for impeachment under the Missouri constitution.

Frank Bowman