Despite what Trump counsel Rudolph W. Giuliani has declared in calling for the court to nullify the impeachment, the Constitution does not state any function of the court in impeachments other than the limited role of the chief justice as the presiding judge. That suits most justices just fine. Most justices would prefer to drink molten lead than get pulled into another presidential legitimacy case.
Yet, the Trump impeachment trial may force that cup to the lips of the justices. With a trial starting in the Senate on Thursday, the looming question over the Senate will be whether to allow witnesses. While I strongly disagreed with the House in rushing this impeachment forward rather than waiting a couple of months to complete its record, I still support a trial with witnesses in the Senate. If witnesses are called, however, the court could be forced to finally face a question more than 50 years in the making.
In 1974, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Nixon and ordered the release of the Watergate tapes to special prosecutor Leon Jaworski — and ultimately to Congress. Nixon resigned roughly two weeks later. That case has spawned a variety of interpretations of its rejection of executive privilege, including one interpretation I call the “Nixon fallacy.” The fallacy goes something like this: Impeachment so exceeds in importance executive-privilege claims that the Supreme Court has already declared that criminal or impeachment investigations take precedence over privilege so any withholding of testimony or documents is per se obstruction.
In reality, the Supreme Court never said anything like that. Yes, the court rejected what it described as the claim of an “absolute, unqualified Presidential privilege of immunity” to withhold relevant evidence in a criminal investigation. But it did not say that a president could not invoke privilege over the testimony in an impeachment proceeding or that such privilege assertions could not ever prevail. Indeed, it did not even categorically reject such claims in a criminal investigation but simply said that “without more” of a justification from Nixon, the tapes would have to be turned over to the Watergate special prosecutor.
A national security adviser speaking to a president about the delivery of military aid to a foreign country is the very definition of a core protected area of executive privilege. That does not mean the White House would win in a fight over John Bolton’s testimony. However, it does mean Trump has a viable and recognized basis for withholding information in this area — creating an issue capable of judicial review and resolution.
So, here is one scenario. The Senate crosses the Rubicon and both sides call witnesses from Bolton to Hunter Biden to give depositions. While Biden would not be able to refuse to testify absent a Fifth Amendment plea (which could be overcome by a grant of immunity), the White House would try to halt Bolton’s participation under a claim of privilege. The White House would presumably push the case into the federal district court, which would have to review each area of questioning to determine if executive privileges or congressional prerogatives should prevail. Appeals would follow. And all that assumes the Senate is willing to wait for those courts to rule.
The problem is time. It took only three months to litigate the Nixon tapes controversy from the district court to a final decision of the Supreme Court. By refusing to delay the impeachment vote, the House effectively gave up control of its own case. The Senate may have little time or patience to allow the House to correct that blunder.
In my view, Bolton should testify. Indeed, he should have been subpoenaed in the House. There are valid privilege claims to be raised, but he can clearly answer questions narrowly tailored to the issue of a quid pro quo.
The only body less eager to grapple with those claims than the Senate is the Supreme Court. The aversion is only enhanced by the possibility of recusal of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. in any appeal, leaving the court with a risk of a tie vote on a critical impeachment question. Over a decade after she ruled in Bush v. Gore, Sandra Day O’Connor was still expressing regrets and wondered aloud, “Maybe the court should have said, ‘We’re not going to take it, goodbye.’”
But that may be difficult when the Senate is waiting roughly 1,500 feet away for an answer on what Bolton might say. Three branches of government would literally be locked in a constitutional hold with the curious figure of Bolton sitting in the center. Before he speaks, the court may have no alternative but to be heard.