Category: Columns

The Assange Case Could Prove The Most Important Press Case In 300 Years

Below is my column for BBC on the Assange espionage charges. As I have written, I believe that Attorney General Bill Barr is dead wrong on these charges — a view apparently shared by at least two of the prosecutors on the team. Until now, President Donald Trump’s disturbing rhetoric against the media has been disconnected from actual moves against the media with the exception of suspending press passes or changing rules for the White House press corp. This is a quantum leap in the wrong direction. Indeed, this prosecution could easily become the most important press case since John Peter Zenger.

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Constitutional Or Conceptual Crisis? The Atonal Strategy of the House Investigations

Below is my column in The Hill Newspaper on the increasingly disconnected elements in the investigations by the House of Representatives. The question is whether there is a true strategy behind these moves other than an investigation for investigation’s sake.

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A Question Of Contempt: Why The Barr Vote Could Prove Costly For Congress

Below is my column in The Hill newspaper on the vote of the House Judiciary Committee to hold Attorney General Bill Barr in contempt of Congress. There are a number of conflicts with the Administration that present favorable grounds for Congress in a court challenge. This action is the least compelling and could ultimately undermine congressional authority with an adverse ruling.

I am honestly confused by some of the criticism including the recent column by Andrew Napolitano in Fox.com where he states “Barr knows the DOJ is not in the business of exonerating the people it investigates. Yet he proclaimed in his letter that Trump had been exonerated.” I like and respect Napolitano a great deal but that is not what the letter said. What the letter said was “The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. As the report states: ‘[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.’” That is true. Indeed, it was odd that Napolitano would focus on the collusion/coordination issue when many people have accepted that the conclusion of no criminal conduct was clear from the report. At no point does Barr say that Trump was exonerated. Indeed, he included the most damaging line from the report on obstruction in saying that Mueller expressly did not exonerate him on that question. Barr was addressing the conclusions on criminal conduct and I still do not see where, as stated by my friend Andrew, where Barr in the letter was “foolish,” “deceptive,” “disingenuous,” or “dumb and insulting.” Those are powerful accusations against any lawyer and should be tethered to a clear example in the letter of a false or deceptive statement.

The Napolitano letter also ignores Barr’s statement that the report would have been released relatively quickly (removing the need for the summary) if Mueller complied with his request and that of Rod Rosenstein to identify grand jury material. It remains inexplicable that Mueller allegedly ignored those reasonable requests from his two superiors. As a result, Mueller’s people had to go back through the report to identify the Rule 6(e) material, a previously requested.

Update: The Democrats are now arguing that they are not demanding the redacted Grand Jury information despite weeks of calling for the full and unredacted report — and a subpoena that demands the entire unredacted report. They now insist that they want Barr to ask the Court to release the small percentage of Grand Jury information. That is not likely in light of the long record at the Justice Department.

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More Scream Than Substance: Why the Senate Missed The Point Of Barr’s Testimony

Below is my column in The Hill newspaper on Barr hearing and its aftermath. The Democrats continue to focus on Barr rather than the report. Congress now has 98 percent of the original report available to it. Only two percent was redacted from the sealed copy in conformity with federal law barring the release of grand jury material. Less than ten percent of the report is redacted in the public version and only a small percentage in the key obstruction section is redacted. However, the leadership prefers to fight over the remaining two percent and the Barr letter than to commence actual impeachment proceedings against Trump. I wrote back in 2017 that the Democratic leadership has long been opposed to any actual impeachment of Trump. There are obvious reason why the Democratic leaders are opposed to removing Trump. That position has held firm as leaders struggle to assure voters that they want to impeach without actually impeaching. The result is a mutual effort by Congress and White House to run out the clock. The result is political theater at its worst.

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High profile hearings in Congress often look like a casting call for B-Grade actors reading a low budget slasher film script. The key is that look of shock and disgust regardless of what the witness answers. The standout performer is Senator Cory Booker, who has mastered that “I Know What You Did Last Summer” look, even when asking the most mundane or mixed questions. He knows that, in this genre, the script is less important than the optics.

Indeed, the hearing with Attorney General William Barr this week seemed, at times, to involve two scripts for two different movies, with Barr reading from the 2000s “Drag Me To Hell” while Senate Democrats read from the 1970s “I Spit On Your Grave.” Senator Mazie Hirono did not even stop to listen for his responses before denouncing his failure to answer questions.

Some new information was shared, such as the fact that special counsel Robert Mueller slowed the release of his report by ignoring requests from Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to identify grand jury information in advance. There was also Barr stating he and Rosenstein asked Mueller to reach a conclusion on all crimes. Barr effectively shifted the burden over to Mueller on such questions. Claims by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that Barr lied under oath are simply unfounded and unfair.

Yet, Barr stumbled to answer when Senator Kamala Harris asked, “Has the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested you open an investigation of anyone?” Barr got caught up with the meaning of “suggest” then categorically denied that anyone had asked he open any investigation but said, “I’m trying to grapple with the word ‘suggest.’ I mean, there have been discussions of matters out there.” Just like the seasoned former prosecutor she is, Harris pounced on his answer and suggested that someone might have “hinted” or “inferred.”

This is why both compound and vague questions are generally barred in actual cross examination. Barr looked evasive and uncomfortable, even though he explained that his concern was that conversations clearly did cover possible investigations but he was never asked to open one. The distinction makes for bad television but is a legally important point here.

President Trump has repeatedly crossed the traditional line of separation between the White House and the FBI, with his probing of officials like former FBI Director James Comey on the status or direction of the Russia investigation. While I have been critical of Comey, he was absolutely right in his objections to the inquiries from Trump. Past presidents generally avoided meeting alone with FBI directors, much less recklessly pressing them on investigations that touched on political or personal interests.

A demand from the White House for an investigation can raise serious questions of political influence over prosecutorial decisions. However, the line can be blurry. Presidents often call for investigations on issues of national importance. After a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, for example, President Obama held a press conference in which he was heralded for announcing that he had ordered the Justice Department and the FBI to both “independently investigate the death of Michael Brown.”

The Justice Department is part of the executive branch, and there is often discussion of the priorities and controversies involved in its investigations. For that very reason, Democrats were not aghast when former Attorney General Eric Holder publicly proclaimed he was a “wingman” for Obama. Likewise, Democrats applauded Obama when he ordered the Justice Department not to prosecute certain immigration cases. The line that cannot be crossed is the direction or influence of such an investigation.

Anyone can ask the Justice Department to look into allegations of criminal conduct. The Justice Department then makes an independent decision on whether to investigate. This includes members of Congress, who often call upon the Justice Department to investigate individuals despite their interests. Indeed, Harris has repeatedly done so, including calling for the Justice Department inspector general to investigate Barr. There is nothing improper in such a request, even if it has more political than legal merit.

Take the latest request from Senate Democrats for an investigation into Barr and Rosenstein reaching a conclusion on the obstruction evidence after Mueller had refused to do so. They wrote in a letter to the Justice Department inspector general, “It is unclear what statute, regulation, or policy led the attorney general to interject his own conclusion” that the conduct of the president did not amount to obstruction of justice here.

It is a bizarre question since the United States Code says, “All functions of other officers of the Department of Justice and all functions of agencies and employees of the Department of Justice are vested in the attorney general,” with a couple narrow exceptions dealing with administrative judges and prisons. The Justice Department makes the prosecutorial decisions, and the ultimate decision maker here is the attorney general.

What makes the request even more curious is the omission of the more obvious question. Why did Mueller not reach a decision? As I wrote on the day that Barr released his summary of the Mueller report to Congress, it is perfectly incomprehensible that Mueller did not reach a conclusion. After reading his report, his reasons for refusing are even more inscrutable.

The special counsel is mandated to “provide the attorney general with a confidential report explaining the prosecution or declination decisions reached by the special counsel.” While the report references the Justice Department policy not to indict a sitting president, nothing suggests that a special counsel cannot reach a conclusion on the evidence of criminal conduct by a president. If there was any doubt on Justice Department policy, it should have been clarified when Barr and Rosenstein, who oversee Mueller, pressed him to reach a conclusion. Barr still cannot explain the rationale for a special counsel not reaching a conclusion.

He is not alone. Democrats have also called for an investigation of what they view as a “lack of impartiality” under the attorney general. Harris expressed surprise that Barr did not personally review the underlying evidence, consisting of millions of documents and records, collected by Mueller before reaching his conclusion on obstruction. What she ignored is that such an independent review would have negated the work by Mueller. As Barr correctly stated, “We accepted the statements in the report as factual record. We did not go underneath it to see whether or not they were accurate.” Democrats presumably would want him to do that instead of substitute his own facts for those of the special counsel.

Harris was not wrong in pressing Barr on any White House pressure to open investigations. However, there is nothing improper with the White House raising priorities and controversies with the attorney general. What raises serious ethical concerns is when those cases directly impact a president or his campaign. An attorney general should push back on anything he or she views as efforts to influence prosecutorial decisions.

Of course, every good slasher film has a sequel, and there are several in the works in this case with the calls for Mueller, Rosenstein, and former White House counsel Don McGahn to testify. Congress has every right to call on these officials, and the suggestion from Trump that he will block McGahn would be entirely unjustified. But if Congress truly wants answers and not just optics, it might try keeping the jump scares to a minimum.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.

Sandburg’s Rule: Congress Shifts Attention Away From Mueller’s 400-Page Report To Focus On Barr’s 4-Page Summary

Below is my column in The Hill newspaper on the hearing with Attorney General Bill Barr in the Special Counsel investigation. Barr’s testimony reaffirmed many of the points of the column, including the fact that Robert Mueller was not told that he could not reach a conclusion of obstruction. Indeed, Barr testified that both he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told Mueller that he should reach a conclusion. As Mueller’s superiors, that should have resolved any question of a “policy” of Main Justice. However, according to Barr, Mueller not only did not reach a conclusion but he also disregarded the express request that his staff identify grand jury information to allow for a rapid release of a redacted report.

Notably, Barr also confirmed that just eight percent of the public report was redacted — largely to remove material that could undermine ongoing investigations. The sealed version of the report given to Congress only had two percent redacted. Thus, while the Democratic leadership is insisting holding back impeachment efforts until they can get “the full report,” they already have 98 percent of the report and the remaining grand jury information might ultimately not be released by a federal court. Nevertheless, as predicted in the column, the focus of Congress remains on the four-page summary that preceded the full 408-page report. It is a telling emphasis that highlights what I have previously discussed as the priority of congressional leaders.

Here is the column:

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The Black Jersey: How Trump And Congress Are Competing For Last Place

Below is my column in The Hill newspaper on a curious aspect to all of the posturing taking place in Washington. Putting aside the bluster on both sides, there is strange alliance coalescing between the Democratic Leadership and the White House in running out the clock for impeachment. The only essential element is that they do not look like they are playing for time. Both sides derive political benefit from stirring up their bases with impeachment talk but neither side actually wants to see an impeachment. The rest is classic D.C. kabuki.

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No Men Need Apply: Democrats’ Pledges To Bar Male Running Mates Raise Discrimination Concerns

Below is my column in The Hill newspaper on the expanding number of Democratic presidential candidates pledging to choose a woman as a running mate. What is striking is how these pledges have not even warranted a question in coverage over the propriety of such pledges since they would bar any males regardless of their qualifications to lead the nation. It raises an interesting conflict between the political and legal realms in stating such threshold conditions. What would be strictly forbidden for any business or agency or school is permissible in politics.

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Mueller’s Mess On Intent Leaves Democrats In A Muddle On Impeachment

Below is my column in The Hill newspaper on a missing element in the Mueller report not just for obstruction but impeachment: intent. As I discuss, I am still baffled by the logic of Mueller in not reaching a conclusion on obstruction. It simply makes no sense given his actions on collusion and the ultimate rendering of a decision by Main Justice on obstruction. While the Justice Department (wrongly) maintains that a sitting president cannot be indicted, there is no bar on finding probable cause to believe that a president has committed a crime.

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The Special Counsel and Trump’s Saga Of Self-Inflicted Wounds

Below is my column in The Hill newspaper on the description of events in the Trump White House. While Trump is continuing to attack Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, Trump is blaming possible “traitors” and others for their roles in the investigation. The one person who he is not blaming is himself despite the fact that the Mueller report is a 400-page tale of self-inflicted wounds.

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Roughly 300 Years Later, Is Julian Assange The New John Peter Zenger?

Below is my column in the BBC on the historical and potential legal significance of the prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Much of the prosecution could turn on whether Assange is a journalist. Notably, Assange just received a European journalism award from the European parliamentarians. Assange is this year’s recipient of the 2019 GUE/NGL Award for Journalists, Whistleblowers & Defenders of the Right to Information.

In the meantime, there are some interesting comparison between the Assange and Zenger cases in the long-standing debate over what constitutes press freedoms.

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Islamic Cleric Instructs Men On How To Beat Their Wives “Out of Love”

We have previously discussed tutorials from Islamic clerics on how to beat your wife (here and here and here). The latest such grotesque lesson is from a leading cleric Abd Al-Aziz Al-Khazraj Al-Ansari in Qatar. Using a young boy as a stand-in for his wife, Al-Ansari, explains how to beat a wife “out of love” and how some women secretly want beatings because their want “violent and powerful husbands.”

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“He Is Our Property”: The D.C. Establishment Awaits Assange With A Glee And Grudge

Below is my column in USA Today on the Julian Assange arrest. We are still learning more about Assange’s confinement, including bizarre accounts of Assange’s conduct in the Ecaudorian Embassy in London. The key question will be the highly generalized allegation in the single count indictment from the Justice Department that Assange played an active role in the hacking. That would cross the Rubicon for journalists and make this an even more difficult case for those worried about free speech and the free press. Yet, the indictment is strikingly silent on details or an assertion that Assange actually used the password. We will likely learn more as the May hearing approaches for his extradition.

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The Trolling Of Bill Barr: How Politics Has Outstripped Meaning

Below is my column in the Hill newspaper on the rising attacks against Attorney General Bill Barr even before the redacted report has been released. Many in the media has notably omitted critical facts like Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein helped write the summary and also concluded that there was not case for criminal obstruction to be made against President Trump. There may be grounds to criticize Barr for his redactions, but critics omit the fact that Robert Mueller’s office is assisting in those redactions. I have a long relationship with Barr and testified in favor of his confirmation. However, I will not hesitate to criticize his actions when it is warranted. For example, I do not approve of the Justice Department refusing to defend the Affordable Care Act — disregarding the function of the Department to defend duly passed laws. Yet, Barr’s conduct with regard to the report and thus far been open and consistent with what he said in this confirmation hearing.

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Goose Meets Gander: Why Congress Should Include Its Own Tax and Travel Records In The Push For Disclosure

Below is my column in the Hill newspaper on the congressional push for past tax filings of President Donald Trump as well as investigations in the travel of Administration figures. I do not disagree with such public scrutiny, but Congress has conspicuously ignored past calls for the same transparency of its own practices and records.

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