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WSJ’s Curious Mueller Editorial

I want to look back at something that has been puzzling me: a Wall Street Journal editorial issued by the end of the day Wednesday arguing that Mueller should not be fired. The next day, Rupert Murdoch paid Mitch McConnell a personal visit on the Hill.

While not as shrill or fact-free as its columnist, Kim Strassel, the WSJ editorial page has been steadily critical of the Mueller investigation, dismissing any possibility it will identify “collusion” and repeating GOP claims that it as sprawled beyond Mueller’s original remit (as well as parroting GOP claims that the FBI framed the Trump campaign). A column on the Paul Manafort plea deal, for example, warned that leaks from the investigation (which have never happened) would undermine public confidence in the investigation.

Leaks or other news about his investigation will undermine public confidence in a probe that has already wandered far from its original Russia remit and has now lasted 16 months without a resolution.

So it’s not like WSJ has been friendly to the Mueller investigation.

That said, their columns on the Mueller investigation as frequently criticize Trump’s incompetence in dealing with it and DOJ. That sentiment shows up in the two most relevant recent editorial columns on the investigation. This column from late August argues that Trump’s attacks on Jeff Sessions put Republican majorities at risk in November, which would lead to impeachment.

We will point out that Mr. Trump’s attacks on his own Attorney General this week are wrong and politically counterproductive.

The President is still furious that Mr. Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe, which has since become the sprawling Robert Mueller investigation that threatens his Presidency. But railing against Mr. Sessions can’t change that, and it gives the appearance of trying to politicize the department.

[snip]

The biggest political threat to Mr. Trump is a Democratic election victory in November, which will trigger a drive for impeachment. Mr. Trump isn’t going to persuade anyone to vote for Republicans by railing against a Republican Attorney General he selected.

And this September column about the possibility of firing Rosenstein emphasizes the impact that would have on Republican majorities.

The immediate battle now is over the midterm election and whether Mr. Trump can stay in office as the impeachment assault begins from Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats. Mr. Trump can make personnel changes after the midterms if Republicans still hold the Senate and he can get someone confirmed.

Murdoch’s American flagship paper doesn’t like the Mueller investigation. But that has as much to do with the ways it leads Trump to do stupid things that imperil Republican rule as that it poses a risk for Trump personally.

With that as background, consider the column. It starts by complaining (again) about how badly Trump treated Sessions.

Mr. Sessions deserved better than the public humiliations dealt by President Trump. As a Senator from Alabama, Jeff Sessions was the first Washington figure of any stature to embrace Mr. Trump’s candidacy. Mr. Trump wants loyalty up but not down.

It then describes the appointment of Matt Whitaker without comment or judgment.

Sessions’ temporary successor will be the AG’s chief of staff, Matthew Whitaker, who presumably will hold the job until a successor is nominated.

Most of the column argues for a solid Attorney General replacement. The WSJ seems to be complaining — as they did in some of their other editorials — that the White House should exercise more influence over DOJ. They do want someone respectable as Attorney General, however.

It is important that the White House get this one right.

The Attorney General shouldn’t fire Mr. Mueller, as the President essentially said himself at his Wednesday news conference. Mr. Trump needs an individual of stature and judgment who will have the trust of the department’s lawyers, who is capable of independence, but who also understands that the Justice Department is part of the executive branch and not a law unto itself.

But the WSJ, with as little comment as it makes about Whitaker, also states clearly that any new Attorney General shouldn’t fire Mueller and claims Trump himself has agreed, probably a reference to this answer from Trump at the press conference that day.

Q    Thank you, Mr. President.  Going back to the Russia investigation and the potential investigations from the now- Democratic majority in Congress, some say that you could stop all this by declassifying —

THE PRESIDENT:  I could.  I could fire everybody right now.  But I don’t want to stop it, because politically, I don’t like stopping it.  It’s a disgrace.  It should have never been started because there was no crime.  It is — everybody has conflicts.  They all have conflicts over there that are beyond anything that anybody has ever seen in terms of conflicts — from the fact that people ask for jobs; from the fact that they have very good friends on the other side, like really good friends, like Comey — who, by the way, lied and leaked, and also leaked classified information.  Nothing happened there.  It might, perhaps.  Maybe something is happening that I don’t know about.

I stay away from it.  But do you know what I do?  I let it just go on.  They’re wasting a lot of money, but I let it go on because I don’t want to do that.

The day after the election, Trump took a rash step to end the Mueller investigation by firing Sessions and hiring Whitaker. And WSJ almost immediately responded by warning Trump not to do any further damage to the party with his impulsive efforts to undermine Mueller.

Neal Katyal Helps Mueller Write Monday’s Brief

As I noted in this thread, last week the DC Circuit asked Mueller and Andrew Miller’s teams to submit a 10-page brief next Monday, “addressing what, if any, effect the November 7, 2018 designation of an acting Attorney General different from the official who appointed Special Counsel Mueller has on this case.”

It shouldn’t have any role in Miller’s subpoena. After all, at the time that action was taken, Mueller’s authority had no defects (unless Miller wins this challenge, which is unlikely, even at SCOTUS). It might, however, have an effect going forward, and Monday’s brief is an opportunity for Mueller to make that case publicly, and make it both for this challenge and the Mystery Appellant challenge, if that one pertains to Mueller’s authority. (Sri Srinivasan and Judith Rogers, two of the three judges hearing Miller’s appeal, have been involved in the Mystery Appeal as well, so know the substance of it.)

As luck would have it, a key expert just provided Mueller’s team important material for their brief.

Neal Katyal was (as he has written extensively) the author for the special counsel regulations that Mueller works under. Last week, he teamed up with conservative lawyer George Conway to argue that Whitaker’s appointment is unconstitutional. Today, he published a piece arguing that Whitaker cannot supervise Mueller.

In it, he raises two problems: first, he says that he and his colleagues at DOJ — and those on Capitol Hill with whom Katyal consulted — did not envision something like what Trump has done to happen.

My Justice Department colleagues and I, along with a bipartisan group on Capitol Hill, worked through many possible scenarios before we settled on the rules that now govern Mueller’s investigation. Everyone in the debate recognized that any enhancement in the special counsel’s accountability had to come from additional supervision by the attorney general. After all, the power to supervise is the power to destroy. The attorney general can stop a special counsel from investigating altogether or stop them from taking a specific step (such as subpoenaing a president). He can read every file of the counsel, and he may even attempt to give information about the investigation to the president in real time. And he plays a crucial role in determining what report by Mueller, if any, is given to Congress and ultimately the public.

But no one — and I mean no one — ever thought the regulations we wrote would permit the president to install some staff member of his choice from the Justice Department to serve as acting attorney general and thereby oversee the special counsel. Such a proposal would have been laughed off Capitol Hill within a nanosecond as fundamentally at odds with the most cardinal principle that no one is above the law.

Mind you, this is just a regulation, so the several references Kaytal makes to Congress do not amount to legislative intent. Still, it does provide guidance about what the intent of the regulations were.

Katyal then describes the problem — one that directly relates to the substance of Miller’s argument. Even if Whitaker’s appointment is legal as an emergency appointment, he still needs a superior officer to supervise him. It would need to be either Rosenstein or Trump himself.

If the defenders’ claims were true, all that would mean is that Whitaker is an inferior officer who doesn’t need to be confirmed by the Senate. In that situation, someone else, a principal officer, would still need to be in place to supervise Mueller — who is also an inferior officer. That responsibility would fall once again to Rosenstein under the succession statute Congress authorized.

Sometimes, an inferior officer has to supervise other inferior officers with no principal — say, if no one else has been confirmed at the start of an administration. Or in a more hypothetical scenario, imagine a military conflict in which casualties meant there were no Senate-confirmed officials in a department. But fortunately, today’s Justice Department isn’t dealing with challenges anything like those. There are Senate-confirmed officials at the helm.

And regardless of those issues, there is yet another problem, specific to the Mueller investigation. In an emergency situation where an acting head is named, the president is, ultimately, the responsible official who supervises temporary, unconfirmed stand-ins. The idea is that there would at least be someone accountable to the public above the acting officer in those situations — and as Harry Truman put it, the buck always stops with the president.

Here, though, the idea that the president could be trusted to supervise Whitaker as he oversees Mueller’s work is absurd.

It was this kind of problem that made me ask whether bolloxing up the legality of Mueller’s action was the entire point (because otherwise I can’t imagine how Emmet Flood bought off on this action, given the troubles it may cause).

But as I’ve said, it actually seems that these issues would create a legal disability on Whitaker’s part, meaning his back-up — Rosenstein — would be required to take over.

Democrats have already asked DOJ’s top ethics official whether he has given Whitaker advice on another possible source of disability, recusal obligations.

I suspect, though, that Mueller will be just one party in a position to argue that Whitaker cannot legally supervise him.

Which, again, is what I don’t mind that Rosenstein sucked up to him so effusively last Friday. Because so long as he remains there, as the Senate-confirmed official with authority to supervise Mueller, he may well end up remaining in that position.

Dear Lindsey: Not Even Trump Gives a Shit What You Think about the Whitaker Appointment

About the most competent thing Trump managed with his ham-handed roll out of a hatchet man to oversee the Mueller investigation was to pick someone with close ties to Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley. Matt Whitaker has driven all around Iowa with Grassley.

And somehow, Whitaker managed to have Gary Barnett, whose Linked In profile says he still works as Jeff Flake’s Chief Counsel, installed as his new Chief of Staff in time to attend Whitaker’s takeover strategy huddle, while Sessions huddled with Senate confirmed officials.

So whatever else he is or is not, Whitaker is certainly well wired with one of the committees that would have oversight on his actions.

Perhaps that’s why Lindsey Graham and CBS Face the Nation thought he’d be a good guest to opine that everything pertaining to Whitaker’s appointment is hunky dory.

Graham told “Face the Nation” host Margaret Brennan on Sunday he believes the acting attorney general was “appointed appropriately” and “legally,” and he’s “confident” Whitaker won’t interfere in Mueller’s ongoing investigation.

“I talked with Matt yesterday,” Graham said. “I’m going to meet with him next week when we get our schedules aligned here. I think he was appropriately appointed legally. I don’t think he has to recuse himself. I am confident the Mueller investigation will be allowed to come to a good solid conclusion, that there’ll be no political influence put on Mr. Mueller by Mr. Whitaker to do anything other than Mr. Mueller’s job. I’m confident that Mr. Mueller will be allowed to do his job without interference.”

To be clear: I’m not minimizing the degree to which Trump has eliminated one possible source of resistance to his hatchet man plan, by picking someone wired into SJC (and backed vocally by Leonard Leo, since Republican SJC members appear to answer to him).

But by picking Whitaker, Trump has affirmatively told the Senate they — and the professionals for whom they have spent the time to advise and consent — are expendable. After all, the sole reason to appoint Whitaker rather than rely on normal succession is to prevent Rosenstein from having oversight of investigations into Trump.

More importantly, while SJC could have a hearing and Lindsey promises he’ll meet with Whitaker, none of that will have an immediate effect. SJC has absolutely no way to prevent Whitaker from burning up all the norms critical to a functioning DOJ, including recusal where it clearly is called for. There’s not even a way to prevent Whitaker from trumping up some charge and firing Mueller before any such meeting happens.

And it’s not SJC’s place to judge if Whitaker’s appointment is illegal. That role belongs to OLC (whose head, Steven Engel, has already been in at least one discussion about whether it is constitutional) and the Courts. If the question gets to the latter, SJC is not among the leading entities that might have standing to challenge it.

Having Lindsey’s seal of approval might make it easier for Whitaker to last out the two months or so until Democrats take the House. But that will have zero role in whether Whitaker blows up the Constitution.

Lindsey (and CBS) think he matters here. That’s quaint.

In Defending His Whitaker Pick, Trump Attempts to Placate Both Republicans and Lawyers

President Trump flew all the way to Paris to (as far as we know) sit in the US Ambassador’s residence rather than attend the World War I remembrance he had flown all that way for. The stated reason was weather — basically some light drizzle in 50 degree temperatures.

I’m reminded that the other most prominent time Trump inexplicably blew off a high profile international event — when he had Ivanka sit in for him at the G-20 in July 2017 — he used the time instead scrambling with aides about how to craft a story about the June 9 meeting.

Given the way the Matt Whitaker appointment is blowing up — on top of persistent questions about the legality of the appointment, stories about the criminal investigation into his firm, (sketchy) claims that the White House knew nothing about his comments or past when they picked him, and additional reports of Whitaker’s radical legal belief, including that states can nullify federal law — I suspect he may similarly be huddled somewhere trying to prevent the Whitaker move from making his plight worse than it already was. (Though he’s demonstrably also working the phones in hopes of squeezing an extra Senate seat out of the process.)

Which is why I’m interested in the two tweets Trump made on the topic last night.

First, while also affirming his qualifications, Trump claimed (falsely) that he didn’t know Whitaker.

Yes, his claims here are narrower than the ones already debunked by his statements on Fox News the last time he tried to install Whitaker. He now admits to knowing Whitaker. But he falsely pretends that Sessions, not the White House, picked Whitaker. And he suggests, incorrectly, that he and others at the White House (including, per the NYT, Don McGahn when he was looking for an attack dog to work Trump’s defense) didn’t have direct contact with Whitaker.

President Trump first noticed Matthew G. Whitaker on CNN in the summer of 2017 and liked what he saw — a partisan defender who insisted there was no collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. So that July, the White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, interviewed Mr. Whitaker about joining the president’s team as a legal attack dog against the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III.

[snip]

The decision to fire Mr. Sessions and replace him with Mr. Whitaker had been in the works since September, when the president began asking friends and associates if they thought it would be a good idea, according to people familiar with the discussions.

The goal was not unlike the first time the White House considered hiring Mr. Whitaker. As attorney general, he could wind down Mr. Mueller’s inquiry like the president wanted.

Mr. McGahn, for one, was a big proponent of the idea. So was Leonard A. Leo, the executive vice president of the Federalist Society who regularly advises Mr. Trump on judges and other legal matters. Mr. Whitaker had also developed a strong rapport with John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff. Nick Ayers, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, was a fan, too.

A team that has spent over a year claiming intermittently that Robert Mueller has a conflict because he interviewed to be FBI Director the day before he got named Special Counsel has made a guy who interviewed to be part of his defense team Attorney General.

All this creates an overwhelming appearance of a conflict, one DOJ’s ethical advisors — if they get the opportunity — would surely say disqualifies Whitaker from overseeing the Russian investigation.

So Trump, with his first tweet, is making false claims to try to deny these conflicts. It’s an appeal to lawyers — ethics lawyers at DOJ, constitutional lawyers questioning the legality of the appointment, and probably Mueller’s lawyers, who’ve been Hoovering up evidence relating to this latest obstruction of justice. This is the kind of performance tweeting Trump does all the time. It has no legal value — the lawyers he’s trying to influence will instead work with actual evidence — but it might lead his supporters to overlook egregious conflicts.

I’m more interested in his second tweet, posted 12 minutes later, touting that Republicans — most who worked or fought campaigns with him in IA — think highly of him.

Along with selling lawyers a lie, it seems, Trump feels the need to assure fellow Republicans (in the wake of losing many suburban women voters in part because of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation process) that it will be worth fighting for Whitaker. Sure, Iowa politicians matter for anyone thinking of running for office. It definitely helps that the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee has driven to all Iowa’s counties with Whitaker.

But the key validator here, of course, is Leonard Leo, who has been pushing Whitaker as part of a defense strategy. That is, Leo is not (yet) pushing Whitaker to be a judge, though I think it likely that’s how he expects to be paid off, which makes Leo’s involvement even more suspect. For now, though, Leo is instead pushing Whitaker to help wind down the Mueller probe.

And Trump wants fellow Republicans, who just got shellacked in the House and may not even extend their advantage in the Senate, to risk political capital to defend Whitaker, all the while blowing up a half century of conservative beliefs about appointments.

Yet, even with these two bids to placate two different audiences about the Whitaker move (and all the related bullshit about not knowing what a hack Whitaker is), Trump simply doesn’t address all the glaring problems with Whitaker, starting with the question about whether the appointment is even legal.

It’s always a mistake to underestimate Trump’s survival ability, and it may be that he’ll find a way to persuade the two audiences he’s trying to reassure that Whitaker is worth the risk.

But these tweets suggest a heavy-handed move he probably imagined would bring him salvation has just added to his headaches.

The Kremlinology (Ha!) of the Sessions’ Huddle

A lot of people were startled by the report of Rod Rosenstein commenting on Friday that Matt Whitaker is a “superb” choice to be Acting Attorney General.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on Friday hailed acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker as a “superb” choice to fill the role even as Whitaker’s past statements have prompted questions about his impartiality toward special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

“I think he’s a superb choice for attorney general,” Rosenstein told a small group of reporters gathered outside of an investiture ceremony for US Attorney Zachary Terwilliger in Alexandria, Virginia. “He certainly understands the work, understands the priorities of the department.”

When asked about the Mueller probe at the same event, Rosenstein walked away.

Aside from reports that Rosenstein and Whitaker hate each other (indeed, the effort to fire Rosenstein in September was significantly hatched by Whitaker), there’s reason to believe Rosenstein was just flattering his new boss. The speech at which he made these comments included a comment not just mentioning Marbury versus Madison — the cornerstone of judicial review in this country, which Whitaker has said was wrongly decided — but mentioning it in the context of having the proper paperwork to serve as an official of DOJ.

The internet web site for the Eastern District of Virginia proudly states, and I quote, “John Marshall … was appointed by President Washington to serve as the first United States Attorney for the District of Virginia.”

Virginia’s claim to Chief Justice Marshall as the first U.S. Attorney is quite a distinction. But it is not entirely accurate. Now, it is literally true that John Marshall was appointed U.S. Attorney by President Washington. But he never actually served as U.S. Attorney.

In fact, Marshall responded to the President with a letter of his own. Marshall wrote, “[T]hank you … very sincerely for the honor … [but] I beg leave to declare that … with real regret[,] I decline ….”

Washington replied with yet another letter. He wrote, “As some other person must be appointed to fill the Office of Attorney for the district of Virginia, it is proper your Commission should be returned to me.” He wanted the document back!

Perhaps that explains why, when the case of Marbury versus Madison came along in 1803, Chief Justice Marshall focused so intently on the importance of the signed commission.

Apparently the audience, for the investiture of the new US Attorney in EDVA, laughed at Rosenstein’s comment, perhaps recognizing the reference to be a dig at Whitaker, perhaps recognizing something more.

Still, two days after Whitaker’s appointment, Rosenstein offered effusive and public flattery at a time of great uncertainty over events of the last week.

Rod Rosenstein has not survived as a senior DOJ official for thirteen years, through three presidential administrations and serving both parties, without knowing how to flatter his bosses. And I suspect, in this case, those skills may serve the country well.

Consider some details in this important CNN report, describing how and with whom, after John Kelly asked Jeff Sessions for his resignation on Wednesday morning, the Attorney General of the United States huddled, talking strategy.

Sessions met with the Deputy Attorney General, the Solicitor General, the head of Office of Legal Counsel, and the Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General.

John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, asked Sessions to submit his resignation, according to multiple sources briefed on the call. Sessions agreed to comply, but he wanted a few more days before the resignation would become effective. Kelly said he’d consult the President.

Soon, the sources say, top Justice officials convened on the 5th floor suite of offices for the attorney general.

Eventually, there were two huddles in separate offices. Among those in Sessions’ office was Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, his deputy Ed O’Callaghan, Solicitor General Noel Francisco and Steven Engel, who heads the Office of Legal Counsel.

With the exception of O’Callaghan, all of those men outranked Whitaker so long as Sessions officially remained Attorney General. We don’t actually know when his tenure ended. Sessions’ resignation letter is not dated, much less time-stamped; while Sessions may not know how to date important letters like this, Rosenstein and O’Callaghan surely do, but somehow it did not get dated.

Judges and Justices, Rosenstein would point out two days later, “focus[ ] intently on the importance of the signed commission.”

We do know that when Trump tweeted about Whitaker’s appointment at 2:44 PM, he used the future tense — “will become,” not “is” — to describe Whitaker’s tenure as Attorney General.

We also know that Sessions implemented a significant policy change on consent decrees close to the end of that day, a policy change the Trump Administration has built on in ensuing days. So at the time Sessions implemented that policy change (which the metadata suggests was close to the end of the day), he must have still retained the authority of Attorney General.

So for the sake of this Kremlinology, I will assume that Sessions remained Attorney General for the remainder of the day on Wednesday. That means that, for at least a half day after this went down, any orders he gave were binding and all those men huddling with him on Wednesday morning retained the relative seniority to Whitaker that they started the day with.

As CNN says in its report, the people huddling with Sessions included key players overseeing Mueller’s probe. Rosenstein and O’Callaghan provide the day-to-day oversight of the probe.

The fact that Whitaker would become acting attorney general, passing over Rosenstein suddenly raised concerns about the impact on the most high-profile investigation in the Justice Department, the Russia probe led by Mueller.

The Mueller probe has been at the center of Trump’s ire directed at Sessions and the Justice Department. Whitaker has made comments criticizing Mueller’s investigation and Rosenstein’s oversight of it, and has questioned the allegations of Russian interference.

Rosenstein and O’Callaghan, the highest-ranked officials handling day-to-day oversight of Mueller’s investigation, urged Sessions to delay the effective date of his resignation.

That day-to-day oversight is critical both to any claim that Mueller operates with constitutional authority and to any effort by Trump and Whitaker to undermine Mueller’s authority.

But CNN doesn’t talk about the important role played in the probe by the other two Senate-confirmed figures in the room, Solicitor General Noel Francisco and OLC head Steven Engel.

As Michael Dreeben, who formally reports to Francisco, noted Thursday (that is, the day after this huddle) during his DC Circuit argument defending the constitutionality of Mueller’s authority, Francisco must approve any appeal Mueller’s team makes (presumably, he must approve any appellate activity at all). The arguments Dreeben made publicly Thursday — as well as whatever arguments Mueller submitted in a brief in sealed form in the Mystery Appeal that same day — were arguments made with the approval of and under the authority of the Solicitor General, the third ranking official at DOJ.

Then there’s Engel. He’s the guy who decides, in response to questions posed by Executive Branch officials, how to interpret the law for the entire Executive Branch. It’s his office, for example, who would decide whether it would be legal for Mueller to indict the President. His office also interprets the laws surrounding things like the Vacancies Reform Act, whether any given presidential appointment is legal.

Which is why this passage of the CNN report is so significant.

At least one Justice official in the room mentioned that there would be legal questions about whether Whitaker’s appointment as acting attorney general is constitutional.

In a room of men huddling with Jeff Sessions at a time he undeniably retained authority as Attorney General, at least one person — it might though is unlikely to be Sessions, it might be the Solicitor General who would argue the case legally, it might be the Deputy Attorney General or his deputy overseeing the Russian probe, it might be the guy who ultimately decides such things, or it might be several of them — at least one of those senior DOJ officials raised questions about whether Whitaker’s appointment would be constitutional. All of those men are sufficiently senior to ask Engel to write up a memo considering the question, and so long as Sessions retained the authority of Attorney General, he could decide whether to accept Engel’s advice or not. Sure, the President could override that (Obama overrode OLC, to his great disgrace, in Libya). But Trump would be on far shakier legal ground to do so without OLC’s blessing, and anyone operating in defiance of the OLC opinion could face legal problems in the future.

And an OLC opinion is precisely the kind of thing that Mueller’s team might submit to the DC Circuit — under the authority of the Senate approved and third-ranking Noel Francisco — in a sealed appendix to a challenge to Mueller’s authority.

I asked around this morning, of both those who think Whitaker’s appointment is not legal and those (like Steve Vladeck) who think it is. And it seems crystal clear: if Whitaker’s appointment is illegal, then that is a disability (just like recusal would be), and the regular DOJ succession would apply. In that case, the Deputy Attorney General would be acting Attorney General, for all matters, not just the supervision of the Special Counsel.

I don’t pretend to know what happened in that huddle or in the half day afterwards when Jeff Sessions uncontestedly retained his authority as Attorney General. I do know the rising House Judiciary Committee Chair has demanded that the paperwork behind it be preserved.

But I’m not really bugged that Rod Rosenstein is doing what he needs to do to remain the person who, if Whitaker’s appointment were illegal, would serve as the Acting Attorney General.

Update: Two more details I should have added in this post.

First, this meeting feels a lot like the ones in response to the 2004 Hospital Hero crisis, which was not just a fight about surveillance, but also about President’s abusing DOJ succession. That suggests the two different huddles at DOJ represent two different camps of loyalty. If that’s right, we might assume those officials in with Sessions might resign (or threaten to) if asked to do something they believed to be illegal. That would mean people with the analogous job titles as threatened to quit in the 2004 crisis — DAG, PDAAG, and SG — might threaten to quit here. Chris Wray would be the analogue to Robert Mueller in this situation; while he’s not reported to be involved on Wednesday, he was reportedly among those ready to quit in 2004.

Additionally, there have been worries about what would happen if Noel Francisco assumed oversight of the Mueller probe (which is what would have happened if Trump fired Rosenstein rather than replaced Sessions). That he was in the group trying to preserve the Mueller probe suggests he may be more supportive of it than people have assumed; remember, on top of approving Mueller’s appeals, he has been brought in at other key points.

So this Kremlinology also suggests there may be more resilience among top officials than assumed, as well.

Update: Fixed that “supervision of the Attorney General” phrase as noted by several in comments. Thanks!

Did Emmet Flood Mean to Create a Legal Morass, or Is He Off His Game?

As I’ve often said, Trump departed from his usual habit by hiring Emmet Flood, someone who is eminently qualified to help the President (or, as he did with Cheney, Vice President) stave off legal jeopardy from a Special Counsel or Congress. Which is why I’m trying to figure out whether the legal morass Trump created — presumably on Flood’s advice, given that Flood is serving as both the Mueller investigation White House Counsel lead and, until Pat Cipollone gets fully cleared, White House Counsel generally — by forcing Jeff Sessions’ resignation and replacing him with Matt Whitaker.

It’s not clear when Sessions’ authority ended

Start with the fact that it’s not clear when Jeff Sessions stopped acting as Attorney General. As numerous people have noted, he didn’t date the copy of his resignation letter that got released publicly.

He left DOJ in ceremonial fashion just after 5 PM on Wednesday night, which would suggest he may have remained AG until that time. If that’s right, then anything that Mueller and Rosenstein did that day would still operate under the older authority.

Indeed, DOJ issued an order under Sessions’ authority, imposing new limits on consent decrees used to reign in abusive local police departments, yesterday evening, a full day after he departed. He initialed it (dated 11/7/18), but the metadata on it shows the document wasn’t created until almost 5PM on Wednesday and was modified over a full day after that. (h/t zedster)

So he was at least still AG sometime after 4:53PM on Wednesday — and possibly well after that — or this consent decree policy is void.

Whitaker’s appointment may not be legal

Then there are the proliferating number of people — most prominently Neal Katyal and George Conway but also including John Yoo and Jed Sugarman — who believe his appointment is unconstituional.

There are two bases on which this might be true. First, the forced resignation of Jeff Sessions may in fact be a legal firing, something the House Judiciary Democrats are arguing with increasing stridency, most recently in a letter to Bob Goodlatte asking that he hold an emergency hearing on Sessions’ ouster, support legislation protecting Mueller, and join in requests for information about the ouster from the White House and DOJ. If Sessions was fired, there’s little question that Trump can only replace him with someone who is Senate confirmed.

But Katyal, Conway, and others argue that because the AG is a principal officer, whoever serves in that position must be Senate confirmed. Significantly, the Katyal/Conway argument begins by throwing what Steven Calabresi has said back at conservatives.

What now seems an eternity ago, the conservative law professor Steven Calabresi published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in May arguing that Robert Mueller’s appointment as special counsel was unconstitutional. His article got a lot of attention, and it wasn’t long before President Trump picked up the argument, tweeting that “the Appointment of the Special Counsel is totally UNCONSTITUTIONAL!”

Professor Calabresi’s article was based on the Appointments Clause of the Constitution, Article II, Section 2, Clause 2. Under that provision, so-called principal officers of the United States must be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate under its “Advice and Consent” powers.

He argued that Mr. Mueller was a principal officer because he is exercising significant law enforcement authority and that since he has not been confirmed by the Senate, his appointment was unconstitutional. As one of us argued at the time, he was wrong. What makes an officer a principal officer is that he or she reports only to the president.

This is probably why people like Yoo are joining in this argument — because if Whitaker’s appointment is legal, than a whole slew of other appointments of the kind that conservatives hate would also be legal.

Whitaker may be disabled with conflicts

Then there are Whitaker’s conflicts, which are threefold. Whitaker:

  • Repeatedly claimed that the Mueller probe was out of control, in spite of the fact he had no real information to base that on
  • Judged that Trump had neither “colluded” nor committed obstruction
  • Not only undermined the investigation, but suggested the underlying conduct — including meeting with Russians to obtain dirt on Hillary Clinton at the June 9 meeting — was totally cool
  • Served as Sam Clovis’ campaign manager in 2014; Clovis was a key player in Trump’s efforts to cozy up to the Russians in 2016 and was one of the earliest known witnesses to testify before the grand jury

CNN captures many of these statements here.

The Clovis one may be the most important. 28 CFR 45.2 requires ethics exemption or recusal if a person has a political relationship with the subject of an investigation.

[N]o employee shall participate in a criminal investigation or prosecution if he has a personal or political relationship with:

(1) Any person or organization substantially involved in the conduct that is the subject of the investigation or prosecution; or

Defining “political relationship” to include service as a principal advisor to a candidate.

Political relationship means a close identification with an elected official, a candidate (whether or not successful) for elective, public office, a political party, or a campaign organization, arising from service as a principal adviser thereto or a principal official thereof;

And, as Mueller noted in their response to Andrew Miller’s appeal, recusal would amount to a “disability” that would put the DAG back in charge.

Finally, interpreting “disability” under Section 508 to include recusal makes logical and practical sense. Section 528 requires the Attorney General to recuse himself when he has a conflict of interest. Section 508 ensures that at all times an officer is heading the Department of Justice. If the Attorney General is recused, it is necessary that someone can head the Department for that investigation. It is inconceivable that Congress intended Section 508 to reach physical disability, but not to reach legal requirements that disabled the Attorney General from participating in certain matters.

Whitaker’s former company is under FBI investigation

Then there’s the news that a company for which Whitaker provided legal services is under criminal investigation.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is conducting a criminal investigation of a Florida company accused of scamming millions from customers during the period that Matthew Whitaker, the acting U.S. attorney general, served as a paid advisory-board member, according to an alleged victim who was contacted by the FBI and other people familiar with the matter.

The investigation is being handled by the Miami office of the FBI and by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, according to an email sent to the alleged victim last year by an FBI victim specialist. A recording on a phone line set up by the Justice Department to help victims said Friday the case remains active.

When Whitaker was subpoenaed, he blew it off.

Whitaker, named this week by President Trump as acting attorney general, occasionally served as an outside legal adviser to the company, World Patent Marketing, writing a series of letters on its behalf, according to people familiar with his role.

But he rebuffed an October 2017 subpoena from the Federal Trade Commission seeking his records related to the company, according to two people with knowledge of the case.

But the public record shows that when customers complained, Whitaker threatened them, invoking his background as a former US Attorney.

In emails uncovered by the FTC investigation, Whitaker personally threatened a customer who complained, according to a story in the Miami New Times that was picked up by other news outlets.

The emails the FTC obtained, in fact, suggests Whitaker used his background as a U.S. attorney to try to silence customers who claimed they were defrauded by the company and sought to take their complaints public.

In this case, Whitaker sent an intimidating email to a customer on August 25, 2015, who had contacted World Patent Marketing with his grievances and and filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.

The FTC docket reviewed by New Times contains an email exchange on page 362 of 400 that described what happened next.

Rather than expressing concern about the customer’s charge of being cheated,  Whitaker wrote him to let him know that he, Whitaker, was “a former United States Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois…Your emails and message from today seem to be an apparent attempt at possible blackmail or extortion.”

“You also mentioned filing a complaint with the Better Business Bureau and to smear WPM’s reputation online. I am assuming you know that there could be serious civil and criminal consequences for you if that is in fact what you and your ‘group’ is doing. Understand we take threats like this quite seriously…Please conduct yourself accordingly.”

This doesn’t necessarily impact the Mueller probe itself. But it suggests that Whitaker has real corruption problems that will undermine his actions as AG.

Trump and Whitaker may have spoken about the Mueller probe — and Trump is already lying about it

Shortly after Whitaker was appointed, WaPo reported that Trump told multiple people that Whitaker was “loyal” and wouldn’t recuse.

Trump has told advisers that Whitaker is loyal and would not have recused himself from the investigation, current and former White House officials said.

Then WaPo reported that Whitaker has no intention of recusing, reporting that would necessarily predate any discussion with DOJ’s ethical advisors.

Acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker has no intention of recusing himself from overseeing the special-counsel probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to people close to him who added they do not believe he would approve any subpoena of President Trump as part of that investigation.

[snip]

On Thursday, two people close to Whitaker said he does not plan to take himself off the Russia case. They also said he is deeply skeptical of any effort to force the president’s testimony through a subpoena.

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has been negotiating for months with Trump’s attorneys over the terms of a possible interview of the president. Central to those discussions has been the idea that Mueller could, if negotiations failed, subpoena the president. If Whitaker were to take the threat of a subpoena off the table, that could alter the equilibrium between the two sides and significantly reduce the chances that the president ever sits for an interview.

Meanwhile, when asked today, Trump claimed (in spite of all the briefings Whitaker has attended in recent weeks) that he didn’t know him, even though he went on Fox and hailed him after the most recent attempt to use him to kill the Mueller probe.

“I don’t know Matt Whitaker,” Mr. Trump told reporters as he left Washington for a weekend trip to Paris. But the president stressed that he did know Mr. Whitaker’s reputation well, calling him “a very respected man.”

[snip]

In addition, the president’s claim that he did not know Mr. Whitaker was called into question by Mr. Trump’s own words from just about a month ago, when he said in a “Fox & Friends” interview: “I can tell you Matt Whitaker’s a great guy. I mean, I know Matt Whitaker.”

Mr. Whitaker has also visited the Oval Office several times and is said to have an easy chemistry with the president, according to people familiar with the relationship. And the president has regarded Mr. Whitaker as his eyes and ears at the Justice Department.

As CNN notes, Whitaker seemed to have been actively plotting for his boss’ job since the NYT stupidly tried to get Rosenstein fired (which I suspect means Whitaker was a source for the NYT).

A source close to Sessions says that the former attorney general realized that Whitaker was “self-dealing” after reports surfaced in September that Whitaker had spoken with Kelly and had discussed plans to become the No. 2 at the Justice Department if Rosenstein was forced to resign.

In recent months, with his relationship with the President at a new low, Sessions skipped several so-called principals meetings that he was slated to attend as a key member of the Cabinet. A source close to Sessions says that neither the attorney general nor Trump thought it was a good idea for Sessions to be at the White House, so he sent surrogates.

Whitaker was one of them.

But Sessions did not realize Whitaker was having conversations with the White House about his future until the news broke in late September about Rosenstein.

All of this raises huge questions about whether Whitaker and Trump (or Kelly) had an agreement in place, that he would get this post (and shortly after be nominated for a judgeship in IA), so long as he would agree to kill the Mueller probe.

Debates over the legality of Whitaker’s appointment parallel challenges to Mueller’s authority

Then there’s the point I raised earlier today. If Whitaker’s appointment is legal, then so is Mueller’s, which undercuts one of the other efforts to undermine Mueller’s authority.

Whitaker’s nomination really undermines the arguments that Miller and Concord Management (who argued as an amici) were making about Mueller’s appointment, particularly their argument that he is a principal officer and therefore must be Senate confirmed, an argument that relies on one that Steven Calabresi made this spring. Indeed, Neal Katyal and George Conway began their argument that Whitaker’s appointment is illegal by hoisting Calabresi on his petard.

What now seems an eternity ago, the conservative law professor Steven Calabresi published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in May arguing that Robert Mueller’s appointment as special counsel was unconstitutional. His article got a lot of attention, and it wasn’t long before President Trump picked up the argument, tweeting that “the Appointment of the Special Counsel is totally UNCONSTITUTIONAL!”

Professor Calabresi’s article was based on the Appointments Clause of the Constitution, Article II, Section 2, Clause 2. Under that provision, so-called principal officers of the United States must be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate under its “Advice and Consent” powers.

He argued that Mr. Mueller was a principal officer because he is exercising significant law enforcement authority and that since he has not been confirmed by the Senate, his appointment was unconstitutional. As one of us argued at the time, he was wrong. What makes an officer a principal officer is that he or she reports only to the president.

While it may be true (as Conway argued at the link) that Calabresi’s arguments are wrong for Mueller, if they’re right for Mueller, then they’re all the more true for Whitaker. So if Mueller should have been Senate confirmed, then Whitaker more obviously would need to be.

John Kelly’s involvement may (and I suspect does) present added conflicts

Then there’s John Kelly’s role, as someone who had a key role in the firing but whose testimony Mueller is currently pursuing (possibly via subpoena).

Kelly is among the people about whom there is the most active dispute legal between the Special Counsel and the White House, a fight picked by the legally competent Emmet Flood.

And Kelly was the person who forced Jeff Sessions to resign on Wednesday. As far as is public (and there’s surely a great deal that we have yet to learn about who was in the decision to force Sessions to resign and when that happened and who dictated the form it would take).

But Kelly had the key role of conveying the President’s intent, in whatever form that intent was documented, to Sessions. If Trump’s past firings are any precedent, Kelly had a very big role in deciding how it would happen.

So the guy whose testimony Mueller may be most actively pursuing (indeed, one who might even be in a legal dispute with), effectuated a plan to undercut Mueller’s plans going forward.

CNN provides more context for Kelly’s role, showing him to be involved in the last attempt to install Whitaker and suggesting that Kelly consulted Trump before refusing Sessions’ request to stay through the week.

John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, asked Sessions to submit his resignation, according to multiple sources briefed on the call. Sessions agreed to comply, but he wanted a few more days before the resignation would become effective. Kelly said he’d consult the President.

[snip]

Rosenstein and [PDAAG Ed] O’Callaghan, the highest-ranked officials handling day-to-day oversight of Mueller’s investigation, urged Sessions to delay the effective date of his resignation.

Soon, Whitaker strode into Sessions’ office and asked to speak one-on-one to the attorney general; the others left the two men alone. It was a brief conversation. Shortly after, Sessions told his huddle that his resignation would be effective that day.

O’Callaghan had tried to appeal to Sessions, noting that he hadn’t heard back about whether the President would allow a delay. At least one Justice official in the room mentioned that there would be legal questions about whether Whitaker’s appointment as acting attorney general is constitutional. Someone also reminded Sessions that the last time Whitaker played a role in a purported resignation — a few weeks earlier in September, with Rosenstein — the plan collapsed.

Sessions never heard in person from the President — the man who gained television fame for his catch-phrase “You’re fired” doesn’t actually like such confrontation and prefers to have others do the firing, people close to the President say. Kelly called Sessions a second time to tell him the President had rejected his request for a delay.

Nevertheless, a guy Mueller is trying to interview was right there in the loop, making two efforts to install someone whose sole apparent job is to undercut Mueller.

Everything Whitaker touches may turn to shit

Now, maybe Flood would still have bought off on this — though the multiple reports now claim no one at the White House knew about Whitaker’s problems suggest he may not have been in the vetting loop (because, again, he’s competent and knows the import of vetting).

But there’s one more thing to account for. Everything Whitaker touches may turn to legal shit. It’s a point Katyal and Conway make.

President Trump’s installation of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general of the United States after forcing the resignation of Jeff Sessions is unconstitutional. It’s illegal. And it means that anything Mr. Whitaker does, or tries to do, in that position is invalid.

This appointment could embroil DOJ in legal challenges for years, at least, as plaintiffs and defendants claim that DOJ took some action against them that can only be authorized by a legal Attorney General.

While I don’t think it’s likely, it’s possible that’s the point. As I noted earlier, on Thursday Mueller’s team seemed to be staking a claim that they can continue to operate as they have been.

But their authority, or at least Mueller’s and the others who aren’t AUSAs temporarily reassigned to Mueller, all stems from a legally valid Attorney General or Acting one. If Mueller continues to operate while the legally problematic Whitaker claims to authorize them, what does that do for their actions?

That may be why the DC Circuit wants more (public) briefing on this question in the Andrew Miller case. By appointing a totally inappropriate AG, Trump might just be pursuing his longterm strategy of chaos.

Is this Don McGahn’s last fuck-up?

This entire post is premised on two things: first, that Emmet Flood is among the rare people in Trump’s orbit who is very competent. It also assumes that because both these issues — White House Counsel until Cipollone takes over, and White House Counsel in charge of protecting Trump from the Mueller investigation — would fall solidly in Flood’s portfolios, he would have a significant role in the plot.

Perhaps not. Federalist Society’s Leonard Leo is claiming (in a CNN report that should be read in its entirety) he worked on the plan with Don McGahn.

Leonard Leo, the influential executive vice president of the Federalist Society, recommended to then-White House counsel Don McGahn that Whitaker would make a good chief of staff for Sessions.

“I recommended him and was very supportive of him for chief of staff for very specific reasons,” Leo said Friday.

So maybe this scheme was, instead, planned out by Don McGahn (who has been officially gone since October 17).

But that would raise questions of its own — notably, why this plan was on ice for so long. And why Flood wasn’t in the loop (and why the White House continues to neglect the most basic vetting of people they put in charge of huge parts of our government).

I expect basic competence out of Emmet Flood. But this whole scheme could only be judged competent if the point was to totally discredit anything DOJ does, including but not limited to the Mueller probe.

Are Mueller and Matt Whitaker Already Battling over Immunity or a Plea Deal for Jerome Corsi?

From the very first reporting on Jerome Corsi’s testimony to Robert Mueller, his lawyer hinted that he may have been invited — but declined — to engage in criminal activity with Roger Stone.

Gray said he was confident that Corsi has done nothing wrong. “Jerry Corsi made decisions that he would not take actions that would give him criminal liability,” he added, declining to elaborate.

Asked if Corsi had opportunities to take such actions, Gray said, “I wouldn’t say he was offered those opportunities. I would say he had communications with Roger Stone. We’ll supply those communications and be cooperative. My client didn’t act further that would give rise to any criminal liability.”

Yesterday on his broadcast, Corsi seemed a lot less certain that he has avoided legal jeopardy.

He billed the broadcast as a historic one and made it clear it was all about Mueller, even while he feigned that he was not commenting on Mueller. He announced he would not broadcast Friday, because he’d be with his lawyers, and suggested he might not broadcast Monday. He invoked both Stone and Alex Jones in his comments. Chuck Ross laid out some of this here, including that he invoked Jeremiah 20:11, presumably as a veiled attack on Mueller.

But the Lord is with me as a mighty terrible one; therefore my persecutors shall stumble, and they shall not prevail; they shall be greatly ashamed; for they shall not prosper; their everlasting confusion shall never be forgotten,

Corsi also invokes Jesus’ superior access to truth before Pontius Pilate.

What Ross doesn’t lay out — but I have — is that Roger Stone’s excuses for his “Podesta time in a barrel” comments seem to be a retroactive excuse for some attacks he and Corsi made on John Podesta that seem to reflect some pre-knowledge that the Podesta emails Russia leaked in October 2016 would include information on Podesta’s ties to Joule Unlimited. Corsi returned to the attack in October 2016 even before WikiLeaks started releasing the emails and Stone adopted without showing signs of reading the emails he relied on. The awareness that the Podesta dump would include emails on Joule seems to date back to mid-August 2016, precisely the period when Stone (and his associate, Lee Stranahan) were first engaging with Guccifer 2.0, and it happened just two weeks after Stone flipflopped on his claimed beliefs about who did the DNC hack.

So, in his broadcast, Corsi suggests something about his two month cooperation with Mueller coming to a head, and he may have been the means by which Stone knew of what the Podesta emails included ahead of time. But with all that, Corsi’s lawyer suggests Stone is the one with the really serious exposure.

It may be that Mueller is pressuring Corsi to cop a plea deal. That might explain two months of close work with Mueller’s team. But Corsi’s concerns about his immediate future may, instead, suggest that Mueller has immunized Corsi, because if he refused to testify about something having immunity, then he could be jailed right away.

As I’ve laid out, in the hearing on Andrew Miller’s challenge yesterday, Michael Dreeben seemed to be arguing about which actions Mueller could take without getting Matt Whitaker’s approval first.

Prosecutors do this all the time. They seek immunity. They make plea agreements,. They bring indictments.

[snip]

We have to get approval requires just like US Attorneys do. If we want to subpoena a member of the media, or if we want to immunize a witness, we’re encouraged if we’re not sure what the policy or practice is, to consult with the relevant officials in the Department of Justice. If we wanted to appeal an adverse decision, we would have to get approval of the Solicitor General of the United States. So we’re operating within that sort of supervisory framework.

While none of those issues pertain to Miller, all of them might apply to Corsi, including the subpoena for a journalist. To prevent any of these actions — immunizing a witness, making a plea agreement, or even bringing indictments — Whitaker would have to deem them “so inappropriate or unwarranted under established Departmental practices that it should not be pursued.”

Perhaps Corsi is praying that Whitaker will rescue him from Mueller-as-Pontius Pilate by deeming that conspiring with Russian assets to attack a political opponent is totally normal?

In Thursday Hearing, Mueller’s Team Gets Specific about What They Can Do without Whitaker’s Pre-Approval

Yesterday, the DC Circuit held a hearing on Roger Stone aide Andrew Miller’s challenge of a grand jury subpoena. To make it crystal clear that the issues may have changed when Trump forced Jeff Sessions’ resignation the day before, the very first thing Judge Karen Henderson did was to instruct the sides to “Argue this case as if it were being argued yesterday morning.” She said then that they’d probably ask the lawyers to brief how Matt Whitaker’s appointment changed things, and today the panel ordered 10 page briefs, “addressing what, if any, effect the November 7, 2018 designation of an acting Attorney General different from the official who appointed Special Counsel Mueller has on this case.” Those briefs aren’t due until November 19, suggesting there won’t be an immediate resolution to Miller’s testimony.

But it was just as interesting how the Whitaker hiring may have influenced what the parties said yesterday.

Whitaker’s nomination undermines the Miller/Concord challenge to Mueller

Whitaker’s nomination really undermines the arguments that Miller and Concord Management (who argued as an amici) were making about Mueller’s appointment, particularly their argument that he is a principal officer and therefore must be Senate confirmed, an argument that relies on one that Steven Calabresi made this spring. Indeed, Neal Katyal and George Conway began their argument that Whitaker’s appointment is illegal by hoisting Calabresi on his petard.

What now seems an eternity ago, the conservative law professor Steven Calabresi published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in May arguing that Robert Mueller’s appointment as special counsel was unconstitutional. His article got a lot of attention, and it wasn’t long before President Trump picked up the argument, tweeting that “the Appointment of the Special Counsel is totally UNCONSTITUTIONAL!”

Professor Calabresi’s article was based on the Appointments Clause of the Constitution, Article II, Section 2, Clause 2. Under that provision, so-called principal officers of the United States must be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate under its “Advice and Consent” powers.

He argued that Mr. Mueller was a principal officer because he is exercising significant law enforcement authority and that since he has not been confirmed by the Senate, his appointment was unconstitutional. As one of us argued at the time, he was wrong. What makes an officer a principal officer is that he or she reports only to the president.

While it may be true (as Conway argued at the link) that Calabresi’s arguments are wrong for Mueller, if they’re right for Mueller, then they’re all the more true for Whitaker. So if Mueller should have been Senate confirmed, then Whitaker more obviously would need to be.

Dreeben lays out the scope of what Mueller can do with Whitaker in charge

I’m more fascinated by subtle ways that the nomination may be reflected in Michael Dreeben’s comments, though.

In their response to Miller’s challenge, Mueller’s team laid out that they had close supervision from Rod Rosenstein, but they didn’t get into specifics. It describes how the Attorney General receives information (in the form of urgent memos), and the AG can demand an explanation and intervene if he finds an action to be “so inappropriate or unwarranted under established Departmental practices that it should not be pursued.”

The Special Counsel readily meets this test. The Attorney General receives a regular flow of information about the Special Counsel’s actions; he can demand an explanation for any of them; and he has power to intervene when he deems it appropriate to prevent a deviation from established Departmental practices. The regulation envisions deference by requiring the Attorney General to stay his hand unless he determines that an action is “so inappropriate or unwarranted under established Departmental practices that it should not be pursued.” 28 C.F.R. § 600.7(b) (emphasis added). But while the Attorney General must “give great weight to the views of the Special Counsel,” id., the provision affords the Attorney General discretion to assert control if he finds the applicable standard satisfied. This authority—coupled with the Attorney General’s latitude to terminate the Special Counsel for “good cause, including violation of Departmental policies,” 28 C.F.R. § 600.7(d)—provides substantial means to direct and supervise the Special Counsel’s decisions.

And the brief describes how Mueller has to ask for resources (though describes that as happening on a yearly basis) and uphold DOJ rules and ethical duties.

The Special Counsel is subject to equally “pervasive” administrative supervision and oversight. The Attorney General controls whether to appoint a Special Counsel and the scope of his jurisdiction. 28 C.F.R. § 600.4(a)-(b). Once appointed, the Special Counsel must comply with Justice Department rules, regulations, and policies. Id. § 600.7(a). He must “request” that the Attorney General provide Department of Justice employees to assist him or allow him to hire personnel from outside the Department. Id. § 600.5. The Special Counsel and his staff are “subject to disciplinary action for misconduct and breach of ethical duties under the same standards and to the same extent as are other employees of the Department of Justice.” Id. § 600.7(c). And, each year, the Attorney General “establish[es] the budget” for the Special Counsel and “determine[s] whether the investigation should continue.” Id. § 600.8(a)(1)-(2). The Attorney General’s initial control over the existence and scope of the Special Counsel’s investigation; his ongoing control over personnel and budgetary matters; his power to impose discipline for misconduct or a breach of ethical duties; and his authority to end the investigation afford the Attorney General substantial supervision and oversight, which supplements the Attorney General’s regulatory power to countermand the Special Counsel’s investigative and prosecutorial decisions. [my emphasis]

Significantly (given the Calebresi argument) the Mueller team briefed that US Attorneys are also inferior officers, though they get to act without pre-approval.

Miller asserts that the Special Counsel has the authority to make final decisions on behalf of the United States because the regulation “nowhere require[s] the Special Counsel to seek approval or get permission from the [Attorney General] before making final decisions about who to investigate, indict, and prosecute.” Br. 22. That was also true of United States commissioners—who could issue warrants for the arrest and detention of defendants—but who nonetheless “are inferior officers.” Go-Bart Importing Co. v. United States, 282 U.S. 344, 353 (1931). And it is true for United States Attorneys, 28 U.S.C. § 547, who are also inferior officers. See Myers v. United States, 272 U.S. 52, 159 (1926); Hilario, 218 F.3d at 25-26; United States v. Gantt, 194 F.3d 987, 999 (9th Cir. 1999); United States Attorneys—Suggested Appointment Power of the Attorney General— Constitutional Law (Article II, § 2, cl. 2), 2 Op. O.L.C. 58, 59 (1978) (“U.S. Attorneys can be considered to be inferior officers”).3 Few inferior-officer positions require a supervisor to review every single decision. See, e.g., Edmond, 520 U.S. at 665; C46 n.22. Thus, the Special Counsel’s authority to act without obtaining advance approval of every decision cannot transform the Special Counsel into a principal officer, requiring presidential appointment and Senate confirmation.

[snip]

More recently, Congress has enacted legislation allowing for the appointment of U.S. Attorneys by the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate, 28 U.S.C. § 541(a); by a court, id. § 546(d); or by the Attorney General, id. § 546(a)—the latter two appointment authorities manifesting Congress’s understanding that U.S. Attorneys are inferior officers. And every court that has considered the question has concluded that U.S. Attorneys are inferior officers. Thus, to the extent that the Special Counsel “can be accurately characterized as a U.S. Attorney-at-Large,” Br. 17; see 28 C.F.R. § 600.6 (Special Counsel has the “investigative and prosecutorial functions of any United States Attorney”), the Special Counsel, like any U.S. Attorney, would fall on the “inferior officer” side of the line.

This latter argument doesn’t address the Miller/Concord claim that Mueller should have been Senate approved, but that’s part of why the Whitaker appointment is so damaging to this argument.

Compare all that with what Dreeben did yesterday. He specifically listed things that prosecutors — whether they be AUSAs or US Attorneys (though a later argument could point out that AUSAs need the approval of a USA) — do all the time: seek immunity, make plea deals, and bring indictments.

Prosecutors do this all the time. They seek immunity. They make plea agreements,. They bring indictments.

Dreeben later specified specifically what they’d need to get pre-approval for: subpoenaing a member of the media or, in some cases, immunizing a witness.

We have to get approval requires just like US Attorneys do. If we want to subpoena a member of the media, or if we want to immunize a witness, we’re encouraged if we’re not sure what the policy or practice is, to consult with the relevant officials in the Department of Justice. If we wanted to appeal an adverse decision, we would have to get approval of the Solicitor General of the United States. So we’re operating within that sort of supervisory framework.

But otherwise, per Dreeben’s argument yesterday, they wouldn’t need Whitaker to pre-approve most actions, including indictments — only to respond to an urgent memo by saying such an action was outside normal DOJ behavior.

Given my suspicions that John Kelly may be the Mystery Appellant challenging a Mueller request, Dreeben’s very detailed description of US v. Nixon’s assumptions about special prosecutors is particularly notable. His comments were intended to use US v. Nixon to support the existence of prosecutors with some independence. He very specifically describes how US v. Nixon means that the President can’t decide what evidence a prosecutor obtains in an investigation.

The issue in that case was whether a dispute was justiciable when the President of the United States exerted executive privilege over particular tapes and a special prosecutor was preceding in court in the sovereign interests of the United States to obtain evidence for a pending criminal case. And the President’s position was, I’m President of the United States. I’m vested with all executive authority, I decide what evidence is to be used in a criminal case. This is just a dispute between me and someone who is carrying out on a delegated basis a portion of my authority, it is therefore not justiciable. And the Supreme Court’s reasoning was, well, it actually is, because under a legal framework, the President does not have day-to-day control over individual prosecutions. That authority is vested in the Attorney General who is the representative of the United States as sovereign, in court. And he, exercising the powers under 28 USC 515, 533, and a couple of other statutes that dealt with powers being vested in the Attorney General and powers being delegated down, but acting pursuant to those powers, appointed a special prosecutor and vested him with a unique set of powers and those powers enabled him to go into court and to meet head to head in an adversarial proceeding the President’s claim as President that particular tapes were covered by Executive Privilege as against the sovereign’s claim through the special prosecutor that these tapes were relevant and admissible in a pending criminal case. [my emphasis]

None of this is a revolutionary interpretation of US v. Nixon. But the mystery dispute pertains to Kelly’s testimony — or some other move on the part of the White House to dictate what Mueller can and cannot do — then the language is notable, particularly given that two of the judges in yesterday’s hearing, Judith Rogers and Sri Srinivasan, have been the judges working on the mystery appeal.

Notably, along with submitting their brief in that appeal yesterday, Mueller’s team submitted a sealed appendix.

This sealed supplemental appendix may pertain to something Mueller just got, which would suggest that appeal may have everything to do with why Sessions was fired right away.

We’ll learn more when Mueller submits his brief on November 19 (though by then this will likely be ancient history).

But it sure seems like Dreeben was making the first argument about limits to how much Whitaker can tamper in the Mueller investigation.

 

John Kelly’s Legally Fraught Role in the Sessions Ouster

Much attention is now being focused on the suitability of Matt Whitaker to server as Acting AG without having been Senate approved. I think there’s one more issue with it that I’ll return to.

But there’s another legally problematic part of the process of forcing Jeff Sessions to resign and appointing Whitaker as his replacement: John Kelly’s role in it.

That’s because Mueller asked John Kelly for an interview sometime around June. It was one of the first things the legally competent Emmet Flood did to assert a newly combative stance on the part of the White House.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers are quietly more combative, too, contesting a request from the special counsel to interview John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff. Emmet T. Flood, the lead White House lawyer in dealing with the investigation, has demanded to know what investigators want to ask Mr. Kelly and has tried to narrow the scope of their questions. A month after the request was made, Mr. Kelly has not been questioned, though a White House official said he was willing to be.

Significantly, this was not an Executive Privilege claim, but rather a demand that Mueller tell Flood what questions he would ask Kelly. It’s entirely unclear what basis Flood invoked legally: the bullshit Executive Privilege without claiming it claims Trump has relied on thus far, an argument that he needed to know if the President would invoke Executive Privilege in response to a range of questions, or a stance that the White House can have some kind of visibility into the workings of the grand jury investigating the President.

As I have said, I think John Kelly is a likely candidate to be the Mystery Appellant, challenging some kind of Mueller demand in the DC Circuit (significantly, before some of the same judges who yesterday heard Andrew Miller’s subpoena challenge).

One way or another, Kelly is among the people about whom there is the most active dispute legal between the Special Counsel and the White House, a fight picked by the legally competent Emmet Flood.

And Kelly was the person who forced Jeff Sessions to resign on Wednesday. As far as is public (and there’s surely a great deal that we have yet to learn about who was in the decision to force Sessions to resign and when that happened and who dictated the form it would take).

But Kelly had the key role of conveying the President’s intent, in whatever form that intent was documented, to Sessions. If Trump’s past firings are any precedent, Kelly had a very big role in deciding how it would happen.

So the guy whose testimony Mueller may be most actively pursuing (indeed, one who might even be in a legal dispute with), effectuated a plan to undercut Mueller’s plans going forward.

That seems to create a whole slew of other potential legal problems no one has yet considered.

Trump Won’t Hand in His Open Book Test Until He Checks His Answers with Matt Whitaker and Putin

Rudy is working the press today (CNN, Politico), describing how the President’s advisors are trying to decide whether to hand in the open book test Mueller gave him back in October. He says he’s pretty sure that his client will get a 90% grade on his open book test.

“The questions they gave us, if they don’t know the answer to 90 percent of them now, I’d be shocked,” Giuliani said. “I guess the only thing I can do is, if they get his answers — if that’s what happens — is they’re going to check it against what they thought his answers were going to be, and I think it’s going to come out almost 100 percent.”

But his client is not going to turn in his open book test until he returns from Paris and thinks about it for a day.

A meeting with Trump to make a final decision on the first round of questions is expected soon after the president returns Sunday night from his trip to Paris for the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, Guiliani said.

“We’re close,” Giuliani said. “I think the only thing that throws us off a little, which we explained to [Mueller], is that the president’s going to be away for about three, four days.”

“So, before we make a final decision — which I’m not sure I could tell you what that is, although I think we have an idea right now — but before we can make it, we really want the president to have a day home where he can just think about it, make sure he’s comfortable with it and then we’ll tell [Mueller] what the decision is,” the president’s lawyer added.

Of course, by the time this happens, Matt Whitaker will presumably have been briefed on the investigation — a briefing the contents of which he can share with Trump. And, depending on whether you think the Kremlin or the White House is a better source on these things, Trump will also have met with Vladimir Putin for lunch on Sunday.

As a reminder: The Watergate special prosecutor did not have to, and did not, wait for Nixon’s answers before he dropped the big conspiracy indictment. I’m not sure Mueller will, either. Indeed, I think it at least possible that this year long process of negotiating with Rudy and others about Trump questions has been a ploy to buy time, working Rudy’s mistaken assumption that Mueller thinks he needs Trump’s answers.

So all Rudy’s spinning about this open book test may actually be hurting his client.