Originalism in The Trump Team’s Trump v. Vance Briefing and the Incidental Investigation of the President


Connor Clerkin, CLS ’21

President Trump’s legal team and the court in Trump v. Vance did not seem to agree on whom the at issue grand jury was investigating.[1] For the purposes of litigation, the court stated that the parties agreed that “the grand jury is investigating whether several individuals and entities have committed criminal violations of New York Law.”[2] The president’s legal team sought to downplay the distinction between an investigation of the president and of a third party which implicates the president in its brief, stating, “This subpoena subjects the President to criminal process under any reasonable understanding of that concept . . . That the grand-jury proceeding might involve other parties, or that the subpoena was issued to a third-party custodian, does not alter the calculus.”[3] In response to this claim the court stated, “it would … exact a heavy toll on our criminal justice system to prohibit a state from even investigating potential crimes committed by [the president] . . . or by other persons, not protected by any immunity, simply because the proof of those alleged crimes involves the President.”[4]

While the Trump legal team invoked the Framers for the proposition that the president was immune from any criminal process, even incidentally, their cited materials prove somewhat problematic. Solicitor General Robert Bork, in his Memorandum for the United States Concerning the Vice President’s Claim of Constitutional Immunity[5], cites to Madison’s Records of the Federal Convention to help establish his claim that the Framers viewed the chief executive as above the “ordinary criminal process.”[6] The president’s legal team argued that the Framers would support their client’s position, using this memo as proof.[7] Bork points to the debate on July 20th on the nature of impeachment, which does seem to rely on background assumption that, without impeachment, the chief would be essentially untouchable.[8] For instance, Benjamin Franklin expressed concern that, without impeachment, the only recourse of the people would be assassination.[9] Franklin himself favored impeachment for the reason that it was the only means by which an accused president might clear his name, further indicating that no threat of criminal trial existed.[10] It should be noted that no portion of this debate discusses investigation explicitly.

Gouvernuer Morris, who Bork cites by name for his representation on the views of the Framers, made remarks indicating a view that the executive would not be above investigation.[11] In his defense of unimpeachability, he stated that “[the executive] can do no criminal act without Coadjutors who may be punished. In case he should be re-elected, that will be sufficient proof of his innocence.”[12] George Mason agreed as to coadjutors, but favored “punishing the principal as well.”[13] These statements indicate two important points. The Framers did not think that criminal associates of the president were above the law merely because of their association with the president.[14] Additionally, Morris’ two statements imply that the punishment of the coadjutors would create a situation where election could be “sufficient proof of [the president’s] innocence.”[15] It is hard to imagine how this could be possible if investigation of accomplices did not include some investigation of the president. An election following some revelation about the president’s actions could provide proof of innocence; an election following no such revelation could demonstrate only that the electors did not care about guilt or innocence.

To the extent then that the Framers believed that, without impeachment, the president was above criminal prosecution, they must also have believed that his associates were not, and at least hint that their trial might provide the evidence to prove or disprove the president’s own innocence.[16] That is not to say that the views of the Framers were fixed, particularly clear, or dispositive here. Only that perhaps Bork’s memo might not be the best cite for presidential immunity in cases involving his coadjutors as well.


[1] Trump v. Vance, 941 F.3d 631 (2d. Cir. Nov. 4, 2019).

[2] Trump, 941 F.3d at 636.

[3] President Trump’s Opening Brief at 9, Trump v. Vance, 2019 WL 5687447 (2d. Cir. Nov. 4, 2019) (No. 19-3204-cv) (“Trump Brief”).

[4] Trump, 941 F.3d at 644.

[5] In re Proceedings of the Grand Jury Impaneled Dec. 5, 1972, No. 73-cv-965, (D.Md.) (“Bork Memo”).

[6] Bork Memo at 6.

[7] Trump Brief at 9-10.

[8] Bork Memo at 6; 2 Farrand, Records of the Federal Convention, 63-70 (New Haven, 1911).

[9] 2 Farrand at 65.

[10] Id.

[11] Bork Memo at 6.

[12] 2 Farrand at 64.

[13] Id. at 65.

[15] 2 Farrand at 64.