The Special Prosecutor Did Not Exonerate the President

July 30, 2019

In the hearings on the Mueller Report, some of the President’s supporters tried to describe “innocent until proven guilty” as meaning that the president is innocent of any crime and that the special prosecutor made that finding.

“Innocent until proven guilty” is a slogan with important purposes – we must not punish people who haven’t been found guilty. The presumption of innocence bars any form of punishment before a guilty verdict. We have to make sure that we don’t catch and punish the wrong people. But there is no negative implication here. “Innocent until proven guilty” doesn’t mean that someone who hasn’t been proven guilty is therefore actually and certifiably innocent. Even people who are held not guilty after criminal trials are sometimes found responsible in civil cases, where the penalty is money, not time in jail. “Innocent until proven guilty” is a presumption, not a conclusion about a person’s actual behavior.

In some cases, prosecutors do conclude that a defendant was innocent, but their judgment is not binding on anyone if something else turns up and changes the impact of the evidence.

In other cases, prosecutors conclude that they can’t convince a jury that a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, sometimes called a moral certainty. If not, they can put the case aside, hoping or trying to get more evidence. They may still believe the defendant probably committed a crime, even though they understand there is still a reasonable doubt. They have evidence that points toward guilt, but it isn’t strong enough to convince a jury to imprison someone.

Or, and this seems to have been the case with Trump, they believe they might have sufficient information to convict, but they don’t have the authority to prosecute. The rule in the Justice Department against indicting a sitting president barred Mueller from proceeding.

But none of those possibilities imply a finding of innocence as a fact.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller tried to make it clear. There is no finding of innocence in the Report. Instead, the Report described evidence that points toward obstruction of justice, and concluded:

“[I]f we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment. The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

It’s not clear who first said, “I must follow them; I am their leader.” That is clearly Nancy Pelosi’s position. To get too far out ahead of the public is dangerous. It could close minds rather than open them, increasing the danger for our country. Lawyers like myself, need to be very conscious of whether and when a jury will be receptive to a charge even though we have evidence. My own view is that Mr. Trump has committed impeachable offenses. But I also agree that the moment to pursue impeachment has not arrived because too much of the public and too many of their Senators are not yet ready to hear the charges, much less follow where the evidence leads. I’m hopeful that the ongoing hearings will help to prepare the public and the Senate. But it isn’t patriotic to go ahead blindly.

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Kavanaugh on Investigating the President

October 9, 2018

Brett Kavanaugh is now supposed to be called “Justice Kavanaugh.” The Constitution refers to members of the Supreme Court as judges. Whether the term “justice” will be appropriate depends entirely on his behavior. Of that I am doubtful. I think there was no justice for Dr. Christine Blasely Ford.

There is strong evidence that Kavanaugh will solidify a majority for repealing a half century of progress on voting rights, women’s rights, gay rights, anti-discrimination law and protections against our becoming a police state.  Kavanaugh invariably parried questions about his views with recitations of prior law, showing only that Kavanaugh could explain the cases, but never denying his likely impact.

Nevertheless, Trump and his Senate sycophants would have nominated and confirmed someone equally damaging to American law. More ominous are Kavanaugh’s views about whether it is OK to investigate a sitting president.

Kavanaugh joined the investigation of President Clinton on matters stemming from his relations with Paula Jones. That suit was dismissed because it didn’t claim Clinton violated the law. It was brought, however, for purposes unrelated to the suit, namely to enable fishing expeditions on Clinton’s behavior. That’s called abuse of process.  Those questioning Clinton eventually found Monica Lewinsky. By contrast to Trump’s behavior, she was a willing participant. In those days Republicans were puritans.  Kavanaugh pursued Clinton with gusto.

Then, with Bush in the White House before the election of President Obama, he told an audience at Minnesota Law School, that he had changed his mind. He wrote that defending against the Paula Jones litigation took Clinton’s attention off the growing threat from al Qaeda and similarly weighty matters. So Kavanaugh concluded that there were good reasons not to sue sitting presidents. He added that impeachment was always available. Left unsaid, however, was that to be more than a partisan political tool, impeachment must rest on investigating to determine what happened.

Unlike the Clinton investigation, the investigation of the Trump campaign is about the violation of multiple laws, both constitutional and statutory – whether Trump’s campaign worked with a foreign country to tamper with an American election and support that country’s interests in exchange for putting Mr. Trump in the White House. The Mueller investigation provides an independent, nonpartisan basis for considering impeachment. Without Mueller, we have only partisanship – a partisan whitewash or a partisan indictment.

So, Trump’s selection of a judge who doubts the legitimacy of investigating a sitting president strengthens his attacks on the ongoing investigation. That’s not news, given Trump’s tweets about pardons and remarks about firing Mueller. But we don’t allow people to be judge in their own cause. What we already know about the Trump campaign justifies a deeper look. And Trump’s effort to control the investigation can amount to impeachable behavior. For Democrats to take back the Court, the law and the cause of justice, they will have to defeat Kavanaugh’s senatorial supporters and elect a Congress prepared to prevent presidential abuse. In other words, the battle isn’t over and the stakes just got larger.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 9, 2018. This is a revised and updated version of commentary originally prepared for broadcast on September 18, 2018, pulled because of the Kavanaugh hearings, rescheduled for September 25 but pulled again at the last minute because of new developments in the Middle East. The earlier version was posted here.

 


Kavanaugh

September 18, 2018

Brett Kavanaugh no longer seems a shoo-in for appointment to the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh has now been accused of attempted rape. Let’s be clear – there has never been a time when rape was just juvenile misbehavior. Rape is and has been a crime for centuries. Nevertheless, I doubt this president will make a better nomination, a point Akhil Amar, an old friend on the Yale Law faculty, made eloquently on these airwaves recently. If the Republicans can put another person on the Court, whoever it is will solidify a majority for repealing a half century of progress on social, procedural and political rights, repealing gay rights, women’s rights, anti-discrimination law and a host of protections against our becoming a police state.

Beyond the question of who Trump’s nominee is or will be, the larger question for both the Court and the country is the impact on the November congressional elections. Control of Congress is crucial not only for its legislative output, but also for eventually retaking the Court.

At the hearings, Kavanaugh invariably responded to questions about his own views with descriptions of prior law, showing only that Kavanaugh could explain the cases, which no one doubted. More interesting were his shifting views about whether it is OK to investigate a sitting president. It seems pretty clear that he believes it’s a bad idea to investigate and prosecute sitting presidents outside the impeachment process. But he hasn’t told us whether it is unconstitutional.

Kavanaugh joined the investigation of President Clinton on matters stemming from his relations with Paula Jones. The civil suit brought against Clinton was eventually dismissed because it did not claim Clinton violated the law. That suit, however, was brought for purposes unrelated to the claims in the suit, namely to conduct fishing expeditions on Clinton until they found something that might be illegal. That’s called abuse of process.

Those questioning Clinton eventually found Monica Lewinsky. By contrast to Trump’s behavior, she was a willing participant. The Republicans went after Clinton because it was sex and in those days Republicans were puritans.

Kavanaugh eventually wrote that defending against the Paula Jones litigation took Clinton’s attention off the growing threat from al Qaeda and similarly weighty matters. So he thought there were good reasons not to sue sitting presidents. But he did not slam the door shut. He expressed no view on the constitutionality of investigations or prosecutions. And he commented that there was always impeachment, which, if it is to be more than a partisan political tool, must be based on investigation to determine what happened.

Unlike the Clinton investigation, the investigation of the Trump campaign is about the violation of multiple laws, both constitutional and statutory – whether Trump’s campaign worked with a foreign country to tamper with an American election and to support that country’s interests in exchange for putting Mr. Trump in the White House. Whether or not a president can be prosecuted while in office, the Mueller investigation provides an independent, nonpartisan basis for considering impeachment. Without Mueller, we have only partisanship – a partisan whitewash or a partisan indictment.

So, for Trump to nominate a candidate for a crucial vacancy on the Supreme Court who doubts the legitimacy of investigating a sitting president, looks a lot like deliberate interference with the ongoing investigation. That’s not news, given Trump’s tweets about pardons and remarks about firing Mueller. But Trump’s efforts to control the investigation of his own behavior, making him the judge of his own case, offends a sense of justice. And that is directly relevant to the November elections. This president must have a Congress which is prepared to serve its constitutional function of preventing presidential abuses of power.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 25, 2018, but pulled at the last minute because of new developments in the Middle East.


Impeachment for Corruption

April 14, 2018

We’ve discussed how impeachment organizes the disparate issues surrounding Donald Trump. We’ve focused on the poor political prospects of presidents who faced impeachment and the poor prospects of those presidents’ parties. We’ve examined the history of the constitutional language, especially “high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” We found that a major purpose of the language was to enable Congress to stop corruption in its tracks. Corruption of public officials was a major target of impeachments in both England and America, leading to our constitutional text.

The Founders were very concerned about corruption. One constitutional clause barred public officials from accepting “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or Foreign State,” and a second clause barred presidents from receiving any emoluments other than pre-determined compensation from the U.S. or any state. They couldn’t accept gifts. And they couldn’t accept other benefits, emoluments, including as pay for service. We have elaborate laws about gifts to public officials. They cannot, they must not accept pay as public officials for what they have to do anyway. Judges are generally quite scrupulous. When my classmate, Judge José Cabranes, officiated over a wedding for our son, I asked other judges what I could do in response. They told me anything I did, even though we are old friends, had to be minimal. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote a chapter for a book I edited years ago. I arranged for all the contributors to share whatever royalties the book produced. Justice O’Connor was adamant that she would not take a cent – we put her share of the royalties into a scholarship fund instead. And you may not know that when foreign officials do bring presents to American public officials, the American officials are required to turn those presents over to be warehoused for use in public offices but not given to any public official to keep privately.

There were reasons that the Founders were so concerned. One source of the American Revolution had been the colonists’ anger at all the perks and goodies heaped on officials appointed by the Crown, and the colonists also reacted to the airs those officials put on. But the problem goes much deeper into economic and patriotic reasons. Opportunities steered toward public officials act like a tax on trade as other businesses have to struggle all the harder for business. Opportunities steered toward public officials distort the market because business doesn’t go to the best, but rather to the powerful. The economies of countries where those practices are common do much worse than those free of that kind of corruption. Until recently it’s not been a problem here.

The patriotic problem is loyalty. People perceive that doing business with Trump or his enterprises is more likely to win Trump’s favor and therefore affect American policy. They perceive it because it is ordinary human behavior to bless those who bless us. But it is precisely wrong for a president – their job in the White House is to pursue the best for America, not the best for their own businesses. No one asks presidents to impoverish themselves. I believe Truman was the last to retire without a presidential pension. And they can put their assets in a blind trust as presidents have been doing for some time now so that they do not know and can’t tell what will be better for their business or who has benefitted their assets. Trump has done the opposite. No blind trust. No disclosure of his taxes or the businesses reflected on them. And he blatantly steers business to his own resorts and enterprises.

That’s about the president’s welfare, not the people’s. Corruption has no place in the White House and should be the first article of impeachment. To paraphrase his own language: Dirty Donald; lock him up.

— This commentary was pre-empted by the Facebook hearings but included on the WAMC blog, April, 2018.


Impeachment – The Legal Question

April 3, 2018

For the past two weeks we’ve talked about how impeachment changes the issues surrounding Donald Trump and the political impact of prior impeachments in America. Now we turn to the constitutional language: “The President … shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”[1]

Well before the Constitution was written, impeachment began as a wide-open power of the British House of Commons to prosecute people in the House of Lords. But the Commons largely limited themselves to statutory crimes so that the House of Lords would be more likely to convict.

Crossing the waters, colonial legislatures limited themselves to the behavior of public officials. Legislative impeachment of anyone other than public officials would encroach on the job of courts and give legislatures too much power over citizens at large. Impeachment, however, became an important tool in the colonists’ battle with the British Crown.

On independence, legislatures limited themselves to action that affected public duties or danger to the republic. The new governments were to be constrained by rules of fair dealing. Elections did not provide a sufficient check either against mob rule or official chicanery. And public officials were not entitled to dismantle the separation of powers among legislative, executive and judicial departments with separate and complementary duties.

By the time the Constitution was written, the basic elements of impeachment in the thirteen states were unethical conduct that endangered the public or the republic. Statutory penalties were for courts to adjudicate. Political penalties, like removal from office, would still be appropriate for impeachment even for statutory crimes. Impeachments prosecuted in that period included corruption, like bribery, breach of public trust like using powers for personal advantage or to injure others, misuse of power such as bullying private citizens, and undermining the republican character of government with its careful divisions into executive, legislative and judicial powers.

In the Convention, a committee suggested that officials could be removed “for neglect of duty, malversation, or corruption.” Malversation, somewhat redundantly, meant “improper or corrupt behavior in office.”  Before they could vote on it, another committee brought to the floor a proposal that officials could only be impeached for “treason or bribery.” George Mason believed that was much too narrow, and on September 8, 1787 he suggested adding maladministration as an additional ground. His proposal was defeated, but in response, he proposed the language we now have, “high crimes and misdemeanors,” and it passed. “Misdemeanors” had been mentioned but once during the Convention and only in the context of crimes at sea. A widely consulted legal text of the era, however, defined misdemeanor as “smaller faults and omissions of less consequence than ‘crimes.’” That definition seems broader than “maladministration” and could easily encompass “neglect of duty, malversation, or corruption.”[2] But then why were those terms taken out? In The Federalist, Hamilton explained that the grounds of impeachment came from “the abuse or violation of some public trust,”[3] essentially supporting Mason’s approach. Their view quickly became standard.

The larger point is that the Founders sought a method to protect the republican character of the Constitution, enable the legislature to stop corruption, and to make sure that the president would faithfully execute the laws, respect the rights of citizens and obey the checks on official power built into the Constitution and principles of republic government. That forms the basic understanding of what the impeachment clause was designed to accomplish, and why some presidents would need to be impeached. Proposed articles of impeachment should be compared to those great purposes.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 3, 2018.

 

 

[1] U.S. Const., Art. II, §4. Strictly speaking, impeachment refers to the charges voted by the House of Representatives for trial in the Senate. Removal is the result of conviction by the Senate. Art. I, §2, ¶5 and §3, ¶6.

[2] See Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, vol. 2 at 550 (Max Farrand, ed., Yale U. Press, 1966); Peter Charles Hoffer and N.E.H. Hull, Impeachment in America, 1635-1805 (Yale U. Press 1984).

[3] Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, The Federalist, No. 65 (Hamilton) at 396 (Clinton Rossiter ed., New American Library 1961).


Impeachment – The Political Question

March 27, 2018

Last week I commented that the issue of impeachment refocuses the flood of presidential moves. The possibility of impeaching the president raises another critical political question – would impeachment so annoy the public that Democrats would be defeated for trying to impeach Trump? Or will the focus in the impeachment process on Trump’s misbehavior leave the public sufficiently disgusted that the next election would go to his opponents? There have been attempts to remove presidents by impeachment. They resulted in two trials in the Senate and one resignation to avoid impeachment. That’s too few cases to draw firm conclusions but they deserve a look.

President Andrew Johnson was impeached by the House and tried by the Senate in a dispute over how to implement the Union victory in the Civil War and to require the South to live under rules providing for equality without regard to race. It came to a head when Johnson attempted to fire abolitionists he’d inherited from Lincoln’s cabinet. By a single vote, the U.S. Senate decided not to remove Johnson from office. But General Grant won the election that followed and reversed Johnson’s policies. The Republicans who had fought to remove Johnson from office had the next eight years under Grant to consolidate their victory in the Civil War. Eight years later, the contested election of 1876 was settled in favor of Rutherford Hayes when the Republicans agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South and end Reconstruction.

President Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 before the House of Representatives could vote to impeach him over the cover up of the Watergate burglary by people working for the Committee to Reelect the President, or CREEP. The underlying burglary threatened to distort the electoral process. The cover-up threatened to prevent prosecutors and courts from enforcing the law. When Nixon resigned, he was succeeded by Vice President Gerald Ford. Two years later, Republican Gerald Ford was defeated by Democrat Jimmy Carter.

In 1998, the House impeached Democrat Bill Clinton on charges related to sexual encounters and Clinton’s denial under oath that he had sex with a woman not his wife. This was certainly an extension of the idea of impeachable offenses to the private morality of the president rather than his discharge of public duties. But Clinton’s misbehavior has been trumped by the present president whose pornographic language, boasts, actions and affairs have gone much further than anything that Clinton was charged with.

In 1999 a Senate majority acquitted Clinton on one of the charges and the Senate split 50-50 on the other. Since the Constitution requires a two/thirds vote to convict, the result wasn’t close. In the following year, Democratic candidate Al Gore, despite trying desperately to avoid any connection to Clinton during the campaign, was defeated by Republican candidate George W. Bush for President. Gore won the popular vote but not the electoral college.

Thus, in the twentieth century, the party impeaching the challenged president won the next election – the Democrats after Nixon resigned and the Republicans after the impeachment of Clinton. In the nineteenth century, the next election went to General Grant, who was very much opposed to the behavior of the impeached president Andrew Johnson.

We have no experience with a president who lost the trial in the Senate. The risk to the president’s objectives has been from impeachment itself. The public’s reaction so far has been to condemn presidential misbehavior and change parties. That history is illustrative but certainly not conclusive of what the public would do now. On the other hand, there are so many serious issues that it’s fair to paraphrase the current president: Dirty Donald; lock him up.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 27, 2018.

 

 


The Central Issue of Trump

March 20, 2018

Trump says and does so many things which are parts of much bigger issues, that it’s nearly impossible to keep up.

  • He has us discussing whether he’s going to fire one guy or the other, who does or doesn’t deserve to go;
  • Whether Trump will make war or peace and what country deserves our friendship or enmity;
  • Whether we will honor or dishonor treaties that he claims other countries violate, though no one else shares that view;
  • Whether he has a policy about infrastructure based on his saying things should be built or does not have a policy based on the empty line in his budget;
  • Whether he has conspired with an enemy of the United States, and whether the Special Counsel’s investigation should be shut down because he tells us that he did nothing that should be investigated, and whether it matters that he didn’t give Hillary that privilege.

It makes the head spin.

We’re heading in just a few years to an economy in which most of us won’t have steady jobs, pensions or unions to support us. Instead it’s everyone for himself all the time in the gig economy. Republicans insist that government and regulation are almost always bad. Who’s left to have our interests at heart? Reminds me of pastor Martin Niemöller on being sent to the concentration camps by the Nazis, “Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” Is Trump for or against the workers when he says nothing about union rights and supports no change in working conditions other than tariffs for a couple of industries. And is Trump for or against a livable environment when he takes every possible action to degrade the earth, air and water?

We have been at war since 2003 but what do we have to show for it but body bags and amputees. Will Trump send more troops to die in the Middle East, or is he just bluffing to make people back down? But attempted bluffing will be ignored by people across the globe who have all lost confidence in what he tells us because we need only wait a short while for him to say the opposite.

Trump wants the Special Prosecutor, Robert Mueller, to stop investigating whether Trump or his campaign collaborated with the Russians in order to win the White House, or wants to fire Mueller and hire someone else who will close the investigation? Does it matter whether criminal defense lawyers may want their accused clients to have a right to choose their prosecutors and put a time limit on investigations, especially for such difficult prosecutions as those of organized crime, corporate finagling and international financial transactions. Can they cite the president for that right?

It’s enough to make one’s head spin. But there’s a way to simplify it. Forget all the separate issues until we have a president that actually cares about them, and focus on impeachment. Every one of those issues bears on impeachment, either because they relate to obstruction of justice, selling America out, self-dealing in foreign affairs or rewarding his favorite autocrats and wealthy friends at the expense of the people he swore to protect. His high crimes and misdemeanors easily exceed what Clinton was impeached over, threaten more damage to the republic than the misbehavior for which Andrew Johnson was impeached, and for which Richard Nixon resigned before the House could vote on articles of impeachment. Bring all these issues back to the fundamental question of impeachment. Dirty Donald, lock him up.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 20, 2018.


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