Judge Mehta’s questioning left little doubt that he was deeply skeptical about the arguments from Mr. Trump’s legal team, led by William S. Consovoy.
Mr. Consovoy essentially argued that the Constitution does not give Congress the power to investigate potential presidential corruption because determining whether someone broke the law is a function reserved for the executive branch. But Judge Mehta pointed out that under that logic, many famous historical congressional oversight investigations were illegitimate.
“Is it your view that the Whitewater and Watergate investigations were beyond the authority of Congress?” the judge asked, referring to congressional inquiries of the Nixon and Clinton presidencies. “They were looking at violations of criminal law.”
Judge Mehta, a 2014 appointee of President Barack Obama, also said he saw no need for further briefings or arguments because the dispute turned on a question of law, and the Constitution does not permit Mr. Trump’s legal team to compel the House to turn over internal documents as evidence. He said he would let lawyers submit any additional materials they wanted through Friday, then he would make his decision.
Any ruling by Judge Mehta is likely to be only the beginning of the case. Both sides acknowledged that an appeal was virtually certain, and Mr. Consovoy asked the judge, if he does rule against Mr. Trump, to stay his ruling pending appeal so that the subpoena deadline for Mazars USA, the accounting firm, is not set off before the litigation fully plays out.
But Douglas Letter, the general counsel for the House, asked the judge not to stay any such ruling — or, if he does, to make it conditional on the Trump team expeditiously filing an appeal. The larger threat, he said, was that the Trump team could use the courts to run out the clock on this Congress, thwarting its ability to perform oversight.
“Any delay undermines the House’s ability to do what the Constitution allows it to do,” Mr. Letter said.
The judge’s comments and questioning suggest he is likely to agree with the House that the information it is seeking is within its legitimate oversight roles, rejecting the Trump team’s argument that the subpoena is an illegitimate effort to obtain political dirt without any tie to Congress’s function of deciding whether to enact new laws.
Last week, Attorney General William P. Barr testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on his apparent attempt to whitewash special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s findings, particularly those related to potential obstruction of justice by President Trump. In the course of his defense, Barr said, “We have to stop using the criminal justice process as a political weapon.”
His statement echoed language that President George H.W. Bush used when announcing a controversial pardon in the final weeks of his presidency — after consultation with Barr, who was serving his first stint as attorney general. These statements make plain Barr’s view that prosecutorial investigations of executive officials are inherently partisan and, therefore, illegitimate under the rule of law. But this idea calls into question one of the central principles of the American constitutional system: executive accountability.
In Federalist 70, Alexander Hamilton trumpets the advantages of a unitary executive, that is, the notion that all executive branch authority rests with the president, rather than being divided up among different executive officers, as states such as Texas and New York do.
One of Hamilton’s central arguments was that a unitary executive increases accountability: The buck stops with the president. In a divided executive, it could be unclear whether the president or another executive officer should be held to account for unpopular, unscrupulous or unlawful actions. By making the president accountable for all such action, the people will know how to vote in future elections.
Notably, Hamilton’s ideas on accountability extend beyond the president paying at the ballot box for unpopular action. In Federalist 65, he clearly states that a president impeached for misconduct is also “liable to prosecution and punishment in the ordinary course of law.” In other words, the presidency was not designed to be free from prosecutorial inquiry.
Holding the president and other, subordinate executive branch officials to account was central to our constitutional design and the rule of law, part of the delicate compromise between those at the constitutional convention who wanted a weak executive and those who wanted a strong one.
Hamilton’s reasoning on executive accountability has featured prominently in the development of the concept over time. For example, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Clinton v. Jones that the president is not immune from civil litigation due to the constitutional mandate of executive accountability. Indeed, such accountability was not only allowed, but may well have been necessary to protect the rule of law.
Barr, however, rejects this notion — and did so long before Donald Trump entered the political arena. On Christmas Eve 1992, Bush issued a pardon to former secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger for his role in the Iran-contra affair during the Reagan administration. In violation of U.S. law, Weinberger had allegedly facilitated the sale of American missiles to Iran to help fund the contras in Nicaragua. An independent counsel was appointed to investigate the scandal and a grand jury brought indictments on two counts of perjury and one count of obstructing justice. Weinberger protested the fairness of the indictments, but the evidence of wrongdoing was substantial. (Bush, who was vice president during the Iran-contra affair, was implicated but ultimately not indicted.)
When Bush explained his rationale for the pardon, he did not contest Weinberger’s likely guilt. Instead he praised Weinberger’s long record of service to the nation and his role in bringing down the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union.
Bush went further, though, not resting on Weinberger’s meritorious service alone. He pivoted to attack the prosecutions — 14 people associated with the Reagan administration were indicted, and 11 convicted — themselves as inconsistent with law’s necessary neutrality. Bush argued that the prosecutions represented “the criminalization of policy differences” and that “[t]hese differences should be addressed in the political arena, without the Damocles sword of criminality hanging over the heads of the combatants.” Reports at the time indicated that Bush worked closely on the pardon with Barr, which is unsurprising given the views Barr espoused last week.
Indeed, when reading this pardon in conjunction with Barr’s testimony, it’s clear that Barr holds a narrow understanding of executive accountability. In both the cases of Weinberger and Trump, prosecutors statutorily shielded from partisan influences found substantial evidence that the figure in question obstructed justice.
Yet because the targets of the investigations were political actors and, ostensibly, the opposition party would benefit from a successful prosecution of them, Barr considers any such prosecution inherently partisan and ill-suited for the courts. In other words, any attempt to investigate whether presidential action was unlawful must be partisan and, therefore, is inappropriate for nonpartisan legal institutions. Instead, as Bush identified in the Weinberger pardon, “the proper forum” for executive accountability was the “voting booth, not the courtroom.”
But this essentially gives the president (and other executive officials) a blank check: Unless misconduct rises to the level of impeachment, or if the partisan realities in Congress render impeachment an impossibility, the president is essentially immune from sanction for breaking the law, at least until leaving office.
This is not how Hamilton and his fellow Founders envisioned the system working. Worried about an out-of-control executive, they aimed to create checks and balances — and accountability. Checks and balances and the rule of law are not just formal institutional arrangements, they are norms of governance that invigorate principles central to the American system of government. Accountability is even more crucial in 2019 than it was in 1787, given how much more power the president wields today than in the 18th and 19th centuries.
When an ideology like Barr’s undermines those norms, the system of accountability carefully crafted by Hamilton and his fellow Founders and developed over two centuries threatens to become unbalanced. The result is a president unmoored from the norms that tether the executive to lawful behavior. That risks the entire American constitutional structure crashing down, as the president asserts himself with little to fear until at least the next election. While executive power has advanced steadily throughout the 20th century, what Barr envisions would be another leap, putting the United States on dangerous ground. It is not too much to ask our presidents not to violate the law. And when they fail to meet that standard, the consequences should be swift and assured.
In a telephone interview, Dean said he would focus on Kavanaugh’s views on executive power and his statements about the case, U.S. v. Nixon, in which the Supreme Court ruled that Nixon had to turn over secretly recorded White House tapes.
Kavanaugh’s view on the case is murky. He said in a 1999 panel discussion that “maybe Nixon was wrongly decided — heresy though it is to say so. Nixon took away the power of the president to control information in the executive branch . . . that was a huge step with implications to this day that most people do no fully appreciate.”
.. Dean also said he would focus on Kavanaugh’s 2009 Minnesota Law Review article, in which the federal appeals court judge wrote that a president is too busy to be distracted by civil suits and criminal investigation while in office. Kavanaugh’s view has come under scrutiny because he played the lead role in laying out the grounds for impeaching President Bill Clinton when he helped write a report to Congress for independent counsel Kenneth Starr.
.. Democrats are expected to question Kavanaugh about whether he believes that President Trump should be subject to investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
.. Democrats have expressed concern that Kavanaugh could be asked to rule on whether Mueller can subpoena Trump and force him to testimony.
.. Republicans announced Thursday that Kavanaugh will be introduced at the hearings by former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, among others, and a number of his former law clerks and others will testify in his favor. Former solicitor general Theodore Olson is also slated to testify for Republicans.