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Rangappa: How States’ Rights Became Trump’s Achilles Heel

"Either way, Trump may soon learn that the “states’ rights” ostensibly represented by the monuments and flags he reveres includes the power to bring his campaign team — and even him — to justice."


By Asha Rangappa, former special agent in the Counterintelligence Division of the FBI and current associate dean at Yale Law School, for The Hill

Once again, President Trump seeks to be hoisted on his own petard. His reaction since Charlottesville has placed him firmly on the side of those who are trying to preserve the confederate monuments and flags rapidly being brought down across the country. In doing so, Trump is supporting “states’ rights,” the euphemistic characterization that glosses over the history of slavery these symbols represent.

But states’ rights take on a different meaning in the realm of criminal law. News that special counsel Robert Mueller has paired up with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman suggests that he might be taking advantage of the special relationship states have with the federal government in the realm of criminal prosecution to end run the president’s pardon power — if he is, then “states’ rights” might just become Trump’s Achilles heel.

Robert Mueller’s investigation is a federal investigation that is proceeding on two tracks: a counterintelligence track and a criminal track. Most of what is discovered in the former may never come to light, given that it is based on classified methods and sources. But what Mueller uncovers in his criminal investigation will become public in the event that he brings criminal charges. President Trump, however, could undercut this possibility by granting pardons to the targets of Mueller’s investigation if they are convicted. He could even pardon Mueller’s targets preemptively, leaving potential prosecutions of federal crimes dead in the water before they even begin.

Unfortunately for Trump, the story may not end there. This is because a legal principle called “dual sovereignty” allows a state (or multiple states) to prosecute people for the same crimes as the federal government, if the conduct constitutes a crime and was committed in that state.

This is true even if the person has already been tried by the federal government.

Under the dual sovereignty principle, the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition on double jeopardy — which prevents the government from trying someone twice for the same crime — doesn’t apply if the second trial is by a different “sovereign” — in this case, the state.

How is this possible? The idea of dual sovereignty rests on the premise that the power of the states to prosecute crimes existed before the creation of the federal government, and is reserved to them by the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution. As a result, everyone is a citizen of both the United States and of a state or territory — and therefore owes allegiance to the laws of each. What’s more, the United States and an individual state may be protecting different interests, even if they are prosecuting the same crime.

A good example would be if someone murdered a U.S. marshal in, say, Virginia. A federal prosecution might be brought under a statute that makes it a crime to threaten or kill public officials. And a state prosecution might be brought for second-degree murder. In the former case, the United States has an interest in protecting the safety of its public officials. In the latter case, the State of Virginia has an interest in deterring crime and protecting its denizens from dangerous offenders.

Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter put this in “states’ rights” terms in a 1959 case called Bartkus v. Illinois, writing “it would be in derogation of our federal system to displace the reserved power of the States over state offenses by reason of prosecution…by federal authorities beyond the control of the states.”

The states’ rights argument for New York to pursue its own prosecutions against members of the Trump team is especially sound. In particular, many of the lines of inquiry that Mueller is pursuing appear to involve possible financial crimes, like money laundering or tax evasion.

Critics of Mueller’s investigation, including Republican members of Congress and the president himself, have argued that looking into these crimes exceeds Mueller’s mandate, which is to get to the bottom of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. By contrast, New York, as the financial epicenter of the country, has a very direct and vested interest in ensuring the integrity of its financial institutions and in ensuring that its citizens have not been defrauded by people doing business in the state who haven’t paid their taxes.

In fact, given that the bulk of criminal laws rests with states, not the federal government, a true states’ rights advocate might argue that the State of New York ought to protect its interests by prosecuting every possible charge it can — which may arguably exceed the number and type of crimes that might be available to Mueller.

The downside for Trump is that his presidential pardon power does not extend to state crimes — for the same reasons that underlie the dual sovereignty principle. Mueller, of course, knows this, and may be setting up the infrastructure to allow Schneiderman to pursue any prosecutions in the event he can’t – or to conduct them simultaneously.

Either way, Trump may soon learn that the “states’ rights” ostensibly represented by the monuments and flags he reveres includes the power to bring his campaign team — and even him — to justice.


[And for those who missed it, below is the background on this, as posted here earlier this week]

More than a few commentators have variously suggested that Donald Trump’s legal team may not be up to the task when it comes to squaring off against “Bobby Three Sticks” and co.

Consider these brief excerpts from a Bloomberg piece out earlier this month, for example:

As Mueller adds experienced prosecutors and broadens his investigation, Trump’s legal team still appears disorganized and understaffed. An army of well-paid lawyers would help the president get in front of the investigation: preparing responses to allegations before hearing about them from prosecutors or reporters, anticipating where Mueller is going, and developing a counternarrative to stymie him. Junior staffers could spend all night researching case law or obstruction of justice and conspiracy statutes; they could be available at a moment’s notice to draft pleadings challenging Mueller’s requests to interview witnesses or gather documents.

Instead, Trump’s defense has been almost entirely reactive—responding to the latest bombshell report with uninformed statements by surrogates.

Yes, “uninformed statements by surrogates.” And as Trump himself will tell you, his surrogates are perpetually (and woefully) behind the curve:

Well, just one day after we learned that the Senate Judiciary Committee is set to hear closed-door testimony from Donald Trump Jr. and that Mueller has issued subpoenas to a former lawyer for Paul Manafort and to Manafort’s current spokesman, we get the latest on the Special Counsel investigation and it looks like “Bobby” is about to try and circumvent Trump’s pardon power. 

Here’s Politico:

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team is working with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman on its investigation into Paul Manafort and his financial transactions, according to several people familiar with the matter.

The cooperation is the latest indication that the federal probe into President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman is intensifying. It also could potentially provide Mueller with additional leverage to get Manafort to cooperate in the larger investigation into Trump’s campaign, as Trump does not have pardon power over state crimes.

The two teams have shared evidence and talked frequently in recent weeks about a potential case, these people said. One of the people familiar with progress on the case said both Mueller’s and Schneiderman’s teams have collected evidence on financial crimes, including potential money laundering.

Note that bolded bit.

It seems entirely plausible that Trump was trying to send a message to his former and current associates with the Arpaio pardon. Namely, that everyone’s got a “get out of jail free” card if push comes to shove.

Obviously, if you know you’re likely to be pardoned, you’re less likely cooperate in an investigation.

To the extent the above is accurate and, perhaps more poignantly, to the extent Mueller uses it as a tactic to pressure other people he thinks might have been involved, he could effectively remove the incentive everyone had for keeping their mouth shut and replace it with the threat of being charged with a state crime.

Trump’s legal team might want to start burning the candle at both ends…




3 comments on “Rangappa: How States’ Rights Became Trump’s Achilles Heel

  1. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Check.

    Next up: Cyrus Vance, Jr.: Manhattan District Attorney.

    Vance’s offices are a fifteen minute drive to Schneiderman’s Manhattan office. As you would expect the two have cooperate and coordinated on matters in the past. Better yet, you can take a cab from Vance’s office a have him drive along the FDR and arrive at Trump Tower in 20 minutes!

    Vance’s office has a formidable Investigation Division and highly regarded group of trial lawyers. To get a quick understanding of their breadth and depth:

    “The Investigation Division of the New York County District Attorney’s Office is a recognized leader in white collar and organized crime prosecutions. Within our jurisdiction lies one of the world’s centers for global trade and finance. This has led to a role for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office that is unusual for a local prosecutor. Because so many of the world’s financial transactions pass through New York’s markets, we have jurisdiction to pursue cases that other local prosecutors cannot. Indeed, one of our core philosophies is that the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has an obligation to police the financial markets to root out fraud. We accomplish this by launching proactive investigations that target individuals and entities who misuse our financial institutions for illicit purpose, or whose conduct undermines the integrity and stability of our financial institutions and markets. International money laundering, investment and securities fraud schemes, frauds perpetrated on the markets themselves, and cybercrime and computer security threats are a few such areas.”*

    “Because of our geographic jurisdiction, we are able to bring cases addressing criminal conduct anywhere in the United States or around the world that make use of New York’s financial institutions. Our cases targeting the use of New York banks to defeat economic sanctions by rogue regimes and foreign banks are examples of the scope of our jurisdiction and the application of our broad mandate. Since 2009, three cases involving three large international banks have led to the seizure of more than $1.1 billion. Beyond the funds recovered, these cases have changed practices in international banking, and have helped make us more secure against the threats of terror finance and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”

    Mueller, Schneiderman, Vance.
    Hopefully they’ll drag his ass back to NYC where he belongs.



    • I’m thinking Preet Bharara has had a few conversations with Mr. Schneiderman and Mr. Vance and Mr. Mueller. Trump thinks he conquered one potential land mine when he fired Bharara. All he really did was set him free to dine with Mueller, et al. 🙂

  2. Okay. So a friend that follows the site, thanks to me and of course H, asks why I persist with this Vance business. In case you’re wondering, it’s simple. The offices of AG Schneiderman and DA Vance are by law granted jurisdiction over the investigation and prosecution of criminal cases. However, Schneiderman’s jurisdiction over criminal matters is limited to certain categories of cases as can be seen here. Vance’s jurisdiction is not so limited. Given that Trump Tower is located smack dab in the middle of Manhattan and that’s where Trump lives and where his HQ was and is located, it makes no sense for Vance not to be included in the investigation.

    On the other hand, Schneiderman has offices throughout the state and has the power to bring criminal cases within his jurisdiction in every one of the 52 counties to the extent that criminality occurred within said county. That’s important since, aside from Manhattan, counties like Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and Long Island (which is colloquially used to refer to Nassau County and Suffolk County) are five of the 52 counties and may very well be places where criminality transpired.

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