With the options available, why did Obama choose to invoke executive privilege?
That, at least to me, is the pregnant question. He had a number of other options but 4 months from a critical election, chose the most controversial and potentially damaging one.
Let’s begin with a quote from a former White House counsel from a Powerline post:
Even with his fawning press, [President Obama] will pay a price for this one. He knows this, meaning that the documents now to be withheld must be dynamite. They have to show either that Holder knew what was going on with Fast and Furious and approved it, or that he directly committed perjury in his Congressional testimony, or both. I just can’t see any other explanation for such a risky move.
Wasn’t the Washington Post just covering big time the 40th anniversary of Watergate? I wonder how much coverage this one will get.
That’s the result of the move – speculation that the documents being withheld point to perjury by Holder or the President, or both.
So let’s break this down a bit. If it was all about Holder, why would the president risk this sort of a controversial move this close to an election. It’s not like he’s never thrown anyone under the bus. In fact James Carville is on record advising Obama to dump Holder.
Obama had the option, then, of letting Holder face contempt charges (not much happens as we’ve seen in the past, to those who are served with contempt of Congress charges) and drag out the document release until after the election.
With the election season gearing up, it is likely that while the controversy would have been an issue, it wouldn’t have been a major issue. Now it certainly is.
He could have asked Holder to resign. He could have then used the opportunity to appear as a statesman, a leader and bi-partisan all in one fell swoop. Depending on how he handled that it could actually have been a positive for him heading into an election. In the meantime, an acting AG could continue to delay on providing documents.
But he did neither of those things. For some unknown reason (at least to this point) he chose to do the least likely and most politically damaging thing – invoke executive privilege. As the lawyer quoted has said, those documents must be “dynamite” to have the president make this move.
And, unsaid by the lawyer is the speculation that the documents show the involvement of the White House to a degree that is damaging – apparently more damaging than the speculation and attention this move by the President has brought.
David Kopel at Volokh Conspiracy gives you a great history of the controversy. As for the documents Kopel notes:
According to Attorney General Holder, the DOJ has 140,000 documents related to Fast & Furious. Fewer than 8,000 have been provided to Congress pursuant to subpoenas. The contempt vote has been narrowed to 1,300 documents. In refusing to comply with the House subpoenas, the DOJ has refused to create a privilege log–which would identify withheld documents, and the legal reason for their being withheld.
Matthew Boyle at the DC caller points out that Holder has retracted two previous statements he made to Congress where he gave them inaccurate information in an attempt to blame previous AGs or administrations. It seems that’s a standard operating procedure with all parts of this administration. So Holder is left holding the bag all by himself on this one, or so it seemed, at least, to the point that executive privilege was invoked.
That brings us to these 4 point by Todd Gaziano at the Heritage Foundation about the use of executive privilege:
First, the Supreme Court in United States v. Nixon (1974) held that executive privilege cannot be invoked at all if the purpose is to shield wrongdoing. The courts held that Nixon’s purported invocation of executive privilege was illegitimate, in part, for that reason. There is reason to suspect that this might be the case in the Fast and Furious cover-up and stonewalling effort. Congress needs to get to the bottom of that question to prevent an illegal invocation of executive privilege and further abuses of power. That will require an index of the withheld documents and an explanation of why each of them is covered by executive privilege—and more.
Second, even the “deliberative process” species of executive privilege, which is reasonably broad, does not shield the ultimate decisions from congressional inquiry. Congress is entitled to at least some documents and other information that indicate who the ultimate decision maker was for this disastrous program and why these decisions were made. That information is among the most important documents that are being withheld.
Third, the Supreme Court in the Nixon case also held that even a proper invocation must yield to other branches’ need for information in some cases. So even a proper invocation of executive privilege regarding particular documents is not final.
And lastly, the President is required when invoking executive privilege to try to accommodate the other branches’ legitimate information needs in some other way. For example, it does not harm executive power for the President to selectively waive executive privilege in most instances, even if it hurts him politically by exposing a terrible policy failure or wrongdoing among his staff. The history of executive–congressional relations is filled with accommodations and waivers of privilege. In contrast to voluntary waivers of privilege, Watergate demonstrates that wrongful invocations of privilege can seriously damage the office of the presidency when Congress and the courts impose new constraints on the President’s discretion or power (some rightful and some not).
The key point, of course, is executive privilege cannot be used to “shield wrongdoing”. While it is speculative, it appears highly likely – given the other options available – that executive privilege is being used for precisely that reason in this case.
Additionally, given the choices available to the President, it is not at all out of bounds to speculate that the most transparent administration in history is trying desperately to hide something even more terrible than the political fallout from this choice.
The White House cites internal discussions and ongoing investigations are the reason for its denial and claims the investigations would be jeopardized with the release of the documents. But, as Gaziano points out, accommodations can be made in that regard. The total number of documents requested is 1,300. The White House is simply refusing to cooperate or accommodate.
We’re still left with that question.
And the answer, given the actions to date, lead to some logical speculation – what is contained in those documents is much more damaging politically than the damage done by the decision. Additionally, Obama can’t afford to let Holder go because if he does there’s the potential that Holder will then spill the beans.
Oh, and finally, this move has suddenly brought Fast and Furious to page one and the top of the newscast like nothing else could. The majority of the country, which was mostly ignorant of this scandal are now in the loop.
As the cited former White House counsel said, “the documents now to be withheld must be dynamite.” In fact, they must be so explosive that the White House is desperate enough to try to weather this self-inflicted political storm in lieu of exposing them.
That says a lot.