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Trump Risks that Every Action Matt Whitaker Takes as Attorney General Can Be Legally Challenged

George Conway (Kellyanne’s spouse, whom Trump considered to be Solicitor General) continues his habit of criticizing Trump from a conservative legal stance. This time, he joins Neal Katyal, author of the Special Counsel regulations under which Mueller operates, to argue that Trump’s appointment of Matt Whitaker is unconstitutional because Trump can’t name someone who hasn’t been Senate confirmed when a Senate confirmed candidate is available. The whole op-ed — which relies on a recent Clarence Thomas concurrence — is worth reading, but my favorite line is where they call Whitaker a constitutional nobody.

We cannot tolerate such an evasion of the Constitution’s very explicit, textually precise design. Senate confirmation exists for a simple, and good, reason. Constitutionally, Matthew Whitaker is a nobody. His job as Mr. Sessions’s chief of staff did not require Senate confirmation. (Yes, he was confirmed as a federal prosecutor in Iowa, in 2004, but President Trump can’t cut and paste that old, lapsed confirmation to today.) For the president to install Mr. Whitaker as our chief law enforcement officer is to betray the entire structure of our charter document.

I’m just as interested in what three rising Democratic House Chairs (House Judiciary Committee’s Jerrold Nadler, HPSCI’s Adam Schiff, and Oversight and Government Reform’s Elijah Commings) did, along with Dianne Feinstein. In the wake of Jeff Sessions’ resignation, they sent letters to every relevant department warning them to preserve all records on the Mueller investigation and Sessions’ departure. In their press release, they referred to Sessions departure not as a resignation, but as a firing.

Last night, House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Adam Schiff (D-CA), Oversight and Government Reform Committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-MD), and Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein sent letters to top Administration officials demanding the preservation of all documents and materials relevant to the work of the Office of the Special Counsel or the firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

In their letters, the Members wrote:  “Committees of the United States Congress are conducting investigations parallel to those of the Special Counsel’s office, and preservation of records is critical to ensure that we are able to do our work without interference or delay. Committees will also be investigating Attorney General Sessions’ departure. We therefore ask that you immediately provide us with all orders, notices, and guidance regarding preservation of information related to these matters and investigations.”

Letters were sent to the White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, FBI Director Chris Wray, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, CIA Director Gina Haspel, Deputy U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Robert Khuzami, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, NSA Director Paul Nakasone, IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig, and Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker. [my emphasis]

Even the letters themselves, while they don’t use the word “firing,” emphasize the involuntary nature of Sessions’ ouster.

Our understanding is that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been removed at the request of the President. We ask that you confirm that the Justice Department has preserved all materials of related to any investigations by the Special Counsel’s office, including any related investigations conducted by any component of the Justice Department. We also ask that you preserve all the materials related to the departure of Attorney General Sessions.

While it’s not clear whether they more basis to believe this was a firing rather than a resignation, they’re proceeding as if it was, legally, a firing. That’s crucial because the only way that Whitaker’s appointment, as someone who is not Senate confirmed, would be legal under the Vacancies Reform Act is if Sessions legally resigned. The Democrats seem to suspect they can argue he did not.

And that’s important because (as Katyal and Conway argue) if his appointment is not legal, than nothing he does as Attorney General is valid.

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.

Plus, by demanding preservation of the records and framing this in terms that suggest Whitaker’s appointment was not legal (I’m not sure I agree, but encourage HJC to ask Katyal and Conway to argue the case for them), HJC lays out a basis to claim standing to challenge this, particularly if and when Whitaker makes a decision (such as preventing HJC from obtaining any report Mueller writes) that will cause them injury as an independent branch of government.

Again, I’m not sure I agree with the Katyal/Conway legal argument, though if HJC can prove that Sessions was fired then it’s clear Whitaker was not legally appointed. But these two challenges pose a real risk for Trump. It risks not just decisions pertaining to the Mueller investigation, but even things like surveillance approvals, can be challenged by anyone harmed by them (who gets notice of it). That’s an unbelievable risk for a position as important as Attorney General.

Back when a guy named Robert Mueller had his FBI tenure extended two years in 2011, Tom Coburn worried that even that action, done with Senate approval, would make the approvals Mueller made under Section 215 (this was before we knew the scope of the phone dragnet) legally suspect.

Could you envision colorable challenge to use of 215 authority during your 2 year extension of power?

While I have no problem with you staying on for two more years, I do have concerns we could get mired in court battles [over 215] that would make you ineffective in your job.

Coburn was worried about one (or a few) surveillance programs. The Attorney General touches far more than the FBI Director, and Trump’s DOJ could spend just as much time in court trying to defend the actions of his hatchetman.

And it looks like both the author of the statute governing Mueller’s appointment and the people who will oversee DOJ in a few months have real questions about the legality of Whitaker’s appointment.

Matt Whitaker Has Authority to Share Proceedings of National Security Grand Jury Investigations with Trump

Just over a year ago, I worried that if and when Brian Benczkowski was confirmed as DOJ Criminal Division chief, it would probably provide Trump with a mole in the Mueller investigation. It took Benczkowski a long time, but after he was confirmed on July 11 of this year, he may have gotten visibility into parts of the Mueller investigation that relied on Criminal Division resources.

Whether or not Benczkowski shared anything he may have learned with Trump, we can be fairly certain that Matt Whitaker, whom Trump has just made Acting Attorney General, could share the information. Authority to do so stems from an OLC memo Jay Bybee wrote back in 2002.

Benczkowski could share information about wiretaps and proceedings from the grand jury directly with the president.

The cause for concern comes from an old Department of Justice interpretation of the PATRIOT Act. Along with expanding surveillance authorities, the PATRIOT Act permitted any government lawyer to share national security-related grand jury or wiretap information with any government official as long as it would help them perform their job better. The measure was passed in response to the September 11 attacks, with an eye to sharing counterterrorism information more broadly. But the authorization of such sharing explicitly extended to “clandestine intelligence activities by an intelligence service or network of a foreign power or by an agent of foreign power”—precisely the kind of nation-state spying at the heart of the Russian investigation.

July 22, 2002, memo from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, written by Jay Bybee, the author of the infamous torture memos, held that, under the statute, the president could get grand jury information without the usual notice to the district court.

[snip]

Bybee’s memo relies on and reaffirms several earlier memos. It specifically approves two rationales for sharing grand jury information with the president that would be applicable to the Russian investigation. A 1997 memo imagined that the president might get grand jury information “in a case where the integrity or loyalty of a presidential appointee holding an important and sensitive post was implicated by the grand jury investigation.” And a 2000 memo imagined that the president might need to “obtain grand jury information relevant to the exercise of his pardon authority.”

The memo envisioned such authority to be delegable, but ultimately puts the AG in charge of deciding what information the President gets.

The 2002 memo generally supports the notion that the attorney general should decide whether the president needs to see a particular piece of information.

And it doesn’t require any paper trail for the sharing of such information.

And the memo cites an old opinion from the Iran-Contra scandal to argue that the president doesn’t have to memorialize any such delegations in writing. “Such a directive may be set forth in a formal executive order, in a less formal presidential memorandum, … or pursuant to an oral instruction from the President to the Attorney General or other appropriate officials.” So Trump could order someone to share information without leaving a paper trail.

Given that the entire purpose of this move seems to be about tampering with the Mueller inquiry, we should assume Whitaker will do as imagined, and let the President know what Mueller has been up to.

Has This Been the Plan Since August 2017?

Maggie Haberman just observed that Jeff Sessions’ resignation letter is not dated. (Update: NYCSouthpaw actually noted that before Maggie did.) While some of the details in it — such as his claim to have “prosecuted the largest number of violent offenders and firearm defendants in our nation’s history” — seem to reflect the full 22 months of his tenure, nothing in it clearly marks it as having been written today. So I think that is what probably happened.

But there’s a scenario that makes me wonder whether this isn’t what Trump has been planning since July 2017, the last time Trump got really furious with Jeff Sessions.

Consider this timeline:

July 19, 2017: Maggie and Mike tee up a question (obviously working from the White House script) about how investigating Trump’s finances would represent crossing a red line.

On July 25 and 26, 2017, Trump took to Twitter to bitch about Sessions.

July 26, 2017: In a CNN interview, Whitaker describes how you could defund the Special Counsel and thereby end his work.

I could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced, it would recess appointment and that attorney general doesn’t fire Bob Mueller but he just reduces his budget to so low that his investigations grinds to almost a halt.

On July 27, 2017, Whitaker said it would be a mistake to provide Mueller any further protection.

August 4, 2017: Whitaker recommends an article that describes, “with a little planning he could install a true believer to a political position at DOJ—as a sleeper agent—and then (after easing out Sessions) elevate him or her to attorney general.”

August 6, 2017: Whitaker uses the Red Line comment Maggie and Mike teed up to describe Mueller pursuing Trump’s finances as improper.

On August 25, 2017, Whitaker suggested searching Manafort’s condo with a dozen agents was designed to intimidate him.

On September 22, 2017, Whitaker was hired to be Sessions’ Chief of Staff.

In other words, Trump may have been pursuing this plan since July 2017.

If so, then Mueller may have already anticipated that, because he asked four questions about that episode in March, as well as questions about what he did in response to Sessions’ earlier recusal.

  • What did you think and do regarding the recusal of Mr. Sessions?
  • What efforts did you make to try to get him to change his mind?
  • Did you discuss whether Mr. Sessions would protect you, and reference past attorneys general?
  • What did you think and what did you do in reaction to the news of the appointment of the special counsel?
  • Why did you hold Mr. Sessions’s resignation until May 31, 2017, and with whom did you discuss it?
  • What discussions did you have with Reince Priebus in July 2017 about obtaining the Sessions resignation? With whom did you discuss it?
  • What discussions did you have regarding terminating the special counsel, and what did you do when that consideration was reported in January 2018?
  • What was the purpose of your July 2017 criticism of Mr. Sessions?

Whatever it was, Trump obtained Sessions’ resignation before today’s press conference, so it’s possible Whitaker already tried to move against Mueller today, relying on the ground work he laid over a year ago.

The one thing that would suggest otherwise is the plea deal Manafort entered. I’ve argued that it is pardon proof, partly because it would include state charges and partly because Manafort would lose all his ill-gotten gains if Trump didn’t pardon him first. For reasons I won’t write up yet, I’m not sure that’s entirely true (though Manafort has provided a lot of information in the last several months).

That’d be way better planning than Trump has pulled off on any other thing. But then, protecting himself is the thing he’s best at.

Update: I’ve added a few things to this timeline.

Update: According to John Q Barrett, who spent some time in the CNN Green Room last year, his entire point for going on CNN was to curry favor with Trump.

Whitaker told me in June 2017 that he was flying out from Iowa to NYC to be on CNN regularly because he was hoping to be noticed as a Trump defender, and through that to get a Trump judicial appointment back in Iowa.

And this (very detailed) WaPo piece describes Trump as telling aides he would not recuse, which raises questions about whether Whitaker told him so directly.

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

Matt Whitaker Can’t Prevent Mueller from Unsealing Any Sealed Indictments

After spending a 1.5 hour press conference denying he “colluded” with Russia, Trump just proved he did by forcing Jeff Sessions to resign. He announced Sessions’ Chief of Staff, Matt Whitaker, will be the Acting Attorney General. DOJ has already announced Whitaker will take over oversight of the Mueller investigation. Before he was even hired as CoS, Whitaker pointed to the Red Line Trump’s stenographers at the NYT teed up for him, suggested Mueller had crossed it, and that that represented going too far.

He has also laid out how to kill the Mueller investigation — by defunding it.

I could see a scenario where Jeff Sessions is replaced, it would recess appointment and that attorney general doesn’t fire Bob Mueller but he just reduces his budget to so low that his investigations grinds to almost a halt.

It’s all going as I predicted it might in this TNR piece last week.

All that said, Mueller was surely expecting just such an eventuality. And the fact that they got Roger Stone attorney Tyler Nixon to testify Friday suggests they were prepping for it, getting the last bit of evidence against Stone in place.

The only question is whether they got the grand jury to approve whatever indictments they were working on. I’d be surprised if Mueller didn’t (unless Rod Rosenstein prevented him from doing so).

If that’s the case, then Whitaker is not going to help Trump get out of his legal troubles. That’s because Chief Judge Beryl Howell, not Whitaker, will make the decision about unsealing anything sealed in this grand jury investigation.

So if Mueller prepared for this very predictable eventuality, then Trump may have just fired a key player in his racist agenda for naught.