The Short Version: Presidential Immunity
The point of it all is to break down the headlines, the week’s most controversial issues, determine why a particular issue is important and reveal the best arguments on each side of the story.
In a recent iterations of The Short Version, Cleo Abram examined the debate on climate change and asks if the U.S. should remain in the Paris Climate Agreement. She addressed the firing of FBI director James Comey of the FBI, who was leading the investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to impact the election. This week Cleo asks whether or not a sitting president should be immune from criminal prosecution.
Note: In general, if you have missed any of Cleo’s blogs, just go to our Home Page, type “The Short Version” into Search (magnifying glass icon) and poof, like magic, all her blogs will appear.
President Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey backfired.
Based on what Trump himself said his goal was in firing Comey (“When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.’“), the last week has not gone well for the Trump administration.
On Wednesday, the Justice Department named a special counsel to oversee the investigation into the ties between the Trump administration and Russian operatives: Robert Mueller. If Trump’s goal were to impede the investigation, any special counsel would be a step backward. But Mueller, former head of the FBI, close friend to James Comey, and reputation for being “inexhaustible, the embodiment of integrity”, is formidable. (Side note, it’s pronounced “Muller”.)
Mueller is a special counsel, not a special prosecutor, though the terms have been misused regularly. A special counsel can be fired while a special prosecutor cannot. Special prosecutors typically pursue information relevant for impeachment and testify about their findings publicly. That’s not the case for a special counsel. Mueller is investigating criminal activity on behalf of the Justice Department and his findings are private. Even if whatever he uncovers would be impeachable, if it’s not criminal we won’t know about it.
Beyond the Mueller investigation, there are two other investigations with different implications for both the Trump administration and the country. The Intelligence Committees in the House and the Senate are examining Russian influence on the election. And the Senate Judiciary Committee and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee are both looking into Michael Flynn’s misconduct and, now, the reasons behind Trump’s decision to fire Comey.
Why is it important?
There’s elephant in the room: presidential immunity.
Any investigation outside Congress that involves the president will eventually collide with the issue of whether a sitting president can be indicted and criminally prosecuted.
The most common view is that presidents can’t be prosecuted while in office. It’s based on an idea stemming from the early 1800’s that state or federal prosecution would constitute an “obstruction or impediment” to the functioning of the executive branch as a whole.
During the investigation into President Bill Clinton’s relationship with Monika Lewinsky, the New York Times concluded about presidential immunity that: “The short answer to one of the oldest of constitutional questions is that there is no clear answer. The Constitution’s text, which sets out procedures for impeaching and removing executive branch officials and Federal judges from office, does not resolve the issue.”
Should a sitting president be exempt from immunity?
More about Cleo Abram:
Cleo grew up in Washington D.C., lives in New York City, and loves to visit her parents in Telluride. She authors “The Short Version,” a newsletter that explains each week’s most important issue and both sides of the debate around it.
Cleo is a digital strategist now working at Vox, a general interest news site for the 21st century. Its mission is simple: Explain the news. Politics, public policy, world affairs, pop culture, science, business, and more.
Cleo’s work focuses on ways to share, educate, and inform using online platforms. While in college at Columbia University, she guided the school’s entrance into online education through her role as the youngest elected representative to the Columbia Senate, which makes university-wide policy.
She continued her work on online education at TED-Ed, the educational branch of the nonprofit, building new programs and online tools to support high school teachers worldwide.
Continuing her work with TED, Cleo founded and led an early TEDx conference, the organization’s community-specific series.
Most importantly, Cleo loves to ski.
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