U.S. Department of Justice
Attorney Work Product // May Contain Material Protected Under Fed. R. Crim. P. 6(e)
These considerations distinguish the Supreme Court's holding in Nixon v. Fitzgerald that, in part because inquiries into the President's motives would be "highly intrusive," the President is absolutely immune from private civil damages actions based on his official conduct. 457 U.S. at 756-757. As Fitzgerald recognized, "there is a lesser public interest in actions for civil damages than, for example, in criminal prosecutions." Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. at 754 n.37; see Cheney, 542 U.S. at 384. And private actions are not subject to the institutional protections of an action under the supervision of the Attorney General and subject to a presumption of regularity. Armstrong, 517 US. at 464.
c. In the rare cases in which a substantial and credible basis justifies conducting an investigation of the President, the process of examining his motivations to determine whether he acted for a corrupt purpose need not have a chilling effect. Ascertaining the President's motivations would turn on any explanation he provided to justify his actions, the advice he received, the circumstances surrounding the actions, and the regularity or irregularity of the process he employed to make decisions. But grand juries and courts would not have automatic access to confidential presidential communications on those matters; rather, they could be presented in official proceedings only on a showing of sufficient need. Nixon, 418 U.S. at 712; In re Sealed Case, 121 F.3d 729, 754, 756-757 (D.C. Cir. 1997); see also Administrator of General Services, 433 U.S. at 448-449 (former President can invoke presidential communications privilege, although successor's failure to support the claim "detracts from [its] weight").
In any event, probing the President's intent in a criminal matter is unquestionably constitutional in at least one context: the offense of bribery turns on the corrupt intent to receive a thing of value in return for being influenced in official action. 18 U.S.C. § 201(b)(2). There can be no serious argument against the President's potential criminal liability for bribery offenses, notwithstanding the need to ascertain his purpose and intent. See U.S. Const. Art. I, § 3; Art. II, § 4; see also Application of 28 U.S.C. § 458 to Presidential Appointments of Federal Judges, 19 Op. O.L.C. at 357 n.11 ("Application of § 201[to the President] raises no separation of powers issue, let alone a serious one.").
d. Finally, history provides no reason to believe that any asserted chilling effect justifies exempting the President from the obstruction laws. As a historical matter, Presidents have very seldom been the subjects of grand jury investigations. And it is rarer still for circumstances to raise even the possibility of a corrupt personal motive for arguably obstructive action through the President's use of official power. Accordingly, the President's conduct of office should not be chilled based on hypothetical concerns about the possible application of a corrupt-motive standard in this context.
In sum, contrary to the position taken by the President's counsel, we concluded that, in light of the Supreme Court precedent governing separation-of-powers issues, we had a valid basis for investigating the conduct at issue in this report. In our view, the application of the obstruction statutes would not impermissibly burden the President's performance of his Article II function to supervise prosecutorial conduct or to remove inferior law-enforcement officers. And the protection of the criminal justice system from corrupt acts by any person—including the President—accords with the fundamental principle of our government that "[n]o [person] in this