Despite clear evidence that the wealthy and well-connected receive preferential treatment by our justice system, America nonetheless aspires to a system of legal evenhandedness. We speak of “equal justice under law,” claim to have “a government of law, not of men,” speak of Justice being blind, and assert that “no one is above the law.”
Given this context, it is unsettling that the United States Department of Justice continues to maintain the position that the President of the United States cannot be indicted for actual crimes, whether in office or prior to assuming office. Longstanding Department of Justice policy holds that the president can only be disciplined through impeachment for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” In this process, the House of Representatives draws up charges and the Senate determines guilt, a procedure seldom begun and never carried to its ultimate conclusion by removing a president from office.
In his recent statement before the press, Robert Mueller explained that Department of Justice policy precluded his indicting President Donald Trump for obstruction of justice despite the seemingly overwhelming evidence of Trump’s guilt. Had he been able to determine that the president had not obstructed justice, Mueller explained, he could have said so. He could not assert that Trump did obstruct justice because, given Department of Justice policy, Trump could not actually be indicted and could not defend himself against a publically announced charge absent an indictment. Mueller asserted that indicting a sitting president is unconstitutional.
Surely, the departmental logic explained by Mueller is a kind of Catch-22. It is also maddening in that nowhere in the Constitution is it stated, or even strongly implied, that a president cannot be indicted. That the Constitution provides for impeachment and conviction for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” does not logically entail a president’s immunity to more pedestrian prosecution mechanisms. A simple thought experiment is helpful here. Suppose that President Donald Trump actually shot and killed a citizen on Fifth Avenue. Is it reasonable that he would have to be impeached, convicted, indicted, tried, and convicted again in order to obtain justice?
Two arguments are usually advanced for the president’s immunity from indictment. The most commonly advanced rationale is that the job of president is so demanding that we cannot have the occupant of the office distracted by an indictment. But President Bill Clinton faced a civil suit while in office and was forced to testify under oath. He faced impeachment as well and managed to fulfill his duties without bringing the government to a halt. Would having to deal with a criminal indictment be any more distracting?
In the case of Donald Trump, there is reason to believe that dealing with a criminal indictment might be easier than it would have been for most presidents, as our current chief executive spends an inordinate amount of time playing golf and is known to maintain a light schedule. If Trump found that defending himself against criminal charges would have a devastating effect on his golfing or tweeting, the Twenty-fifth Amendment could come to his rescue, relieving him, at least temporarily from ordinary presidential obligations.
The other argument raised against presidential indictments is rooted in the so-called unitary executive theory. This theory relies on an expansive reading of Article Two of the Constitution and claims that the president can assert power over the entire executive branch. He can therefore direct actions of the attorney general and prevent an indictment of the president from issuing. This theory, though attractive to those favoring a strong presidency—a class including the likes of Richard Nixon and Donald Trump—discounts undisputed powers over the executive branch held by the legislative branch, such as the power to approve or reject cabinet appointments. The Constitution does not say that the president cannot influence the Department of Justice—that department didn’t even exist in 1789—but logic and tradition argue against presidential interference. In any case, the unitary executive theory is rejected by a majority of legal scholars.
Actually, the notion that a president cannot be indicted and that this conclusion follows from the Constitution simply makes no sense. Our Founding Fathers had a bad experience with a king; they certainly did not want to create one to rule over their new nation. Only kings and dictators can do whatever they like without fear of consequences.
Some have argued—Mueller himself seems to believe—that the Constitution’s provision of the impeachment mechanism implies that there is no other way to discipline a president. But, the framers had no need to state explicitly that the president is subject to all the normal laws of the country that any citizen is expected to obey.
In fact, indictment/conviction and impeachment/conviction do different things. The former punishes a president but leaves him in office. The latter removes the president from office with no further penalty. It is conceivable that either process could be executed without the other. A president convicted of a crime could remain in office, though matters would get dicey were he incarcerated. If the crime is serious—certainly if the president were sent to jail—the chief executive would most likely be impeached. It is unclear that an impeached president would necessarily be subject to indictment if the impeachment process uncovered a crime. Nixon avoided impeachment only by resigning; Ford promptly pardoned him. (I thought this was wise at the time, but I’ve changed my mind.)
One final argument in favor of the ability to indict a president: delaying indictment for a suspected crime could mean that the statute of limitations might run out before the president is out of office. Mueller, in his recent public statement, asserted that the president could not even be subjected to a sealed indictment that was not revealed until the target left office. Because of the statute of limitations, this might mean that a criminal president could escape justice completely.
I believe the above arguments strongly support the federal government’s ability to indict a president. On the other hand, I see no move by the Justice Department to change its policy despite suggestions that it should do so. It is worth knowing how the department’s policy originated, however, something uncovered and described by Rachel Maddow on her MNBC show. (I will briefly describe what Maddow discovered, but recommend watching this video for complete details.)
In 1973, Attorney General Elliott Richardson had discovered that Vice President Spiro Agnew was engaged in ongoing criminal activity. He was also aware that President Richard Nixon might well be removed from office because of the developing Watergate scandal. Richardson wanted to get Agnew out of office lest he become president upon Nixon’s departure. Richardson asked Robert Dixon, in the Office of Legal Counsel, to determine if Agnew could be indicted. Dixon discovered that this question was not easily answered definitively. Understanding Richardson’s need, however, he wrote that a vice president could be indicted, but he contrasted this with the situation of the president, whose duties were such as to make indictment problematic. In other words, the Department of Justice’s policy on indicting a president was a kind of footnote to a policy involving the question of indicting the vice president. With Dixon’s memo in hand, Richardson was able to negotiate Agnew’s resignation, though at the cost of letting him walk free. Dixon’s memo has been revisited but retains Dixon’s basic logic. (You can read the successor to the Dixon memo here.)
Whereas I do not expect Donald Trump to be indicted on federal crimes anytime soon, it is worth mentioning another possibility. Trump’s financial activities are being investigated by the state of New York. There seems to be no obstacle to his being charged with a New York state crime. That would be very interesting.
Update, 6/7/2019, 8:54 PM. The text above contains minor additions and corrections.