When “Awfully Close” Is Just Awful: Nadler Raises Invalid Bribery Theory In Call For Barr Investigation

440px-U.S._Rep_Jerry_Nadler_(cropped)250px-Ford_PintoFifty years ago, Ford Motor Company started production on the Pinto, a car that was billed as the be-all, end-all for the automotive industry. The only problem was that the car seemed to burst into flames if it hit a mid- to large-sized squirrel. The Pinto’s combustibility did not stop its advocates from pushing its use until it finally was pulled from the roads.
     The Pinto came to mind this week with the reappearance of a poorly conceived product from the legal world: the Trump bribery theory. Various legal experts have insisted President Trump could be prosecuted or impeached under bribery laws, including for his dealings with Ukraine. I have written repeatedly that this theory was discredited by controlling case law, and I testified against its use as an article in the House impeachment hearing last year.  As Ralph Nader once said about the Chevrolet Corvair, this theory is “unsafe at any speed” on Capitol Hill. The decision to pull out this discredited theory of bribery is just the latest example of choosing combustibility over credibility in legal analysis.  The difference is that when unstable automotive products are exposed, they are taken off the road.  Unstable legal products just keep rolling along.
      Despite the support of the three other witnesses at the hearing, the House Judiciary Committee wisely declined to impeach on this facially invalid theory. Some of us thought that the bribery theory was discarded to the junkyard of bad ideas. Yet, late this week, it was back with a vengeance: After hearing the testimony of former U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman, House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) declared his committee will investigate whether Attorney General William Barr is guilty of bribery, for offering to move Berman from his post in New York to the Department of Justice’s Civil Division.
      The reappearance of the theory followed the implosion of an alternative criminal theory.
      Just a week ago, Barr was being accused of criminal obstruction in seeking to can Berman as the U.S. Attorney in New York’s Southern District, in order to influence investigations affecting Trump friends ranging from Rudy Giuliani to the late Jeffrey Epstein. It did not matter that these investigations have been aggressively pursued under Barr’s tenure.
     The problem is that, when Berman released his written statement to Congress, he did not allege this change was an effort to hamper any investigation. (Notably, on a committee known for leaking information from closed hearing, no such allegation was leaked and no member said that it was made). Instead, Berman said he told Barr that he not want to leave the Southern District of New York because he wanted to see “important investigations … through to completion” and “to help lead the Office through the COVID crisis and get the Office back to normal functioning.”
      Berman said Barr wanted to shift Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Jay Clayton into the Southern District position to accommodate Clayton’s desire to move back to New York. As Barr stated, he offered other positions to Berman that would have been effective promotions.
      There still is no evidence of any effort to hamper Southern District investigations. To the contrary, the Epstein investigation has continued full bore with the extraordinary arrest of Epstein’s close associate, Ghislaine Maxwell, and Barr has pushed for Britain’s Prince Andrew to give evidence in that case. Barr’s DOJ has pushed to incarcerate Trump’s close friend, Roger Stone, and Barr reportedly opposed Trump’s decision to give presidential clemency to Stonein the form of a commutation. And Barr specifically asked the DOJ’s inspector general to monitor the Southern District office to prevent any interference in its investigations.
      That is when the bribery theory came sputtering back on to the road. Nader announced: “We don’t know yet if the attorney general’s conduct is criminal, but that kind of quid pro quo is awfully close to bribery.” It is not awfully close. Just awful.
      The suggestion is so wildly absurd that it defies belief — unless you have been following the legal analysis of the last three years. A leading proponent has been former prosecutor and Washington Post columnist Randall D. Eliason, who insisted that “allegations of a wrongful quid pro quo are really just another way of saying that there was a bribe … it’s bribery if a quid pro quo is sought with corrupt intent, if the president is not pursuing legitimate U.S. policy but instead is wrongfully demanding actions by Ukraine that would benefit him personally.” Eliason further endorsed the House report and assured that “The legal and factual analysis of bribery and honest services fraud in the House report is exactly right” and “outlines compelling evidence of federal criminal violations.”
      The theory was never “exactly” or even remotely right, as evidenced by the decision not to use it as a basis for impeachment. And yet, it’s back. Indeed, the greatest danger of the theory was not that it would ever pass muster in the federal court system but that it would be used (as here) in the political system to criminalize policy and legal disagreements.

      In my testimony, I went into historical and legal detail to explain why this theory was never credible.  While it was gleefully presented by papers like the Washington Post, it ignored case law that rejected precisely this type of limitless definition of the offense.  As I told the House Judiciary Committee, the Supreme Court has repeatedly narrowed the scope of the statutory definition of bribery, including distinctions with direct relevance to the current controversy in cases like McDonnell v. United States, where the Court overturned the conviction of former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell. Chief Justice John Roberts eviscerated what he called the “boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute.” The Court explained the such “boundless interpretations” are inimical to constitutional rights because they deny citizens the notice of what acts are presumptively criminal: “[U]nder the Government’s interpretation, the term ‘official act’ is not defined ‘with sufficient definiteness that ordinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited,’ or ‘in a manner that does not encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.’”  That is precisely what is being threatened if offering an alternative job to a subordinate in government would constituted bribery.

      I will not repeat the litany of cases rejecting this type of broad interpretation. However, the case law did not matter then and it does not matter now to those who believe that the criminal code is endless flexible to meet political agenda.
      It doesn’t even matter that the Supreme Court reaffirmed prior rejections of such broad interpretations in a recent unanimous ruling written by Justice Elena Kagan. In Kelly v. United States, the Supreme Court threw out the convictions in the “Bridgegate” case involving the controversial closing of lanes on the George Washington Bridge to create traffic problems for the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., who refused to endorse then-Gov. Chris Christie.
      Yet, Nadler is suggesting that, by simply offering Berman alternative positions, Barr was offering a criminal bribe. Keep in mind that Barr’s offer also included the promise to fire Berman if he refused to vacate the position. Barr did not have to bribe Berman to remove him. Barr wanted Berman to remain in the administration but, in the end, the only certainty was that Berman would not be in his current position. Again, imagine if such a choice could be deemed criminal bribery because an offer of an alternative job can be construed as a quid pro quo. That is what the Court meant by the “boundless interpretation” of bribery.
      I have disagreed with Clayton’s nomination to the Southern District, and I also disagreed with the suggested substitution of an acting U.S. Attorney rather than the obviously qualified choice of Audrey Strauss from within the SDNY. However, none of that suggests a crime, let alone bribery. While Berman insisted he could have litigated his removal, he would have lost. While it is true that he was appointed by a court, he — like all U.S. Attorneys — serves at the pleasure of the president. Barr gave him various options, but remaining in his position was not one of those — which is why Barr would say confidently that Berman was stepping down … one way or the other.
      That is why the latest road-test of the bribery theory is a Pinto-like hazard given even the smallest collision with actual law.