The Independence of U.S. Law Enforcement is Under Attack. Here’s What Congress Can Do About It.

The politicization of the institutions of justice, particularly those associated with criminal law enforcement, is one of the greatest threats to the rule of law and the integrity of government. Corrupt leaders in democracies and autocracies alike seek to undermine any check on their power, thus ensuring impunity for themselves and their allies, and may also try to weaponize criminal investigations to harass and discredit political opponents. For many years, most Americans viewed this sort of threat to the integrity of the institutions of justice as something that only happened abroad, or in the distant past. Not so anymore. Under the Trump Administration, the corruption and politicization of law enforcement institutions is a significant threat to American democracy.

That President Trump lacks respect for the independence and integrity of law enforcement has been evident for some time, at least since Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. (Trump dismissed Comey in part to the FBI’s investigation into potential collusion between Trump’s campaign associates and Russia during the 2016 election, and in part because Comey wouldn’t pledge his personal loyalty to the president.) In the last month, the situation appears to be getting even worse. As has been widely reported in the media, President Trump publicly criticized the Department of Justice (DOJ) for seeking a high sentence in the case of Trump associate Roger Stone; Attorney General Bill Barr claimed that President Trump didn’t issue any specific instructions regarding the case (and complained about the President’s tweeting), but Barr nonetheless recommended a much lower sentence that the DOJ’s own prosecutors had originally requested. Barr recently made the highly unusual decision to install an outside prosecutor to oversee the case against President Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. In another troubling move that didn’t get as much press attention, in early February Barr issued a memo saying that any FBI investigations into 2020 candidates or their campaigns would require the Attorney General’s approval.

Trump has asserted that he had the legal right, as President, to intervene in criminal cases. This is a contested claim, to say the least. Some argue that, under the U.S. Constitution, the President has ultimate control not only over general DOJ policy, but over decision-making in individual criminal prosecutions. However, others assert that this is not so, and that the Constitution actually imposes certain limits the President’s control over individual prosecutions—most importantly, that the President cannot seek to affect a criminal case out of corrupt or self-interested motivations.

Putting the legal debate to one side for now, and assuming that Congress—if not now, then at some point in the future—would like to establish new safeguards to insulate the DOJ and FBI from the corrupting influence of an unscrupulous president, what might Congress do? I suggest three steps that Congress might take:

Continue reading

Senator Warren’s Plan to Establish an Independent Task Force to Investigate Trump is a Bad, Bad Idea

Last month, Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren made a bold anticorruption commitment. She said that, if elected, she would direct the US Department of Justice to establish a special taskforce to investigate the Trump administration for violations of US anticorruption laws—including federal bribery laws, insider trading laws, and public integrity laws. She has has called on every other Democratic presidential candidate to do make the same commitment. Given the egregious corruption of the Trump administration, Senator Warren argues, a special taskforce of this kind is necessary if we are to “move forward to restore public confidence in government and deter future wrongdoing[.]”

Senator Warren—perhaps more than any other Democratic candidate—has put the fight against corruption (both narrowly and broadly defined) at the center of her campaign, and she has generated a range of proposals to combat corruption and strengthen the integrity of US political institutions. She has many good ideas. But this is not one of them. Regardless of whether members of the Trump Administration—including the President, his family members, and members of his cabinet—have engaged in illegal corrupt acts, forming a special DOJ taskforce along the lines proposed by Senator Warren would be a bad idea—bad for the Democratic party, bad for the DOJ, and, most importantly, bad for the United States.

Continue reading

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–February 2020 Update

As regular readers of this blog are aware, since May 2017 we’ve been tracking and cataloguing credible allegations that President Trump, and his family members and close associates, have been corruptly, and possibly illegally, leveraging the power of the presidency to enrich themselves. The newest update is now available here.

A previously noted, while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. (For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.)

How Much Should We Worry That Trump’s Top Economist Is “Looking Into” Weakening the FCPA?

As regular GAB readers have likely figured out, I’m not terribly good at providing timely “hot take” reactions to news items—I’m too slow and get too distracted with other things, and by the time I weigh in on some recent development that caught my eye, I’m usually a couple of news cycles behind. So it will be with this post. But I did want to say a bit about the mini-controversy over comments a couple weeks back from Larry Kudlow, the Director of the White House National Economic Council, about the Trump Administration’s views on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). For those who might have missed the reports, here’s the basic gist:

A forthcoming book about the Trump Administration includes the story (which had already been reported multiple times) that back in 2017, President Trump had vigorously complained to then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the FCPA put U.S. companies at an unfair disadvantage and ought to be scrapped or drastically altered. (Tillerson, to his credit, pushed back, and no action was ultimately taken.) Several pre-release commentaries on the book focused on this anecdote (see here and here), and a couple weeks back a reporter asked Kudlow about it. Kudlow responded, “We are looking at [the FCPA], and we have heard some complaints from our companies…. I don’t want to say anything definitive policy-wise, but we are looking at it.” When pressed for details, Kudlow said, “I don’t want to say anything definitive policy-wise…. Let me wait until we get a better package [of reforms].”

Kudlow’s comments triggered a great deal of critical reaction, including statements supporting the FCPA from civil society organizations like Transparency International and the Coalition for Integrity. These statements were forceful but measured, mainly emphasizing the benefits of the FCPA. Some other media reactions were more impassioned, playing up the narrative that the Trump Administration was planning to push for the legalization of (foreign) bribery (see here and here). That latter strain in the commentary, in turn, provoked pushback from other analysts, who saw Kudlow’s remarks (and perhaps also the President’s own statements and actions in this area) as no big deal (see here and here).

My own take is somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, we shouldn’t exaggerate the significance of Kudlow’s remarks. But neither should we dismiss them as meaningless or harmless. Continue reading

Dershowitz is Wrong: What Trump Did Was a Crime

Desperate to acquit Donald Trump of impeachment charges, Senate Republicans have seized on Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz’ two part defense. That conviction requires Trump to have committed a crime and that it was no crime for Trump to condition aid to Ukraine and a meeting with its president on Ukraine investigating Trump political rival Joseph Biden.  There is but one flaw in Dershowitz’ argument.  It is flat wrong.  Section 201 of title 18 of the United States Code makes it a crime for a public official to solicit a bribe.  And that is exactly what Trump did. Continue reading

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–January 2020 Update

As many regular readers of this blog are aware, since May 2017 we’ve been tracking and cataloguing credible allegations that President Trump, and his family members and close associates, have been corruptly, and possibly illegally, leveraging the power of the presidency to enrich themselves. The newest update is now available here.

A previously noted, while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. (For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.)

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–December 2019 Update

Earlier this week the U.S. House of Representatives filed articles of impeachment against Donald Trump. Understandably, those articles focused narrowly on the Ukraine scandal (specifically, that President Trump abused his power by improperly pressuring the Ukrainian government to open investigations, and obstructed Congress’s investigation into this wrongdoing), rather than also including other charges, such as that President Trump has improperly, and possibly illegally, leveraged the power of the presidency to enrich himself. Yet these concerns remain important, even if they will not feature prominently in the impeachment debate. So at GAB, we’re continuing the project we started over two years ago, to track and catalogue credible allegations of this sort of profiteering by President Trump and his family and cronies. Unfortunately, each month brings a new incidents, or new information about old incidents, and so we try to do regular updates of this catalogue, and the newest update is now available here.

A previously noted, while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. (For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.)

In Pressuring Ukraine To Open Criminal Investigations, Trump’s Associates May Have Committed Many Crimes. But Violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act Probably Wasn’t One of Them.

Right now, the biggest corruption story in the U.S., and probably the world, concerns efforts by President Trump and his associates, both inside and outside the U.S. government, threaten to withhold U.S. military aid from Ukraine in order to pressure the Ukrainian government into opening investigations that would help Trump politically. It’s clear at this point, except perhaps to the most rabid partisans, that there was indeed a “quid pro quo,” and the discussion has now turned to the question whether, with respect to President Trump specifically, he should be impeached for his conduct related to this episode (the issue that Rick focused on in yesterday’s post), and, with respect to whether Trump, his private lawyer Rudy Giuliani, or anyone else committed any crimes.

On that second question, commentators have suggested a whole range of criminal laws that some or all of the parties involved might have broken, including:

  • The section of the campaign finance laws that prohibits the “solicit[ation” from a foreign national of a “contribution or donation” to an election campaign of any “thing of value”;
  • The federal anti-bribery statute’s prohibition on any federal public official “directly or indirectly, corruptly demand[ing or] seek[ing] … anything of value personally or for any other person or entity, in return for being influenced in the performance of any official act”;
  • The anti-extortion provision of the Hobbs Act, which prohibits “the obtaining of property for another … under color of official right” (as well as the attempt or conspiracy to do so);
  • The wire fraud statute, which prohibits the devising of any “scheme or artifice to defraud” that involves use of any interstate (or international) wire communication (such as a phone call), where the term “scheme or artifice to defraud” is specifically defined elsewhere in the statute as including a scheme “to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.” (This may seem a bit opaque to readers unfamiliar with this corner of U.S. law, but in a nutshell, so-called “honest services fraud” is a theory that when a public official, or some other person in a position of trust, engages in a corrupt scheme to, say, solicit bribes, that individual defrauds her principals by depriving them of her honest services. For an explanation of how this could apply to Trump in the Ukraine case, see here.)
  • In the case of Mr. Giuliani and other parties who do not work for the U.S. government, the Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from corresponding with any foreign government or foreign government official “with the intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government …. in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States.”
  • Various provisions of Ukrainian law.

In addition to all of these possibilities, which strike me as at least facially plausible given the evidence that has come to light so far, some commentators have suggested that President Trump’s associates, such as Mr. Giuliani, may have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) (see here and here). This argument hasn’t gotten much traction, in my view for good reason. Even for someone like me, who generally has a more expansive view of the FCPA than do some other commentators, it’s hard to see how the evidence we have so far would suggest a plausible FCPA violation. There are two main reasons for this: Continue reading

Can A “Fudgy” Adverb Save Trump From Impeachment?

For weeks President Trump’s defenders have claimed he did not demand Ukraine investigate the Bidens in return for approving the delivery of weapons to Ukraine. In legal terms, the argument was that there was no exchange of one for the other, no quid pro quo, the cornerstone of the crime of bribery.  That defense has now collapsed (here and here). The evidence that Trump sought a “quo,” a personal favor in the form of an investigation of the Bidens, in return for a “quid,” weapons, is overwhelming (here).  His defenders have thus now fallen back to a secondary defensive line: there was a quid pro quo but it was merely an “inappropriate” one. It was not, defenders insist, an impeachable quid pro quo.

Whether this new defense will carry the day remains to be seen.  No American president has ever faced impeachment for soliciting a bribe.  There is thus no standard jurors in a Trump impeachment trial, the 100 members of the United States Senate, can consult in deciding whether Trump’s attempt to use the power of the presidency to obtain a personal benefit is impeachable. But as Senators construct a standard, they might consider the one a 12-person jury of lay people in a criminal trial must use when a public servant is accused of soliciting a bribe. Continue reading

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–November 2019 Update

While ongoing developments in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s attempt to pressure Ukraine to open investigations that might damage Trump’s political rivals continue to dominate the headlines, there are plenty of other reasons to be concerned about other serious ethical problems (some might say “corruption”) in the Trump Administration, including a slew of credible allegations that the President, his family members, and close associates have been using the presidency to advance their personal financial interests. Back in May 2017, GAB began tracking and cataloguing credible allegations of this sort of profiteering by President Trump and his family and cronies. Unfortunately, each month brings a new incidents, or new information about old incidents, and so we try to do regular updates of this catalogue, and the newest update is now available here.

A previously noted, while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. (For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.)