Did President Trump Obstruct Justice? A Prosecution Analysis

Did President Trump obstruct justice? On May 9, 2017, the President fired FBI Director James Comey. This unexpected move immediately raised questions about the President’s motives. Critics charged that Trump was seeking to derail the FBI investigation into possible Russian ties to the Trump campaign.

Then, a week after Comey was sacked, substantial fuel was added to the obstruction fire. The New York Times reported that in a private meeting in February President Trump asked Comey to drop the investigation of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Comey apparently prepared a memo memorializing this meeting. Comey wrote that Trump told him Flynn was a “good guy” who didn’t do anything wrong, and said , “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.”

Additional news continues to trickle out. On May 19 the New York Times reported that in a meeting in the Oval Office with Russian officials the President told them, “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job.” Trump also reportedly told the Russian officials, “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

Then on May 22, the Washington Post reported that Trump had asked the director of national intelligence and the director of the National Security Agency to publicly deny there was any evidence of collusion between Russian officials and the Trump campaign. Both refused to do so because they felt the request was inappropriate. Later in the same story, the Post reported that senior White House officials also had approached top intelligence officials to ask whether it was possible to ask Comey to shut down the FBI investigation.

“Obstruction of justice” is a term that gets tossed around fairly loosely. The op-ed pages and Twitter have been pronouncing Trump guilty for days. But the crime of obstruction of justice has specific requirements that can be difficult to prove. A federal prosecutor analyzing this as a criminal case would face some hurdles, although the case grows stronger with each new revelation. But in the end, political remedies — including potential impeachment — are more likely than criminal ones.

The Criminal Obstruction Statutes

Several different criminal statutes prohibit obstruction of justice. There are other options, but if I were considering this case I would focus on 18 U.S.C. § 1512(c)(2). This catch-all provision applies to anyone who “corruptly obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so.” The maximum penalty is twenty years in prison.

Obstruction is a crime independent of the merits of any underlying case. Even if an investigation doesn’t result in criminal charges, you can get in trouble for obstructing that investigation – just ask Scooter Libby or Martha Stewart. As the old saying goes, sometimes the cover-up is worse than the crime.

The statute applies to attempts to obstruct a proceeding even if they are unsuccessful. If the investigation into Russian ties continued unimpeded, that would not be a defense to any attempted obstruction.

What Is the Relevant Proceeding?

In any obstruction case, the first task is to identify the proceeding the defendant was allegedly trying to obstruct. There is no such thing as “obstruction in the air.” The government must prove the defendant had a particular proceeding in mind, even if that proceeding had not yet begun. (The prosecution’s failure to prove the link to a specific proceeding is what led the judge in the Bob and Maureen McDonnell case to throw out her obstruction conviction.)

Under § 1512 a proceeding may be a matter before any of the three branches of the federal government. A trial or other court proceeding, a Congressional investigation, or a proceeding before a federal agency all may qualify.

You generally can’t be charged with obstructing an FBI investigation itself, because an investigation is not a “proceeding.” A different obstruction statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1519, could apply if Trump destroyed documents or records (or Oval Office tape recordings?) to impede the FBI investigation. But firing Comey or urging him to drop the case would not fall within that prohibition.

Removing the FBI director might have some tangential effect on the ongoing Congressional investigations, which qualify as proceedings. But the most likely theory would be that Trump, by urging Comey to drop the investigation and then firing him when that didn’t happen, was attempting to impede the pending grand jury investigation into possible Russian connections to his campaign.

There were recent news reports that a federal grand jury has issued subpoenas for records related to Michael Flynn. There appears to be an active grand jury investigation, and there is probably little doubt the President is aware of it. A grand jury investigation is a “proceeding” for purposes of 1512.

This is a link made in many obstruction cases. The FBI investigates, but it can’t file charges and prosecute on its own. In a criminal case the FBI typically is working with federal prosecutors conducting a grand jury investigation. Often when people speak of obstructing an FBI investigation, what they really mean is obstructing the underlying grand jury proceeding in which the FBI is involved.

Prosecutors could charge that Trump sought to impede the grand jury investigation by persuading Comey to drop the case and, when that failed, by firing him. The government would bear the burden of proving Trump  had the grand jury investigation in mind when he took those actions.

Did President Trump obstruct justice by firing Comey?

Former FBI Director James Comey

Did President Trump Obstruct Justice?

As in so many white collar cases, the critical issue would be proving intent. Corrupt intent is the key to obstruction of justice. It means the defendant acted with the deliberate and dishonest purpose of interfering with the proceeding. In other words, wrongfully obstructing the proceeding is what he set out to do. It isn’t enough if the proceeding is affected as a collateral or unintended consequence of the defendant’s actions.

How would a prosecutor prove the President’s intent? One remarkable aspect of this case is the significance of the President’s own statements. During his recent interview with Lester Holt of NBC news, the President admitted he was thinking about the “Russia thing,” which he called a “made up story,” when he decided to fire Comey. This admission could get prosecutors over what is sometimes a significant hurdle: proving the defendant at least had the relevant proceeding in mind.

The day after firing Comey, the President reportedly told Russian officials that he had faced “pressure” over Russia and that firing Comey had removed that pressure. The defense would dispute exactly what the President meant by this, but at a minimum it is further evidence that Comey’s firing was linked in the President’s mind to the Russia investigation.

Building a Circumstantial Case

Prosecutors often prove corrupt intent by circumstantial evidence. In this case, there is no shortage of it. First, the timing of Comey’s firing is suspicious. Most of the misdeeds for which he allegedly was fired have been known for months. But the President chose to remove him only when the Russia investigation was reportedly heating up.

Reasons for the firing also seem suspect. The White House claims Comey was fired over his handling of  the Hillary Clinton email scandal. But as many have noted, the President previously praised Comey for those same actions, often while his crowds chanted, “Lock her up!” The claim the President fired Comey now for actions he took six months ago is perhaps implausible. But the notion that this President fired Comey because Comey was unfair to Hillary Clinton is laughable.

The White House also claimed the firing was necessary because Comey had lost the support and confidence of the rank and file members of the FBI. This was flatly contradicted by the now-acting director and Comey’s former chief deputy, Andrew McCabe, in testimony before the Senate Intelligence committee.

Then there is the shifting narrative about how the decision was made. The White House originally claimed the President acted based on a recommendation from newly-appointed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. When Rosenstein apparently objected (and perhaps threatened to resign), the President began saying he had decided to fire Comey on his own, prior to any recommendation.

Conflicting, shifting, and apparently untrue explanations for the President’s actions could provide compelling circumstantial evidence of corrupt intent. Often such evidence suggests the truth is something more sinister that the defendant wants to conceal.

The news that Trump asked Comey to drop the investigation provides significant additional circumstantial evidence of corrupt intent. The narrative then becomes that Trump first urged Comey to back off, and when that failed, he fired him. Reports that Trump asked others to leave the meeting before he spoke to Comey further suggest he knew he was doing something improper.

This theory is bolstered by the reports that senior White House officials had asked intelligence officials about intervening with Comey to see if they could ask him to shut down the Russia investigation. If those reports could be substantiated they would provide further evidence that the purpose of firing Comey was not to remove an ineffective leader or help the FBI but to thwart the Russia investigation.

The Defense: Lack of Corrupt Intent

Despite all of the above, this would not be a slam-dunk prosecution. When I first wrote this post after Comey was fired, I thought a potential criminal case would be very challenging. The news that has come out since then — including the Holt interview, the Oval Office meeting with the Russians, and the White House inquiries about possibly asking Comey to shut down the investigation — has made the case considerably stronger.

Proving to a unanimous jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the President acted with corrupt intent would still be challenging. If the information in all the press reports could be verified and translated into admissible evidence, I think a prosecutor could build a pretty decent case. But the defense would have a lot to work with as well.

First there’s the fact that the President clearly has the right to fire the FBI director. Comey himself, in his letter to FBI personnel following his dismissal, noted his belief that the President could fire him at any time and for any reason. That’s not an ironclad defense, of course. If something you have the right to do is done for a corrupt purpose it can still be obstruction. But prosecutors could not raise an inference of corrupt intent based solely on the nature of the President’s actions.

In addition, as the President has already pointed out, many people, both Democrats and Republicans, believed there were good grounds to fire Comey based on his actions over the past year. This would help raise a reasonable doubt about corrupt intent.

The President’s defense also would claim that his actions were too remote from the Russia investigation to constitute obstruction. The Supreme Court has held that acts are not obstruction unless they would have the “natural and probable effect” of influencing the proceeding if successful. In an institution as large as the FBI, removing the director may be unlikely to derail any one investigation. Indeed, acting director McCabe assured Congress this was the case and that the investigation will proceed unimpeded.

The Significance of Trump’s Own Statements

Some commentators have claimed the President basically admitted to obstruction by telling Lester Holt the “Russia thing”  was on his mind when he fired Comey. This is an overreach. Saying the President was thinking in part about the Russia investigation is not at all the same as saying he acted with the corrupt intent to obstruct that investigation.

This is a fine distinction, but a critical one. The President could fire Comey because he was mad about Comey’s handling of the Russia investigation and still not intend to obstruct that investigation. If the President believed (probably correctly) the investigation would continue unimpeded without Comey, he would lack the requisite intent to obstruct. Even if he was just mad at Comey and didn’t think at all about the effect on the investigation, that too would mean he lacked corrupt intent.

Later in the same NBC interview Trump also said he wanted the investigation to be done properly. Trump could argue that because Comey had become ineffective as a leader, firing him actually made it more likely the investigation would be successful.

Trump’s statements to the Russian officials about relieving “pressure” by firing Comey are also open to more than one interpretation. Based on the White House statements following the story, it appears Trump would argue that Comey’s mishandling of the investigation was disrupting the President’s attempts to forge better diplomatic relations with the Russians. When he referred to relieving pressure, the defense would argue, the President was referring to this interference with his diplomacy, not to the criminal investigation.

Some of these alternative explanations may seem implausible. I can see eyes rolling from here. But remember the President would not need to prove he acted without corrupt intent. The burden of proof always rests with the government. The defense would only need to raise a reasonable doubt about the President’s intent.

Every prosecutor has had the experience of having what seemed like a stone cold admission by a defendant be completely undermined by a plausible alternative explanation. I’m not trying to bend over backwards to provide excuses for the President’s statements. I’m simply acknowledging the difficulties that prosecutors can face when trying to prove guilt based on statements and circumstances that may be open to different interpretations.

Trump’s Alleged Request to Drop the Investigation

The new reports that President Trump asked Comey to drop the Flynn investigation provide significant additional evidence of possible obstruction of justice. But there are still some unresolved questions. First, the White House has denied Comey’s claims. Unless the rumored Oval Office tapes show up, the details of the meeting would be contested. Comey’s contemporaneous notes would carry significant weight, but disputes about the details and precisely what Trump said and how he said it could be important.

The President is the head of the Executive Branch and was Comey’s boss. How does that affect the question of corrupt intent? On some level the President does have the right to tell the FBI director what to do, just as he has the right to fire him.

There are long-standing norms and traditions about Justice Department independence and the White House not interfering in DOJ investigations. Trump’s alleged conversation with Comey seems to have trampled all over those norms. But whether breaching those norms amounts to a crime is a different question.

Trump’s meeting with Comey is the incident that so far sounds the most like true obstruction. But it may depend on further information about Trump’s own involvement in any underlying misconduct. If it turns out Trump wanted the Flynn case dropped because he feared it would lead to him, that sounds like corrupt intent. But if Trump was not implicated and was simply genuinely concerned that his friend was being treated unfairly, that could suggest the conversation was perhaps improper and unwise but not criminal.

In response to reports about the meeting with Comey, the White House responded by saying essentially “this is just the way the President talks.” In other words, it was an offhand remark expressing his concern about Flynn, not a calculated effort to influence Comey. This is a version of a defense of lack of corrupt intent, and it may be perfectly plausible. The President simply may not have appreciated the impact such an offhand statement could have when it comes from the leader of the free world and the FBI director’s boss.

In situations such as the Comey meeting a great deal also depends on things like nuance, tone, and body language. Was the statement made in a menacing way or in an offhand way? How did Comey interpret it? Information like that does not come across in a memo to the file and would depend on Comey’s testimony about the meeting.

There’s Obstruction, and then There’s Obstruction

In a criminal investigation of possible obstruction a grand jury could subpoena additional witnesses and documents. Perhaps prosecutors could develop stronger evidence of corrupt intent. The case would depend not on any one incident in isolation but on the pattern of the President’s actions. The circumstantial evidence is mounting, but a lot would need to be done to shore up that evidence. Prosecutors would need to establish that some of the things reported in the press actually took place and could be proven at trial.

The reality is that a criminal prosecution of President Trump is unlikely. Although it’s never been officially settled, most authorities – including the DOJ — believe the Constitution prohibits the prosecution of a sitting President. The scene where Trump is handcuffed and perp-walked out of the Oval Office is not going to happen.

But I think when most people accuse Trump of “obstructing justice,” they are not focused on the elements of a specific criminal statute. Through a series of actions (including the events discussed above, a request that Comey pledge his loyalty, asking Comey whether he was under investigation, and his subsequent Tweet about Comey that many interpreted as a threat) Trump appears to have violated fundamental constitutional and political norms concerning the rule of law and limitations on executive power. Trump’s actions may obstruct justice in this broader, structural sense even if not in a strictly legal one.

As with violations of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, the primary remedy for this obstruction would be political. Political remedies include elections, where the voters have a chance to register their disapproval. They also include impeachment, which is available for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” This is generally interpreted to mean misconduct related to public office, not necessarily precise criminal violations. Charges of obstruction of justice were central to the articles of impeachment of both Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.

Impeachment is primarily a political proceeding rather than a legal one. Congress does not need to establish proof beyond a reasonable doubt of all elements of a crime the way a prosecutor does. Disregard of basic constitutional and political norms could fall short of a criminal offense and still justify impeachment. It’s up to the Members of Congress to decide whether misconduct rises to a level that would justify removing the President. For now, a great deal of additional investigation is needed before Congress could make those decisions.

As was true with alleged perjury by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, critics have been quick to accuse the President of a crime. But as I’m always telling my students, there is a lot of sleazy, unethical, and improper conduct that isn’t criminal. Trump’s potential interference with an ongoing investigation raises grave concerns. But the likely remedy lies with the political process, not a criminal prosecution.

Click here to join the Sidebars mailing list and receive e-mail notification of future posts.

Michael Flynn’s Immunity Request: What it Means and How Immunity Works

What does Michael Flynn’s immunity request mean?

President Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has offered to testify about potential Russia connections to the Trump campaign if he is given immunity from prosecution. This raises questions about why he would seek immunity, how the immunity process works, and the potential implications for Flynn and the Trump administration. So here is a primer on Immunity 101, with a focus on the Flynn case.

Michael Flynn's immunity request raises tough issues for Congress

Does This Mean Flynn Is Guilty of Something?

Many sources have pointed out that when talking about aides to Hillary Clinton, Flynn himself suggested that if you seek immunity it probably means you’re guilty of a crime. President Trump has said the same thing and has also urged Flynn to insist on immunity. If you play that syllogism out the conclusion is pretty clear.

But the truth is usually more complicated. Seeking immunity doesn’t always mean you are guilty of something. It does indicate the witness has at least some reason to be concerned about potential criminal exposure. In a politically-charged investigation a witness could fear an unfair prosecution even if convinced he did nothing wrong. Flynn’s attorney has said that in the current political maelstrom Flynn would be crazy to testify without immunity. That’s probably sound advice.

Even without knowing the details of what Flynn would say, it’s not surprising he would seek immunity at this early stage. That doesn’t necessarily mean Flynn has some huge bombshell to drop into the middle of the investigation. It also doesn’t necessarily mean Flynn has information about wrongdoing by others. He may be concerned only about his personal liability for things such as his foreign lobbying activities or potentially lying to the FBI. Or it may just be that his lawyer is acting out of an abundance of caution and Flynn ultimately will not be implicated in any crime at all.

Flynn has maximum leverage right now. Nobody can force him to speak. There’s little downside for Flynn in remaining silent and little upside to testifying now without a deal. His lawyer has tantalizingly dangled the claim that Flynn “has a story to tell” and would be happy to tell it if he receives immunity. There’s a lot of political pressure to get to the bottom of this controversy. Investigators may be tempted to give a quick grant of immunity in order to get Flynn’s story. That’s no doubt what Flynn’s attorney is hoping. That seems like a smart play.

What Does Immunity Cover?

Immunity comes into play when a potential witness has a Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. This right to “take the Fifth” applies not just in court but in other proceedings as well, including Congressional investigations. The request for immunity indicates the witness believes that if he testifies truthfully his testimony could potentially implicate him in some kind of criminal activity.

Immunity means only immunity from criminal prosecution. You can’t get immunity to protect yourself from embarrassment, political damage, civil suits, or other non-criminal fallout. A witness who testifies under a grant of immunity is still potentially subject to all of these other consequences — in fact, those other consequences may be more likely once the witness can no longer remain silent.

Immunity also doesn’t protect you from a prosecution for perjury, obstruction of justice, or related charges based on your immunized testimony — just ask Barry Bonds.

The federal immunity statutes,18 U.S.C. 6001-6005, provide what’s known as use and derivative use immunity. That means whatever the witness says can’t be used against him either directly or indirectly in any criminal proceeding. (Transactional immunity – a broader promise never to charge the witness at all – is not provided for by statute. It can only be obtained by agreement with prosecutors and is extremely rare.)

Direct use would be taking a transcript of the witness’s testimony and introducing it at his criminal trial. Derivative use means using the witness’s testimony to track down other leads and discover new information that is then used against the defendant. For example, if investigators used information learned from the immunized testimony to find new witnesses, those witnesses could not be called to testify against the immunized witness in a criminal trial.

The immunity order is supposed to ensure that, at least as far as criminal proceedings are concerned, the witness remains in exactly the same legal position as if he had never testified at all. Nothing that comes out of the immunized witness’s mouth can lead to evidence used against him in a criminal case.

Congress could choose to grant Michael Flynn's immunity request

Who Can Grant Immunity?

Under the federal immunity statutes immunity can be granted by the Department of Justice or by Congress. Administrative agencies can grant immunity as well, but they need the Attorney General’s approval. Congress does not – it can grant immunity even if DOJ objects.

If immunity is sought in a court or grand jury proceeding, the Department of Justice obtains an immunity order from a district court judge. DOJ will seek the immunity order after determining the public interest in obtaining the testimony outweighs the public interest in potential prosecution of the witness. The judge signs the order but does not review the wisdom of the decision — whether to grant immunity is  up to the Executive Branch.

Congress can likewise seek immunity for any witness called to testify in any Congressional proceeding or committee hearing. In a proceeding before the full House or Senate the request for immunity must be approved by a majority of the members. If the testimony is before a committee, the request must be approved by two-thirds of the members of that committee. Congress must give ten days notice of the request to the Attorney General.

The Attorney General can apply to the court to delay the issuance of the Congressional immunity order for up to an additional twenty days. DOJ can ask Congress not to grant the immunity, but cannot prevent it if Congress insists. Once again, the immunity order is issued by a judge but the court does not review the merits of the decision to grant immunity.

Once a court issues an immunity order, the witness no longer has a Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. The order directs the witness to testify and provides that nothing the witness says can be used against him, directly or indirectly, in a criminal proceeding. If the witness continues to refuse to testify, he is subject to contempt.

News reports refer to Flynn seeking immunity from the FBI, but the FBI itself cannot grant immunity. Immunity in connection with the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign would have to be granted by Department of Justice prosecutors working with the FBI. With Attorney General Sessions recused and calls for an independent prosecutor, there might currently be questions about who exactly within DOJ would make such a decision.

The FBI is investigating but as far as we know no grand jury proceeding has begun. For now, at least, Flynn’s immunity request appears to be primarily in connection with the Congressional investigations. If immunity were granted at this stage it appears Congress would grant it in order to have Flynn testify on Capitol Hill.

News sources on Friday reported that the Senate Intelligence Committee has already rejected Flynn’s request for immunity, calling it premature. Of course, that does not prevent the Committee from reconsidering and granting the request down the road. There have been no reports yet of any decision by the House Intelligence Committee, whose investigation seems mired in partisan gridlock.

How Will Investigators Decide Whether to Grant Michael Flynn’s Immunity Request?

Immunity should only be granted if there is a reasonable basis for the witness’s claim of self-incrimination. Investigators obviously don’t want to run around handing out immunity to every witness who refuses to talk without knowing what the witness will say. This is the “buying a pig in a poke” problem – you don’t want to give someone a free pass on unknown criminal conduct and have him end up confessing to the Kennedy assassination or something.

The most common way to determine whether immunity is appropriate is through a proffer session, either from the witness himself or from his attorney. In such an off-the-record proffer the witness or counsel tells investigators what the witness would say if granted immunity. The investigators, in return, agree not to use anything said during the proffer against the witness.

Before any immunity decision is made, Flynn or his attorney likely would give such a proffer to investigators. They may have already done so.

But the witness is not required to give a proffer. Flynn could remain silent and take the position, “You want to know what I have to say? Give me immunity.” This would be a hardball play by Flynn and his lawyer, but again, at the moment they have the most leverage. Granting immunity under those circumstances would certainly be a high-stakes gamble for Congress.

What If the Fifth Amendment Claim Is Bogus?

If a witness claims he has a Fifth Amendment privilege and investigators don’t believe the privilege claim is valid, they should refuse to grant immunity. They can go ahead and subpoena the witness to testify and see whether he in fact invokes the Fifth. Once actually on the stand the witness may decide to testify after all.

If the witness does refuse to testify, investigators can challenge the Fifth Amendment claim in a hearing before a judge. If a judge determines the privilege claim is valid, the witness may continue to remain silent unless and until he is granted immunity. If the judge finds there is no valid Fifth Amendment privilege, the judge may order the witness to testify. If the witness still refuses, he is subject to punishment for contempt of court or contempt of Congress. He may be jailed for contempt and held until he agrees to comply with the court order and testify.

This all takes a fair amount of time, of course, particularly if either side ends up appealing any court orders. If investigators don’t want to wait and the Fifth Amendment claim is even arguably valid, they may decide just to grant the immunity. That keeps the investigation moving rather than spending months litigating the privilege claim.

Does Getting Immunity Mean Flynn Could Never Be Prosecuted?

Strictly speaking, no. A grant of immunity under the federal immunity statutes doesn’t actually mean there is no way you can ever be prosecuted. The statutes provide only that in the event you are prosecuted your own testimony can’t be used against you directly or indirectly.

Theoretically the government can still prosecute a witness who has testified under a statutory grant of immunity. In such a case the government must establish that none of the evidence it will use is derived in any way from the immunized testimony. If there is a question the court will hold a hearing, and the government must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that it has an independent basis for each piece of evidence.

But practically speaking, if Congress agrees to immunize Flynn he almost certainly will never be prosecuted. Immunized witnesses rarely are. Even if they want to prosecute, it’s usually quite difficult for the government to meet the burden of proving that its case was not tainted by immunized testimony. The most famous example of this problem involves the prosecution of Oliver North.

Oliver North testifies on Capitol Hill

Oliver North testifies on Capitol Hill

Lessons of the Oliver North Case

Oliver North was a member of the National Security Council staff under President Reagan. He was implicated in the Iran-Contra affair, where the U.S. government illegally sold weapons to Iran and used the money to fund the Contra rebel group in Nicaragua. Iran-Contra led to an Independent Counsel investigation, and North was one of the targets of that investigation.

While the criminal investigation was going on, North was subpoenaed to testify before a joint Congressional committee that was also investigating Iran-Contra. Congress granted North immunity, against the wishes of the criminal prosecutors. He subsequently testified for several days and admitted to his role in the scheme, as well as to shredding relevant documents and lying to federal investigators.

North was later indicted and convicted of obstruction of justice and other crimes. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overturned his conviction on the ground that it improperly relied on the fruits of his immunized testimony.

Prosecutors and agents working on the criminal case had taken great pains to avoid any exposure to North’s Congressional testimony, which was widely televised. But the Court of Appeals held that, for each individual government witness called at trial, prosecutors had to prove the witness had an independent basis to recall every fact about which they testified. The government was required to show that the witness’s recollection had not been influenced in any way by viewing North’s immunized testimony. Prosecutors ultimately were unable to meet that burden and dismissed the case.

The same concerns surround a decision to immunize Flynn. Congress could take steps to minimize any potential exposure to the testimony, such as having Flynn testify only in a closed session, but the risk to any potential future criminal case would still be substantial.

The Congressional grant of immunity in North’s case ended up torpedoing his criminal prosecution. Congress must take great care when considering whether to immunize Flynn, lest it be accused of doing the same thing in his case.

Click here to join the Sidebars mailing list and receive e-mail notification of future posts.

Why Jeff Sessions Is Unlikely To Face Perjury Charges

Did Jeff Sessions commit perjury? Washington is abuzz over whether the new Attorney General may have lied during his confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate. During his sworn testimony and in a written questionnaire, Sessions denied having any communications with Russian officials during the course of President Trump’s campaign.

Then last week the Washington Post reported Sessions had met with the Russian ambassador to the United States in July and September of 2016. At the time, then-Senator Sessions was a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee but was also serving as a top foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign.

In public statements and at a press conference last Thursday, Sessions claimed his responses were truthful. He said he understood the questions to relate only to contacts with Russians on behalf of the campaign. His meetings with the Russian ambassador, he maintained, were in his role as a Senator, not as a Trump campaign surrogate. As such, he did not consider those meetings relevant. Although he said in hindsight he wished he had mentioned the meetings, he said he had no intent to lie.

Attorney General Sessions has now recused himself from any investigation involving President Trump’s campaign. But this has not put to rest the controversy surrounding his Senate testimony. Some Democrats have called on him to resign, and there have been widespread allegations that the new Attorney General may be guilty of perjury.

The political implications of all of this are still playing out. But criminal implications are a different matter. New information may come to light, but based on the facts we have now it’s extremely unlikely a perjury case against Sessions would be appropriate or successful.

Did Jeff Sessions commit perjury? Testifying before Congress.

The Questions and Answers

The precise questions and answers are extremely important in any perjury case. Here is the question posed by Senator Al Franken during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on January 10, and Senator Sessions’s response (video here):

Franken: CNN just published a story alleging that the intelligence community provided documents to the president-elect last week that included information that quote, “Russian operatives claimed to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.” These documents also allegedly say quote, “There was a continuing exchange of information during the campaign between Trump’s surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.”

Now, again, I’m telling you this as it’s coming out, so you know. But if it’s true, it’s obviously extremely serious and if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?

Sessions: Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.

As many have observed, Sessions did not answer the question asked. Rather than saying what he would do as Attorney General, he volunteered information about his own contacts with the Russians. After this non-response, Franken did not follow up about Russian contacts but simply said, “Very well,” and moved on.

In a written questionnaire submitted after the hearing, Sessions again denied any contact with Russian officials regarding the 2016 election. In that questionnaire Sen. Patrick Leahy asked: “Several of the President-elect’s nominees or senior advisers have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?” Sessions responded: “No.”

The Law of Perjury

The relevant perjury statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1621, applies to any witness under oath who “willfully and contrary to such oath states or subscribes any material matter which he does not believe to be true.” Sessions was under oath. He now admits he met with the Russian ambassador. There is little doubt this information would have been material to the Senate’s inquiry. So as with so many white collar cases, the issue boils down to the potential defendant’s state of mind.

Not all false statements under oath are perjury. A perjury charge requires the government to prove the defendant was deliberately lying. If the witness misunderstood or misinterpreted the question, that is not perjury. Nor is it perjury if the witness didn’t remember relevant information. Even if a witness is deliberately evasive, it’s not perjury if the testimony is literally true. To convict, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt not only that the statement was false but also that the witness believed it was false when he made it.

Bronston v. United States

Any discussion of perjury should begin with the leading Supreme Court case, Bronston v. United States (1973). Mr. Bronston testified in a bankruptcy proceeding involving his motion picture company. During that testimony the following exchange took place:

Q:      Do you have any bank accounts in Swiss banks, Mr. Bronston?

A:      No, sir.

Q:      Have you ever?

A:      The company had an account there for about six months, in Zurich.

At the time of this testimony Bronston had no Swiss bank accounts and his company had previously had an account in Zurich. His answers were therefore literally true. It was also true, however, that Bronston had previously held a personal Swiss bank account. That account was closed at the time of his testimony. His non-responsive answer to the second question effectively concealed that information.

The government later prosecuted Bronston for perjury. It alleged that his answers, although literally true, were misleading and left a false impression and therefore constituted perjury “by negative implication.”

The Supreme Court rejected this theory and held perjury requires testimony that is actually false. The Court noted that true statements do not violate the language of the statute, even if they are non-responsive or potentially misleading. The statute requires that the witness make a statement he does not believe to be true.

Even if a witness is deliberately evasive, the Court noted, that is to be expected in an adversary proceeding. The burden is on the questioner to pin the witness down. Perjury will not be charged “simply because a wily witness succeeds in derailing the questioner – so long as the witness speaks the literal truth.”

President Clinton denies allegations concerning Monica Lewinsky

What Is the Meaning of “Is?”

A more well-known example of allegations of perjury involved former President Bill Clinton. When testifying in the grand jury he was asked about a statement made by his lawyer in a civil deposition. His lawyer had stated that Monica Lewinsky filed an affidavit saying there “is no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form, with President Clinton.” When asked whether that statement by his lawyer was false, Clinton famously replied, “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”

As Clinton explained, his lawyer’s statement was present tense – there “is” no sexual relationship. At the time of the statement the relationship between the President and Ms. Lewinsky had ended some time ago. As a result, Clinton testified, the statement that there “is” no sexual relationship was literally true.

The House of Representatives characterized this testimony as perjury in its Articles of Impeachment. But no criminal prosecutor worth his salt would have brought a perjury case. In a trial for perjury the President would have had a rock solid defense: his answer was true. The political consequences of an answer seen as slick and evasive were devastating, but the testimony was not criminal.

Why Proof of Perjury Is So Demanding

As these cases demonstrate, proving perjury is difficult. This is by design. As the Court noted in Bronston, if perjury is not narrowly construed even honest witnesses might fear to testify. Being examined under oath is stressful and unfamiliar territory for most people. Questions may be misunderstood or misinterpreted. Witnesses might forget relevant information. People should not fear being charged with perjury for inaccurate testimony that may have resulted simply from confusion, stress, or misunderstanding.

This is particularly true considering how easy it usually is for a skilled questioner to avoid any such confusion. The questioner must be alert to any evasion or uncertainty and ask appropriate follow-up questions. For example, the lawyer in Bronston failed to ask the obvious next question: “I didn’t ask about the company Mr. Bronston. Did you personally ever have any Swiss bank accounts?” And the questioner in President Clinton’s deposition also failed to follow up: “OK, so you say there is no sexual relationship of any kind. Was there ever?”

It’s not enough if testimony ends up being misleading or unclear. Perjury prosecutions are only successful when a good questioner has removed any reasonable possibility of uncertainty or confusion. Short of that, there is usually too much wiggle room. If the witness later claims the answer was literally true or the question was misinterpreted, proving a deliberate lie beyond a reasonable doubt will be extremely difficult.

Did Jeff Sessions Commit Perjury?

With these principles in mind, let’s consider whether there might be a valid perjury case against Sessions. His critics have focused on his statement to Senator Franken that he “did not have communications with the Russians.” Taken in isolation, that is untrue. But Franken’s question was based on a news report that Trump campaign representatives had been in contact with Russian officials. Sessions’s statement was preceded by his observation that he was occasionally considered a campaign surrogate.

Given the context of Franken’s question and Sessions’s full response, it’s not unreasonable for Sessions to maintain he was referring to any Russian contacts he may have had in his role as a campaign surrogate. Both the question and answer were couched in terms of contacts by the campaign. If it’s true his meetings had nothing to do with the campaign, Sessions could have thought they were not relevant.

Senator Franken has said he believes Sessions should have mentioned the meetings anyway. Sessions himself said in his news conference he now thinks it would have been better if he had done so. But testimony that ends up being misleading or incomplete is not perjury if it is based on an unclear or misinterpreted question the witness thought he was answering.

When it comes to the written questionnaire the potential case against Sessions is even weaker. It specifically asked whether he had communicated with any Russian officials “about the 2016 election.” If in fact his meetings did not involve the election, then his “no” response was completely truthful.

Senator Sessions may have been honestly trying to respond to the questions. He may have been confused or may have interpreted the question differently, as he says. He may have been trying to be cagey to conceal relevant information. Or he may have been deliberately lying. Just as in the case of Mr. Bronston, we’re not sure. And in criminal law, that kind of uncertainty usually translates to reasonable doubt.

Senator Al Franken questions Jeff Sessions

The Unasked Follow-Up Questions

Some have argued that Sessions used his non-responsive answer to pre-empt further questioning by his blanket denial of any contact with the Russians. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Even if you are willing to commit perjury if forced, why go out of your way to lie about something that wasn’t asked? Why try to head off a line of questions that Sen. Franken did not even appear to be pursuing? Sessions could have easily given some non-committal answer about what he would do as Attorney General without exposing himself to possible perjury charges.

In any event, a non-responsive answer does not “pre-empt” further questioning — it invites it. As the Court said in Bronston, the burden is on the questioner to pin a wily witness down. Imagine if Sen. Franken had followed up with this series of questions:

“Well, OK, I didn’t ask you about your own contacts with the Russians, but since you brought it up — are you testifying that you never had any contact with any Russian officials in your role as an advisor to the Trump campaign?”

“Did you have any contact with any Russian officials at all during the time you served as an advisor to the Trump campaign, whether or not those contacts were on behalf of the campaign?”

“Are you aware of anyone else involved in the Trump campaign who had any contact with representatives of the Russian government?”

“Did anyone in the Trump campaign ever ask you to contact any officials in the Russian government on behalf of the campaign?”

If we had answers to these questions, there would be no ambiguity. If Sessions had denied any contact with Russian officials in any capacity at all, the perjury argument would be much stronger. On the other hand, if he had responded truthfully about his meetings with the Russian ambassador, all the controversy of the past week would have been avoided.

Political Remedies v. Criminal Remedies

Critics of Sessions may say I am being too lenient. They may say I am bending over backwards to give him the benefit of the doubt. Yes, I am. That’s how the criminal justice system works. Sessions is innocent until proven guilty – not the other way around. And proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to a unanimous jury is a lot tougher than indicting someone on Twitter.

Many are convinced that Sessions deliberately lied. They may be correct. But a criminal case has to be based on evidence, not on gut feelings and suspicious circumstances. Currently the government could muster little in the way of admissible evidence to contradict what Sessions has said about his intent.

Of course this assumes no additional evidence comes to light. If emails, other documents, or witness testimony were to surface indicating that Sessions’s meetings with the ambassador were in fact on behalf of the campaign, that would completely change the picture.

As with President Clinton and his “meaning of is” answer, the political consequences of all of this for Sessions and Trump may be severe. But political remedies are one thing, and criminal remedies are quite another. At least at this stage, those calling for perjury charges are off the mark.

Click here to join the Sidebars mailing list and receive e-mail notification of future posts.

Emoluments Clause Violations as a Conspiracy to Defraud the United States

If President Trump violates the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, what might be the remedy? One possibility is a suit challenging such violations as a conspiracy to defraud the United States.

Since Donald Trump was elected, a great deal of attention has been focused on the Foreign Emoluments Clause. This previously obscure provision forbids federal officials from accepting any gifts or emoluments – payments for services rendered — from a foreign state. President Trump maintains an ownership interest in his far-flung business operations and has resisted calls to divest. As a result, many believe he has been violating the Clause from the moment he was sworn in. (For a more detailed discussion of the Emoluments Clause and what it prohibits, see my earlier post here.)

Just last week there were reports of a new Emoluments Clause issue. The Trump Organization apparently had been in a decade-long legal battle to secure a trademark for the Trump name in China. One month after Trump’s inauguration, China finally granted the trademark – even though doing so may have been a violation of its own regulations. This decision came a few days after Trump publicly reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to a “One China” policy. He had expressed some skepticism about that policy shortly after he was elected. The timing of these events raises obvious concerns about the President’s possible divided loyalties and about foreign governments gaining leverage over him. Given Trump’s extensive international holdings, similar potential issues abound.

The Difficult Question of Standing to Sue

If indeed Trump is violating the Emoluments Clause, who can bring a lawsuit to remedy that violation? Plaintiffs in a lawsuit must have standing, a concrete injury that can be addressed by the court. Finding someone with legal standing is a serious obstacle to enforcing the Emoluments Clause. Some argue that only political remedies (including impeachment) are possible. These commentators believe a court likely would find that any private lawsuit based on the Clause presents a non-justiciable political question.

A public watchdog group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a lawsuit shortly after the inauguration, claiming that Trump is violating the Clause. CREW asserts it has standing because Trump’s actions have forced it to devote time and resources to fighting him on these issues.  As a result, CREW maintains, it cannot do much of the other work it would otherwise be doing. CREW has some very prominent attorneys working on the case, but many are skeptical of this standing theory.

Others have suggested a competing business might have standing. For example, if the Bank of China sent all its business to the new Trump hotel in Washington, D.C., a competitor hotel might claim it was injured. But it’s not clear a court would uphold such a private right of action. The Clause’s purpose is to ensure government integrity, not to protect private competitors. And even if standing were found, such a lawsuit likely would face significant hurdles in proving causation and damages.

Image of President Trump at a rally - he may have been violating the Emoluments Clause since day one.

Quo Warranto: A Possible Solution to the Standing Issue

Last week a new legal theory concerning how to enforce the Clause began making the rounds (see articles here and here). Prof. Jed Shugerman at Fordham University Law School first proposed the idea. It avoids the problem of establishing standing to sue President Trump directly. Instead, it focuses on pursuing the Trump Organization for its participation in the President’s receipt of foreign emoluments.

Shugerman notes that states may use a procedure know as quo warranto to bring a civil action against a corporation engaged in illegal behavior. Corporations are creatures of state law, and the state has the power to discipline those that act illegally. For example, New York Business Corporation Law § 1101 allows the state attorney general to bring an action for dissolution against any corporation that has “transacted its business in a persistently fraudulent or illegal manner.” Shugerman argues a state could use this procedure to charge a Trump corporation with serving as a conduit for improper emoluments.

The New York Attorney General would be an ideal candidate to bring such a case, Shugerman says, because the Trump Organization is organized under the laws of New York. If the suit were successful, a court could revoke the Trump Organization’s corporate charter. Shugerman and some others have already filed a letter with the New York Attorney General asking him to consider such a lawsuit. Shugerman believes a number of other jurisdictions could bring similar claims against Trump organizations within their state.

The beauty of Shugerman’s theory is that it avoids the problem of finding private individuals with standing to sue the official violating the Emoluments Clause. Instead it involves public officials – the state attorneys general – filing suit against a private company. There’s no question that the attorneys general have standing to bring such a proceeding. But I think potential legal issues remain.

What Constitutes Illegal Behavior for a Quo Warranto Proceeding?

Prof. Shugerman’s theory faces at least one potential roadblock: proving the Trump Organization or related corporations are conducting business in a “fraudulent or illegal manner” within the meaning of the law. For example, Shugerman suggests a suit could be brought against Trump’s new hotel in D.C. for violating its lease with the General Services Administration. But violation of a lease typically would be considered just a breach of contract, not fraudulent or illegal. It would be surprising if every lease dispute potentially subjected a corporation to an action for dissolution.

Similarly, private corporations typically can’t violate the Constitution, which applies to government actors. So it’s probably unlikely the New York legislature had constitutional violations in mind when it wrote the statute prohibiting illegal corporate behavior. A quo warranto suit based on a constitutional violation would face a strong argument that the statute does not apply.

Even if constitutional violations could serve as the illegal conduct for a quo warranto proceeding, it’s not clear the Trump Organization would violate the Emoluments Clause by receiving gifts from a foreign state. The Emoluments Clause bars only actions by federal officials. On its face the Clause does not prohibit anything done by the Trump Organization or any private company. The corporation is a separate legal entity, even if it does bear Trump’s name.

Prof. Shugerman suggests a state attorney general could hold the Trump Organization liable as the President’s corporate “conduit.” I’m not so sure. In general it’s true that corporations can be held responsible for actions of their agents under the doctrine of respondeat superior (“let the master answer”). This holds true for criminal violations as well as civil. But it’s not clear the same principle should apply when it comes to violations of a constitutional obligation imposed only on a government official.

In addition, under respondeat superior the actions of the agent must be within the scope of his authority. Trump reportedly has turned control of his organization over to his sons. If that’s the case, then he arguably no longer has authority to act on behalf of the corporation. And if that’s true, the corporation could not be held vicariously liable for any of his conduct. When it comes to accepting emoluments the actions are more likely to be taken by Trump’s sons or other corporate officials – but the Emoluments Clause does not apply to them.

In short, I’m not confident that trying to hold the Trump Organization vicariously liable for Trump’s own constitutional violations will work. But all this got me thinking about whether there might be other legal theories under which a state attorney general could argue that Trump-owned companies act unlawfully when they receive emoluments. And that led me to a core white collar criminal statute: conspiracy to defraud the United States.

Image of the US Constitution - the Emoluments Clause is contained in Article I

The Emoluments Clause and Conspiracy to Defraud the United States

The federal conspiracy statute, 18 U.S.C. § 371, prohibits two types of conspiracies: conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States and conspiracy “to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof in any manner or for any purpose.” A conspiracy requires that two or more people knowingly enter into an agreement to achieve an unlawful purpose and that at least one of them takes some action in furtherance of that agreement.

Conspiracy to commit an offense against the U.S. usually means conspiracy to commit a federal crime – conspiracy to commit securities fraud or conspiracy to obstruct justice, for example. But the second prong of the statute, conspiracy to defraud the U.S. “in any manner or for any purpose,” has a broader reach.

To defraud someone usually means to deprive him of money or property. But conspiracy to defraud the United States under section 371 also includes any conspiracy to impair, obstruct or impede the lawful functions of the U.S. government. In Hammerschmidt v. United States in 1924, the Supreme Court held that conspiracy to defraud the U.S.  includes schemes “to interfere with or obstruct one of its lawful government functions by deceit, craft, or trickery, or at least by means that are dishonest.”

The statute applies to schemes such as disguising transactions to evade some government regulatory program, or hiding assets to thwart the IRS. Individuals can commit the offense even if their underlying conduct, standing alone, would not be illegal. The scheme need not result in any financial harm to the government.

Another important aspect of conspiracy law is that not all co-conspirators need to be capable of committing the underlying offense that is the object of a conspiracy. For example, just last spring the Supreme Court held in Ocasio v. United States that private citizens could be convicted of conspiracy to commit extortion under color of official right. Because they were not public officials, they could not be convicted of the extortion offense themselves. But the Court held they were still capable of agreeing to help a public official commit extortion, and thus could be found guilty of conspiracy.

So with the Emoluments Clause the argument would go like this: the Clause is part of a constitutional structure set up to ensure that officers of the United States are free from outside influences and conflicts of interest. The members of the Trump Organization and foreign government agents who provide benefits to that Organization (and thus indirectly to Trump himself) are impairing, obstructing, and impeding that government function by facilitating the acceptance of improper emoluments by the President. This constitutes a conspiracy to defraud the United States under section 371.

Although corporate officers and foreign agents could not violate the Emoluments Clause themselves, they may conspire to help President Trump violate it. And although their actions may not violate any other law, that doesn’t matter. Those actions may still constitute a conspiracy to defraud the United States by interfering with its proper operations.

This would be analogous to cases involving bribery. Laws against bribery are similar to the Emoluments Clause in that both seek to prevent government officials from being swayed by improper outside influences. Prosecutors have charged schemes to bribe federal officials as conspiracies to defraud the United States. Bribery corrupts the political system and thereby impairs the lawful government functions of the United States. The same is true of violations of the Emoluments Clause.

Image of the Bank of China building. China is one potential source of improper emoluments to President Trump.

Details of a Potential Conspiracy

There are a number of possible co-conspirators in any such case. If we take the China trademark example, co-conspirators could potentially include Chinese officials involved. They could also include any officials within the Trump Organization who took part in the transaction. The Trump Organization itself would be vicariously liable through the acts of those officials. A state attorney general would even have the option of listing the President himself as a co-conspirator. By refusing to divest and by allowing his businesses to accept foreign emoluments, he arguably has joined the agreement.

A conspiracy to defraud must involve some kind of deception or dishonesty. There are a number of possibilities here. Assuming the discussions that led up to something like the China trademark deal are not publicly disclosed, for example, that concealment furthers the scheme to defraud. Other deceptions are likely involved in other potential Emoluments Clause violations. One could even argue that the President’s failure to disclose his tax returns is a part of the deception. By concealing the full scope of his financial holdings and potential conflicts, it helps the conspiracy to succeed.

Of course, it’s not realistic to expect Donald Trump’s own Department of Justice to file a criminal case charging members of the Trump Organization with conspiracy. But that’s not necessary. Building on Prof. Shugerman’s argument, a more promising option is to use conspiracy as a basis to allege fraudulent or illegal corporate behavior in a quo warranto proceeding.

This theory avoids many of the potential quo warranto hurdles discussed above. The unlawful conduct is not the violation of the Emoluments Clause but engaging in a conspiracy to defraud the United States by impeding its legitimate operations. There’s no question that a private corporation is capable of committing that offense. The New York statute quoted above requires that the corporation have engaged in fraudulent or illegal conduct. Participating in a conspiracy to defraud the U.S. fits the bill perfectly.

In a civil proceeding, of course, the plaintiff only needs to prove the conspiracy by a preponderance of the evidence, a much lower bar than the proof beyond a reasonable doubt required in a criminal prosecution. And civil discovery in such a proceeding could lead to disclosure of a great deal of relevant information, including Trump’s tax returns.

Like so much involving the Emoluments Clause, this theory is novel and untested. But given the purpose of the Clause, the breadth of the conspiracy statute’s ban on conspiracies to defraud the U.S. “in any manner or for any purpose,” and the use of a similar theory in bribery cases, I think it’s a compelling argument. A state attorney general or other litigant contemplating a quo warranto proceeding should consider throwing this conspiracy argument into the mix.

Click here to join the Sidebars mailing list and receive e-mail notification of future posts.

The Emoluments Clause, Bribery, and President Trump

Like a previously unknown contestant on “The Apprentice,” the Emoluments Clause has been catapulted to stardom by Donald Trump. There has probably been more written about this obscure section of the Constitution in the past few weeks than in its entire previous 229-year history. Debate is raging about the meaning of the Emoluments Clause. Many people are saying that president-elect Trump’s foreign business holdings and relationships create a risk — or even a virtual certainty– that he will be embroiled in a constitutional crisis from day one of his presidency.

Some recent commentary has suggested the Emoluments Clause is basically an anti-bribery provision, but this is only partially correct. As a ban on public officials accepting gifts, the clause is indeed related to laws against bribery and conflicts of interest. But the Emoluments Clause differs from bribery in important ways, and those differences have significant implications for President Trump and his new administration.

I should note up front that everyone is sort of flying blind when it comes to the Emoluments Clause. There is basically no precedent concerning the clause and the Supreme Court has never interpreted it. We’ve also never had a president-elect with such extensive foreign business entanglements. For many questions about how the clause would apply to Trump, the most honest answer is, “we’re not entirely sure.” So with that caveat . . . .

What is the meaning of the emoluments clause in the constitution?

What Does the Emoluments Clause Prohibit?

The Emoluments Clause arose out of the framers’ fears about potential foreign influences on their fledgling country. Contained in Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the Constitution, it provides:

No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States; And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatsoever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

No one is concerned about Trump being granted an office or title from a foreign government, and no one is particularly worried about him receiving presents from Kings or Princes. The most relevant prohibitions are on the receipt of any “present” or “emolument” from a “foreign state.” An emolument is generally defined as a profit, fee, or compensation arising from an office or employment. “Present” presumably has its ordinary meaning of a gift, or something freely given without any strings attached.

Simply put, then, the clause prohibits government officials from accepting gifts or payments from a foreign government.

How Is the Emoluments Clause Related to Bribery?

The crime of bribery requires a quid pro quo. In exchange for something of value, a public official agrees to be influenced in the exercise of the powers of his or her office. Bribery is the quintessential corruption offense; the political process is corrupted because the public official acts not for the good of all but to benefit the person who is paying off the official.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Professor Zephyr Teachout recently wrote that the Emoluments Clause is “essentially an anti-bribery rule.” Commentators at NPR and The New Republic have said the same thing. But this is not entirely accurate. When it comes to gifts from foreign states, the Emoluments Clause actually is far more sweeping than bribery because it does not require a quid pro quo. Even if the term “emolument” is read to imply compensation in exchange for a particular service (which is far from clear), the term “present” is far broader and contains no such implication.

Unlike bribery, the Emoluments Clause does not require that the public official agree to do anything in exchange for the gift. It doesn’t even require that the gift be linked to some particular official act, as does the federal gratuities statute. In this sense the Emoluments Clause is more akin to a simple gift ban, similar to those contained in most codes of ethics for government employees. It appears to guard against not only actual influence of public officials, as would occur with a bribe, but also the mere appearance of potential influence or divided loyalties that could be created by even a gift.

For a gift from a foreign government to constitute a bribe, President Trump would need to agree to perform some official act or be influenced in the exercise of his powers in exchange. But if a foreign government gave the President a present simply out of admiration, or out of hope that it might curry favor with the President, that would violate the Emoluments Clause even though it would not be a bribe.

In another sense, bribery is broader than the Emoluments Clause because it applies to private parties, not just to foreign states. So if a private foreign corporation or individual gave the President a gift in exchange for some exercise of his official power, that would be a bribe even though it would not violate the Emoluments Clause.

In short, there are many violations of the Emoluments Clause that would not be bribes, and many bribes that would not violate the Emoluments Clause.

Does the Emoluments Clause Apply to the President?

It’s not 100% clear – unlike some provisions of the Constitution, the clause does not specifically name the President and refers only to those holding an “office of profit or trust” under the United States. At least one commentator, Seth Tillman of Maynooth University in Ireland, argues that this and other historical clues suggest the clause was not intended to apply to the President.

But this appears to be a minority view. An “office of profit or trust” under the United States would logically seem to include the presidency. It would be quite strange if the framers did not intend the ban on potential foreign influence to extend to the highest office in the land, where such influences could potentially do the most damage.

Adam Liptak recently wrote in the New York Times about how a newly-elected President Obama sought legal advice from the Department of Justice concerning whether he could accept the Nobel Peace Prize without violating the Emoluments Clause. The DOJ Office of Legal Counsel, in its written opinion, considered it beyond debate that the presidency was “surely” an office of profit or trust under the United States. That seems correct.

bribery

Does Bribery Apply to the President?

Yes. Trump made headlines last week when he told the New York Times that “the President can’t have a conflict of interest.” Federal criminal statutes related to conflicts of interest are contained in the 200-series of Title 18. It’s true that 18 U.S.C. § 202(c)  provides that a number of those laws – including the primary conflict of interest law, 18 U.S.C. § 208, prohibiting acts “affecting a personal financial interest” – do not apply to the President.

But this does not mean it is impossible for a President to have a conflict of interest. Hopefully Trump does not really believe he is free to pursue federal policies designed to benefit his personal financial interests. The universe of concerns about conflicts of interest is not encompassed by the federal criminal code; simply because something may not be a felony does not make it appropriate Presidential behavior. Indeed, the Emoluments Clause itself is plainly animated by a desire to avoid even a perception of potential conflicts of interest.

In any event, unlike the conflict of interest statutes, the President is not exempted from the federal bribery statute, 18 U.S.C. § 201. That law applies to any “officer or employee or person acting for or on behalf of the United States,” which certainly includes the President.

donald_trump_27484786540

How Could Trump Violate the Emoluments Clause?

Trump has numerous overseas business ventures and properties, as well as business relationships with many foreign entities. Once he is President, any business transaction with a foreign government that is anything less than completely arms-length could potentially violate the clause. If a foreign government gave him a sweetheart deal on a particular project, or purchased assets or paid rent at above-market rates, or pressured state-owned banks to give Trump favorable loan terms, those could be considered gifts or emoluments. A foreign government could also grant permits or approvals for Trump projects on more favorable terms or cancel investigations related to Trump deals, all of which could be considered financial benefits to Trump.

Some have suggested that even at fair market rates, any foreign government transaction with a Trump business — such as diplomats staying at the new Trump hotel in D.C. — would be payment for a service and therefore a prohibited emolument.

But there are a number of potential qualifications and loopholes. First, the clause only prohibits gifts from a “foreign state,” so gifts from a foreign private corporation would not violate the clause. Presumably a number of Trump’s overseas deals are with private companies and not with governments. (This is why President Obama ultimately was able to accept the Nobel Peace Prize money – the Department of Justice concluded that the prize was coming from a private organization, the Nobel Committee, that was sufficiently independent from the Norwegian government.)

A factual issue could arise concerning whether foreign corporations that are government owned or controlled would be treated as a foreign state for purposes of the clause. The answer should be yes if the clause is not to be completely undermined. (An analogous issue arises under laws such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, where employees of state-controlled private corporations are often deemed to be “foreign officials.”) As Liptak reported, in the opinion for President Obama the Department of Justice noted it believes that corporations owned or controlled by a foreign government are presumptively foreign states for purposes of the Emoluments Clause. Whether this was true in any particular case would likely depend on the degree of state control.

Another issue could arise if a gift was given to the Trump Organization rather than to President Trump personally. Because corporations are generally considered distinct “persons” under the law, a gift to Trump’s corporation might not be considered a gift to the President. But because it is a privately-held corporation, arguably even a gift to the corporation should be deemed a gift to Trump. Some commentators recently argued that gifts to the Clinton Foundation should be considered gifts to Hillary Clinton for purposes of the Emoluments Clause – presumably the same analysis would apply to gifts to the Trump Organization.

A separate question could arise if the present was given to one of the Trump children, or one of their businesses. Assuming they are not holding an office in the new administration, such a gift would appear not to violate the clause. But particularly given the important role Trump’s family seems to play in his administration, the underlying concerns about outside influences and conflicts of interest would certainly still be present. This would seem to violate the spirit of the clause, if not the letter.

Finally, it appears that Congress could simply give Trump a pass on all of this. The Emoluments Clause provides that presents or emoluments may not be accepted “without the consent of Congress.” That suggests Congress could pass some kind of blanket permission for President Trump to pursue his businesses without worrying about the clause. How something like that would play politically would be another matter.

What Is the Remedy for a Violation of the Emoluments Clause?

There’s probably a reason there are no court cases interpreting the Emoluments Clause: most commentators think it is non-justiciable. In other words, no one would have standing to bring a lawsuit and a court would not be able to fashion a workable remedy. As Professor Jonathan Adler noted in the Volokh Conspiracy blog, if the clause is violated “the only remedies will be political.”

Political remedies include elections. If voters are upset by President Trump’s foreign entanglements they could toss him out of office in four years. Political remedies could also include hearings on Capitol Hill. Congress could issue sternly-worded resolutions of disapproval that Trump could dismiss with a Tweet storm. Congress presumably could pass legislation that would impose some restrictions consistent with the clause, although enforcing it would again be problematic.

Or political remedies could include impeachment.

Is Violating the Emoluments Clause an Impeachable Offense?

The Impeachment Clause, Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution, provides:

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Although it’s not a crime, a violation of the Emoluments Clause most likely is an impeachable offense. The phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” is generally understood to refer not to criminal law but to political violations and misconduct related to public office. Impeachment is a political process, not a criminal one. As Hamilton wrote in The Federalist No. 65, impeachable offenses “proceed from the misconduct of public men . . . from the abuse or violation of some public trust.”

That being said, the meaning of the phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” is not completely settled. There was a lot of debate about it during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Clinton’s lawyers argued that “high crimes and misdemeanors” meant misconduct related to the exercise of public office. They maintained that Clinton’s behavior in his personal life did not meet that standard. Congress, of course, ultimately disagreed.

But a violation of the Emoluments Clause would be directly related to the exercise of Trump’s public office and his abuse of that trust. As such it should qualify as a “high crime or misdemeanor.” It would be strange indeed if the framers included the prohibition against emoluments but contemplated no possible remedy for its violation. The most logical remedy is impeachment.

And in the end, as then-Congressman Gerald Ford famously remarked, “An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.” If Congress were to conclude that a violation of the Emoluments Clause was (or was not) an impeachable offense, there would be no real way to challenge that conclusion.

What Would Be the Remedy if Trump Committed Bribery?

If President Trump were to violate federal bribery law, the issue again would be the proper remedy. Whether or not a sitting President can be indicted is another question that was debated during the Bill Clinton investigation and has never been fully resolved. The Supreme Court did rule in the Paula Jones case, Clinton v. Jonesthat a President is not immune from civil litigation based on events that took place before he took office, but that is a different matter.

Indicting a sitting President raises far thornier issues. How would the President’s own Justice Department and Attorney General prosecute a criminal case against the President? Could the federal courts hear such a case without violating the separation of powers? What if a sitting President were convicted and sent to prison while still in office? And could a convicted President Trump pardon himself?

For all of these reasons, the better view is probably that a sitting President cannot be indicted for a crime. (This is also the official position of the Department of Justice.) The appropriate remedy for a President who commits criminal acts would once again be the impeachment process. In fact the Impeachment Clause (quoted above) specifically lists bribery as one of the grounds for impeachment.

If a President were impeached for bribery and removed from office, then presumably criminal bribery charges could be pursued against him or her as a private citizen. Article I, Section 3, Clause 7 of the Constitution provides that after removal by impeachment an official “shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.” But again, we are in uncharted waters.

Bottom Line – The Meaning of the Emoluments Clause

The Emoluments Clause is far more sweeping than the laws against bribery, at least when it comes to gifts from foreign governments. Almost any transaction involving Trump businesses and a foreign state or state-controlled entity is going to raise questions about whether any improper emolument was involved, even if Trump did not agree to do anything in return.

For any violation of either bribery law or the Emoluments Clause, the likely remedy is impeachment, not a lawsuit or criminal charges. And for those who believe a Republican Congress would never impeach a Republican President, bear in mind that if Trump were removed from office that would leave us with: President Pence.

That might be an outcome many Republicans would find very desirable.

Click here to join the Sidebars mailing list and receive e-mail notification of future posts.