Rethinking Presidential Obstruction of Justice

One of the greatest powers that can be granted to a national chief executive is jurisdiction over law enforcement. From the French President’s authority over the Ministry of Justice to the American President’s authority over the Department of Justice (DOJ), a number of states entrust their chief executive with significant control over the nation’s top law enforcement bodies. While these oversight powers are often exercised to achieve legitimate aims, problems arise when an executive uses his authority to shield himself or his associates from legal accountability. Such misuse of the chief executive’s authority over law enforcement is itself corrupt—an abuse of the president or prime minister’s public power to protect his private interests—and can foster the culture of impunity that allows other forms of corruption to thrive. But policing this sort of improper interference is challenging.

One possible limit on corrupt presidential interference with law enforcement is the fact that such interference may itself be a crime. In the United States, for example, it is a felony—known as “obstruction of justice”—for a government official to “corruptly” use the power of his or her office to “obstruct” a “pending or contemplated official proceeding” (such as a trial or investigation). But as Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into former President Donald Trump made clear, the current version of the obstruction of justice statute may be inadequate to check this form of presidential corruption.

For starters, it’s not clear whether the obstruction of justice statute, as currently written, even applies to a sitting president. (Scholars have disagreed on this point, with some arguing that the current statute does not apply to the president—see here and here—and others arguing to the contrary that it does.) That problem, though, has an easy fix: As Bob Bauer and Jack Goldsmith’s recent book has argued, Congress can and should amend the statute to state explicitly that a sitting president can commit obstruction of justice. Another difficulty is that, as Robert Mueller’s report stressed, under current DOJ policy, a sitting president cannot be criminally indicted. This too could be changed. The deeper and harder problem is that because in the U.S. system the president may legitimately seek to influence the conduct of criminal investigations, and because the president’s motives may be ambiguous or mixed, it is very hard, perhaps impossible, to prove that the president’s actions with respect to a pending or contemplated official proceedings were “corrupt.” Take President Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey. The Mueller Report concludes that President Trump fired Director Comey to save his presidency (which seems like a corrupt motive). Yet some claim that President Trump also had other, more legitimate reasons for firing Director Comey, including concerns about partisan bias in Comey’s investigations. And even if one contests that claim in this particular case, it’s not hard to imagine a situation in which a President moved to impede an investigation that both threatened the president’s personal interests and that the President thought was unwise or improper.

How should the law treat such cases, if the goal is to ensure that a U.S. President is not above the law, while simultaneously giving the President appropriate latitude oversee federal law enforcement?

How Transparent Should Prosecutors Be About Investigations Into High-Level Corruption?

Today’s post is going to be one of those ones where I raise a question that I’ve been puzzling over, without having much to offer in the way of good answers.

Here’s the question: How open and transparent with the public should the officials investigating serious allegations of high-level corruption be about the progress of their investigations?

To be sure, no competent investigator or prosecutor would or should be completely transparent, as doing so might well tip off the targets of the investigation to what the investigators know, their investigative and legal strategies, and so forth. But even with that constraint, there’s a fairly broad range of options. Investigators could be absolutely tight-lipped about everything. Or they could hold regular press conferences covering significant developments in the case (and perhaps even going further to comment on the larger issues that the investigation implicates). Or something in between.

I was prompted to think more about this question in part by an exchange I had with Jose Ugaz at last month’s Harvard conference on Populist Plutocrats. I was asking Mr. Ugaz about his experience serving as Peru’s Ad Hoc State Attorney investigating and prosecuting high-level corruption in the Fujimori regime, and in particular how he dealt with concerns that his investigation might be perceived as politicized. Those who are interested can watch the video of our exchange (which starts around 7:15:55), but the key part of Mr. Ugaz’s response (slightly edited for clarity) ran as follows: Continue reading

Jared Kushner May Have Violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act

Recent media reports – which would be even more sensational if we weren’t getting so desensitized to Trump-related scandals – indicate that prior to Trump’s inauguration, his son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner had private meetings with Russian government officials, including both Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Sergey Gorkov, the head of a Russian state-owned bank (and a close associate of Vladamir Putin). We still don’t know (and may never know) the precise contents of the meeting, but based on circumstantial evidence, several of the media reports discuss speculations Kushner and his Russian government contacts discussed the possibility of extending financing to business ventures owned by Kushner or his family (including, most notably, a financially struggling office building at 666 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan), if Kushner would help to persuade his father-in-law, the President-Elect of the United States, to lift the sanctions that the U.S. had imposed on Russia for its military intervention in Ukraine.

Again, we don’t yet know whether this is true. But let’s suppose for a moment that some version of that story is approximately correct: that during conversations with Russian government officials, Jared Kushner proposed or endorsed the idea that he would try to persuade his father-in-law to lift the Russia sanctions, and that Kushner did so because he believed (or was told) that if he did, a Russian state-owned development bank would provide valuable financing for his family’s business.

If that’s what occurred, then even nothing further came of these discussions, then there’s a very good argument that Jared Kushner committed a criminal violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). Though there’s been quite a bit of discussion in the reports so far about various federal laws that Kushner may or may not have been broken in connection with these meetings (such as the little-used Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from interfering with U.S. diplomacy). But I haven’t seem much discussion of the FCPA angle. So even though it might still seem unrealistic to imagine that FCPA charges will be brought, let me elaborate a bit on why I think there’s a plausible case for an FCPA violation here, if the evidence supports the characterization of the meetings sketched above: Continue reading