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 (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.