Trump may have violated the President’s oath of office

Jack Goldsmith, Susan Hennessey, Quinta Jurecic, Matthew Kahn, Benjamin Wittes, and Elishe Julian Wittes write: If the President gave this information away through carelessness or neglect, he has arguably breached his oath of office. As Quinta and Ben have elaborated on in some detail, in taking the oath President Trump swore to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States” and to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” to the best of his ability. It’s very hard to argue that carelessly giving away highly sensitive material to an adversary foreign power constitutes a faithful execution of the office of President.

Violating the oath of office does not require violating a criminal statute. If the President decided to write the nuclear codes on a sticky note on his desk and then took a photo of it and tweeted it, he would not technically have violated any criminal law–just as he hasn’t here. He has the constitutional authority to dictate that the safeguarding of nuclear materials shall be done through sticky notes in plain sight and tweeted, even the authority to declassify the codes outright. Yet, we would all understand this degree of negligence to be a gross violation of his oath of office.

Congress has alleged oath violations—albeit violations tied to criminal allegations or breaches of statutory obligations—all three times it has passed or considered seriously articles of impeachment against presidents: against Andrew Johnson (“unmindful of the high duties of his oath of office”), Richard Nixon (“contrary to his oath”), and Bill Clinton (“in violation of his constitutional oath”). Further, two of the three articles of impeachment against Nixon alleged no direct violation of the law. Instead, they concerned Nixon’s abuse of his power as President, which, like the President putting the nuclear codes on Twitter, is an offense that can only be committed by the President and has thus never been explicitly prohibited in criminal law.

There’s thus no reason why Congress couldn’t consider a grotesque violation of the President’s oath as a standalone basis for impeachment—a high crime and misdemeanor in and of itself. This is particularly plausible in a case like this, where the oath violation involves giving sensitive information to an adversary foreign power. That’s getting relatively close to the “treason” language in the impeachment clauses; it’s pretty easy to imagine a hybrid impeachment article alleging a violation of the oath in service of a hostile foreign power. So legally speaking, the matter could be very grave for Trump even though there is no criminal exposure.

This approach to sensitive information does not appear to be a one-off. President Trump has previously taken heat for his cavalier attitude towards safeguarding classified information, for example when he openly reviewed plans related to a North Korean nuclear test in the Mar-a-Lago dining room in full view of other diners or when he appeared to inadvertently confirm the authenticity of leaked CIA documents on Fox News. [Continue reading…]

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