Discover more from Letters from an American
December 7, 2022
In October, prosecutors told a court they did not believe Trump had turned over all the documents with classified markings in his possession, and they were particularly concerned that he carried documents with him on flights between Mar-a-Lago and his properties in New York and New Jersey. On the advice of his lawyers, Trump hired a team to search for more documents, and they have found at least two more items marked classified and have turned them over to the FBI.
A spokesperson for Trump said in a statement that Trump and his lawyers “continue to be cooperative and transparent, despite the unprecedented, illegal and unwarranted attack against President Trump and his family by the weaponized Department of Justice.”
Trump’s lawyers are doubling down on the idea that presidential immunity protects the former president from virtually anything he might have done in office, even “seeking to destroy our constitutional system.” Today, Trump lawyer Jesse Binnall argued before the D.C. Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals that the former president cannot be sued by police officers and members of Congress for inciting the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol, that he is immune from lawsuits even if he had urged his followers to “burn Congress down.”
Such an argument is fingernails down a chalkboard to anyone who knows anything at all about how the Framers of our Constitution thought about unchecked power.
There is, though, ongoing congressional review of the Trump administration. Last night the chair of the Senate Committee on Finance, Ron Wyden (D-OR), and the chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY), wrote to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III, asking for information in their “ongoing investigations into whether former Senior White House Adviser Jared Kushner’s financial conflicts of interest may have led him to improperly influence U.S. tax, trade, and national security policies for his own financial gain.”
The letter outlines the timing of the 2018 financial bailout of the badly leveraged Kushner property at 666 Fifth Avenue (now known as 660 Fifth Avenue) with more than $1 billion paid in advance from Qatar. Qatar had repeatedly refused to invest in the property, but after Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates imposed a blockade on Qatar—after Kushner discussed isolating Qatar with them without informing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—Qatar suddenly threw in the necessary cash. Shortly after that, the Saudi and UAE governments lifted the blockade, with Kushner taking credit for brokering the agreement.
Because of this case, and a number of others covered in the letter, the committees have asked the Defense Department to provide any correspondence it had with the Kushners during the Trump administration, or about the various dealings in which business and government appeared to overlap. They have asked for the information by January 13, 2023.
The ideas of the Framers on the nature of government was also in the news today thanks to arguments before the Supreme Court in the case of Moore v. Harper, a crucially important case about whether state legislatures have exclusive control of federal elections in their states, or if state courts can override voting laws they believe violate state laws or the state constitution. Conservative judge J. Michael Luttig, who sat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in October called Moore v. Harper “the most important case for American democracy in the almost two and a half centuries since America’s founding.”
The case comes from North Carolina, where the state supreme court in February declared that new congressional and state legislature maps so heavily favored Republicans as to be “unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt.” The Republican-dominated legislature says that it alone has the power to determine state districts and cannot be checked by state courts or the state constitution.
The legislature claims this power thanks to the “independent state legislature” doctrine, a new legal theory based on the election clause of the U.S. Constitution, which reads that "the Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.” Lawyers for the legislatures today claimed this clause means that the legislature alone can determine election laws in a state.
In October, Luttig published an article in The Atlantic with the unambiguous title: “There Is Absolutely Nothing to Support the ‘Independent State Legislature’ Theory.” The subtitle explained: “Such a doctrine would be antithetical to the Framers’ intent, and to the text, fundamental design, and architecture of the Constitution.”
Politicians, voting rights advocates, state attorneys general, senators, former governors, military officers, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the American Bar Association, and so on, all offered their own briefs to the court sharing Luttig’s position, with historians of the Founding Era agreeing that “[n]othing in the records of the deliberations at Philadelphia or the public debates surrounding ratification” supports the idea that state legislatures have exclusive power to regulate congressional elections. “There is no evidence that anyone at the time expressed [this] view…. [T]he interpretation is also historically implausible in view of the framers’ general fear of unchecked power and their specific distrust of state legislatures. There is no plausible eighteenth-century argument” for the independent state legislature theory, they say.
The historians also observed that those embracing the theory ignore the ample documentary evidence and instead rely extensively on a document that scholars proved long ago was written ten years after the actual Constitutional Convention.
The independent state legislature theory would also permit legislators to choose their presidential electors however they wish. Had such a theory been in place in 2020, Trump’s scheme for throwing out Biden’s electors in favor of his own would have worked, and he would now be in the White House.
The potential for this case to upend our right to have a say in our government has had democratic advocates deeply concerned, but observers watching the court today seemed to think the right-wing justices would not embrace the theory fully. Perhaps this is in part because they know well that their legitimacy is fraying as they are increasingly perceived as partisan politicians, or perhaps the Supreme Court is wary of undermining the idea of judicial review. In any case, both Marc Elias of Democracy Docket and Rick Hasen of Election Law Blog analyzed the justices’ questions today and guessed they would find a middle ground that preserves some measure of state courts’ oversight of legislatures’ election shenanigans.
Their analysis is only a guess, of course. Elias suggested the court would likely hand down a decision in the case in June.