Wait… was somebody indicted?
Well, I’m pretty sure that thousands of people around the country have been indicted on something or other over the past couple of days, but none of them work in the White House. You might not be sure about that by reading the headlines over at the NY Daily News the other day, though. To say that this is a case of telegraphing your punches is an understatement. “Clinton-era memo argues that a sitting president can be indicted.” I suppose we’d better see what this is all about.
A newly unearthed legal memo addresses an increasingly relevant quandary amid the Trump-Russia inquiry and suggests that a sitting president can be constitutionally indicted.
The 56-page memo, obtained by The New York Times under the Freedom of Information Act, was part of Kenneth W. Starr’s independent investigation into President Bill Clinton.
“It is proper, constitutional, and legal for a federal grand jury to indict a sitting president for serious criminal acts that are not part of, and are contrary to, the president’s official duties,” the memo concludes. “In this country, no one, even President Clinton, is above the law,” conservative law professor Ronald Rotunda writes.
Just so we’re not casting stones in the wrong direction here, I should clarify that this didn’t originate with the Daily News. It came from the New York Times. (I will now pause while you recover from the shock of learning this.)
They don’t waste any time building up the credibility for their case, either. It’s made clear right up front that this was a memo written while an investigation was underway into the affairs of Bill Clinton. (Who, as you know, was a Democrat. See how unbiased we are?) And it was written by none other than, conservative law professor Ronald Rotunda. (See? He’s a conservative and even he says you can indict the President. Get it?)
As to the substance of the dueling memos cited in the article (with the other one arguing the opposite position from Robert G. Dixon Jr. back in 1973 during Watergate), I’ve never really been clear on this point. Dixon may not have been the first to say it, but it seems to have been a common belief that the President couldn’t be indicted while in office and it was certainly true in practice. Even when President Grant’s own personal secretary was indicted over the Whisky Ring scandal in 1875 it seems that nobody seriously considered indicting Grant himself.
I don’t know why that is, aside from a couple of memos issued by lawyers from both sides who might have had an ax to grind or a backside to protect. The Constitution is clearly silent on the idea that the President somehow has blanket immunity. Dixon argued that the “structural principles” of the Constitution prevented the President from being indicted because it would hamstring the administration and prevent the executive branch from functioning. But that sounds rather thin and gauzy if you ask me. (Yet again, I’m not a lawyer so I’ll wait for the experts to hash it out.)
This story doesn’t look like any sort of serious discussion of the merits to me, though. The idea that this was just one of those obscure but interesting “what if” questions that the editors were kicking around over coffee is laughable. It’s being printed within the context of the Russia, Russia, Russia saga and it’s obviously part of the endless drip, drip, drip which seeks to put a bug in the collective ear of the nation. As long as the media is talking about either impeachment or indictment on a daily basis, that will be part of the undercurrent in the minds of the public. It doesn’t matter that not a single thing has been uncovered which would suggest that the President has broken the law. It’s of no interest to most of the media that not a smidgen of proof has been exposed that there was any sort of “collusion” between Trump’s team and the Russian government. None of that matters.
What counts is building a narrative and projecting an image. Enough of those stories being fed into breakfast table discussions on a daily basis is all that’s required. Perhaps Robert Mueller will come up with something eventually. Perhaps he won’t. None of us has any way of knowing at that point beyond noting that if there really was any dirt to be had, either the Washington Post or the New York Times would already have it through their network of leakers and we’d be reading about it already. If something illegal is proven, then fine. We need to know about it. But if nothing comes of it, the media will have already done their “job” of leaving the less-tuned-in mass of voters with the impression that something wrong was going on all along.