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Dems eye repeal of Justice rule barring presidential indictments

House Democrats are weighing legislation to scrap the executive guideline that bars the Justice Department from indicting a sitting president.

The informal rule is decades old but has come under heavy new scrutiny since Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE cited it explicitly as the reason he declined to recommend — or even consider — bringing obstruction charges against President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  Republicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden MORE during the course of his 22-month investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

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In response to the special counsel’s report, Democrats are piecing together a package of legislation focused largely on shielding elections from foreign influence, including proposals to bar candidates from accepting foreign help of any kind, while making it mandatory that campaigns alert the FBI when such offers are extended.

But some lawmakers want to press further, eying legislation to nullify the Department of Justice's (DOJ) long-standing determination that presidents cannot be charged with federal crimes while they remain in office.

“It's definitely on the menu,” said Rep. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyGSA offers to brief Congress next week on presidential transition Democrats gear up for last oversight showdown with Trump Biden campaign pushes GSA chief to approve transition MORE (D-Va.), a member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee. “I'm in favor of expanding enforcement tools and accountability tools, and that's definitely one of them.”

Rep. Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesHouse Democrats pick Aguilar as No. 6 leader in next Congress Nominated for another Speaker term, Pelosi says it's her last Katherine Clark secures No. 4 leadership spot for House Democrats MORE (N.Y.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, is also signaling his support. While he has not been involved in talks about specific proposals, Jeffries said, “It strikes me as a reasonable thing to consider.”

“It's fair to say that one of the options we should consider is revisiting that Department of Justice rule so you don't have a rogue and lawless president immunized from criminal prosecution,” he said.

It's unclear how or when the proposal might surface. Connolly said it could appear as part of a larger spending package or as an authorization bill out of the House Judiciary Committee. “But I guarantee you it will be a topic of discussion,” he said.

At issue is a Justice Department policy stretching back 46 years, when former President Nixon was coming under increasing fire surrounding a Watergate scandal that would eventually lead to his impeachment and resignation. In that 1973 memorandum, the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) resolved that a sitting president cannot be subject to prosecution for federal crimes.

The rationale hinged on bandwidth. The president's unique responsibilities, the authors determined, “have become so onerous that a President may not be able fully to discharge the powers and duties of his office if he had to defend a criminal prosecution.” With that in mind, the OLC concluded, the only way to remove a sitting president is through impeachment.

The DOJ revisited the question in 2000, following the impeachment of former President Clinton, finding that “the conclusion reached by the Department in 1973 still represents the best interpretation of the Constitution.”

Mueller leaned heavily on that policy last month in outlining his findings during a brief appearance at the DOJ, where he made clear the agency’s guidelines precluded his team from recommending charges against Trump related to the obstruction allegations it had investigated.

“The special counsel’s office is part of the Department of Justice, and, by regulation, it was bound by that department policy,” he said. “Charging the president with a crime was therefore not an option we could consider.”

Democrats were quick to punch back, arguing that no one — not even the president — is immune to the nation’s laws. 

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGovernors take heat for violating their own coronavirus restrictions Spending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz trade jabs over COVID-19 relief: People 'going hungry as you tweet from' vacation MORE (D-Calif.) hammered the DOJ policy, expressing “the deepest disappointment in the Department of Justice holding the president above the law.” It's a sentiment that's virtually unanimous in her liberal-leaning caucus, which is conducting investigations of its own — and scrambling for ways to hold Trump to account for allegations of wrongdoing.

“Quoting the president, ‘I could shoot somebody, and my followers wouldn't leave me.’ Does that mean the president could get away with murder?” asked Rep. Mike QuigleyMichael (Mike) Bruce QuigleyGSA offers to brief Congress next week on presidential transition Democrats debate fate of Trump probes if Biden wins Womack to replace Graves on Financial Services subcommittee MORE (D-Ill.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee. “It's clear the Founding Fathers didn't want anybody to be above the law. They had just ousted a king who flaunted that.”

Quigley said legislation to invalidate the DOJ policy is “a great idea.”

Such a bill has little chance of being considered in the Senate, which is controlled by Trump's Republican allies. But some Democrats see it as a viable messaging tool heading into the 2020 elections.

“If I were a Republican member of the Senate, I wouldn't want to have to explain why the president is not subject to the laws of the United States,” said Rep. Dan KildeeDaniel (Dan) Timothy KildeeDemocrats to determine leaders after disappointing election Lawmakers fear voter backlash over failure to reach COVID-19 relief deal Democrats set to hold out for big police reform MORE (D-Mich.).

The issue has made its way to the presidential primary trail, where Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThomas Piketty says pandemic is opportunity to address income inequality The Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation Disney laying off 32,000 workers as coronavirus batters theme parks MORE (D-Mass.) has proposed a slate of Mueller-based reforms, including enactment of a new law “clarifying Congress’s intent that the Department of Justice can indict the president of the United States.”

Warren's idea is catching on with Democrats in the Capitol, who have grown increasingly frustrated with the administration's stonewalling of their investigations.

“If you believe that no one is above the law, then she is right,” said Rep. Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeDemocrats brush off calls for Biden to play hardball on Cabinet picks Top contender for Biden Defense chief would be historic pick Overnight Defense: 5 US service members killed in international peacekeeping helicopter crash in Egypt | Progressives warn Biden against Defense nominee with contractor ties | Trump executive order to ban investment in Chinese military-linked companies MORE (D-Calif.). “It needs to happen.”

Not all Democrats, however, are so eager to jump on board. Rep. Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersOn The Money: Democrats accuse Mnuchin of sabotaging economy in dispute with Fed | Trump administration proposal takes aim at bank pledges to avoid fossil fuel financing | JPMorgan: Economy will shrink in first quarter due to COVID-19 spike Democrats accuse Mnuchin of sabotaging economy in dispute with Fed Maxine Waters says Biden win is 'dawn of a new progressive America' MORE (D-Calif.) questioned the effectiveness of such a law since it would require officials within the president's own Justice Department to prosecute their boss.

“That's why you have impeachment,” she said. “Because when the president is unfit — and it doesn't have to be criminal — when the Congress decides that he's not fit to be president, then that's what impeachment is for. That's what we're supposed to do.”

Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaBiden Cabinet picks largely unify Democrats — so far OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden eyes new leadership at troubled public lands agency | House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally | Trump administration pushes for rollback of Arctic offshore drilling regulations House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally MORE (D-Calif.) is also approaching the idea skeptically, warning of “a situation like Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBiden's climate plans can cut emissions and also be good politics Trump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College Obama: 'Hopeless' to try to sell as many books as Michelle MORE's, [where] there was an overzealous prosecutor.” Khanna said Democrats should first conduct hearings to examine the advantages and drawbacks of such a change.

“There's an old saying that bad facts make bad law,” he said. “And I'd be careful of making sweeping legal decisions based on Trump's conduct.”

Still, there appear to be no divisions among the Democrats when it comes to the idea that the Constitution provides no license for presidents to flout the law with impunity. One proposal, introduced last month by Reps. Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerTop Republicans praise Trump's Flynn pardon Democratic impeachment leaders blast Trump's pardon of Flynn Democrats accuse GSA of undermining national security by not certifying Biden win MORE (D-N.Y.), Ted DeutchTheodore (Ted) Eliot DeutchShakespeare Theatre Company goes virtual for 'Will on the Hill...or Won't They?' Florida Democrat introduces bill to recognize Puerto Rico statehood referendum Matt Gaetz, Roger Stone back far-right activist Laura Loomer in congressional bid MORE (D-Fla.) and Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellJuan Williams: Defeated Trump is in legal peril Taylor Swift allows song to be used in campaign ad Graham says SC people of color can go anywhere in the state but 'need to be conservative, not liberal' MORE (D-Calif.), drills that point home by pausing the statute of limitations for offenses committed by sitting presidents until they exit the White House. And that may just be the start.

Trump has challenged enough conventions, many Democrats say, that Congress will be forced to enshrine new laws that were previously thought unnecessary — including the voiding of the OLC guideline — even if it’s after he's gone.

“There will come a point when we have a better political climate in the Senate and a different president, and we're going to want to take stock of what we've gone through in this presidency,” said Rep. Jared HuffmanJared William HuffmanBickering Democrats return with divisions Lobbying world OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Democrats push expansion of offshore wind, block offshore drilling with ocean energy bill | Poll: Two-thirds of voters support Biden climate plan | Biden plan lags Green New Deal in fighting emissions from homes MORE (D-Calif.).

“A whole bunch of norms are going to need to be codified, institutions are going to need to be bolstered, and policies like that are going to have to be modernized,” he said.