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What OLC Says Happened with Matt Whitaker’s Appointment

DOJ has released the memo they say justifies the appointment of Matt Whitaker to be their boss. I’ll have some things to say about the legal arguments later (and smarter people who have JDs will surely weigh in as well).

I’d like to look at four things the OLC memo says about what happened with the Whitaker appointment, because they’re at least as important as the legal argument.

Never in the history of DOJ has someone attempted this stunt

Much of the memo reviews the history of appointments, purporting to find analogous appointments to this one. But it only cites one example where someone who wasn’t Senate confirmed served as Acting Attorney General.

While designations to the office of Attorney General were less frequent, we have identified at least one period in 1866 when a non-Senate-confirmed Assistant Attorney General served as Acting Attorney General.

The Department of Justice didn’t exist in 1866. It was only authorized — significantly, for the purpose of giving the Attorney General supervision over the US Attorneys — in 1870.

In 1861, Congress finally agreed that the Attorney General should have supervisory powers over the work of the United States Attorneys, although at first this role was shared with the Solicitor of the Treasury.

While there had been earlier calls for the creation of a separate legal department that would supervise the work of federal lawyers, it was not until after the end of the Civil War that Congress began to give serious consideration to the matter. In late 1867, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary asked Attorney General Henry Stanbery to respond to several questions concerning the efficiency of the government’s legal departments. Stanbery replied that a solicitor general was needed to argue the government’s cases before the Supreme Court, and that the centralization of the government’s legal business under one department would improve the quality of the work. In 1868, after the House Judiciary Committee asked Stanbery to respond to a similar inquiry, Representative Thomas Jenckes of Rhode Island introduced a bill to establish a department of justice. This bill was referred to the Joint Select Committee on Retrenchment, a committee impaneled to consider legislation to reduce the size and cost of government. In addition, the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Representative William Lawrence of Ohio, introduced a similar bill which was referred to that committee.

As I’ll return to when I get to the legal issues, the distinction between this appointment, which gives Whitaker supervisory authority over SDNY and Mueller, and that one, may be very important.

But for now, suffice it to say that even OLC admits that this has almost never happened before.

The White House asked for this opinion

I’ve been harping on this line of the CNN report describing Jeff Sessions and those who would like to protect the Mueller investigation a lot.

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.

Steven Engel, the guy who signed this memo, was in that room, along with Sessions, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Solicitor General Noel Francisco, and Rosenstein’s deputy Ed O’Callaghan. The story suggests that Engel hadn’t considered the question yet, and I’ve been wondering since that report whether one of those men asked for the memo.

They didn’t — at least not according to this memo.

This Office had previously advised that the President could designate a senior Department of Justice official, such as Mr. Whitaker, as Acting Attorney General, and this memorandum explains the basis for that conclusion.

It is addressed to the “Counsel to the President,” which strongly implies that person asked for the memo. It doesn’t say, however, when the Counsel to the President asked for this memorandum.

Emmet Flood is the Counsel to the President who asked for this opinion

More specifically, the memo is addressed to Emmet T. Flood Counsel to the President.

Emmet Flood has two roles in the White House now. Until Pat Cipollone is installed as White House Counsel, Flood is Acting White House Counsel (or, as addressed here, Counsel to the President, which is how OLC addresses the White House Counsel).

But he’s also the lawyer in the White House Counsel’s office in charge of defending the President in investigations by (among others) Robert Mueller.

Legally, that’s interesting but (because the President can appoint whoever the fuck he wants as White House Counsel) not all that important. But it does answer the question I keep asking — given what a clusterfuck this appointment is, was Emmet Flood, who is eminently competent, involved? Yes — at least by the time the White House realized they needed some legal cover for it.

So maybe Flood really was hoping to create a legal morass.

Jeff Sessions resigned, probably

Finally, the memo answers a question that the House Judiciary Committee has already raised some doubt about: whether Sessions resigned, or was fired. The memo explains,

Attorney General Sessions submitted his resignation “[a]t [the President’s] request,” Letter for President Donald J. Trump, from Jefferson B. Sessions III, Attorney General, but that does not alter the fact that the Attorney General “resign[ed]” within the meaning of section 3345(a).

But it doesn’t seem so sure (or at least recognizes that someone, and probably not just HJC, will challenge this legally). It continues:

Even if the Attorney General had declined to resign and was removed by the President, he still would have been rendered “otherwise unable to perform the functions and duties of the office” for purposes of section 3345(a).

As I’ll return to in the legal analysis, the remainder of the footnote, which claims the Vacancies Reform Act still would have permitted the appointment of Whitaker, is one of the most problematic parts of the memo.

Which is why it is notable that the memo dodges most analysis of whether a forced resignation really is legally a resignation.

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!