It’s not clear whether President Trump, on the day the Senate health-care bill was released, fessed up that he has no tapes of conversations of then-FBI Director James B. Comey (“I did not make, and do not have, any such recordings”) because he wanted to avoid intense media coverage of his embarrassing bluff or because the health-care bill is so bad that any distraction is welcome. Either way, no communications strategy can hide a bad health-care bill and another legal misstep that special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III can use to ensnare him.
On May 12, a day after details of a one-on-one dinner he had with Comey were reported by the New York Times, Trump issued an apparent threat to the former FBI director, whom he had recently fired. “James B. Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” Trump tweeted.
To make matters worse, his confidant and media attention hog Newt Gingrich conceded, “I think he was, in his way, instinctively trying to rattle Comey. He’s not a professional politician. He doesn’t come back and think about Nixon and Watergate. His instinct is: ‘I’ll outbluff you.’ ” Aside from the fact that he is now president (how long will his supporters trot out the incompetence excuse?), being a professional politician has nothing to do with it. Knowingly making a false statement to affect the testimony under oath of a witness can be a crime. The federal criminal code states that a person who “knowingly uses intimidation, threatens, or corruptly persuades another person, or attempts to do so, or engages in misleading conduct toward another person, with intent to influence, delay, or prevent the testimony of any person in an official proceeding” has committed a federal offense punishable by up to 20 years in prison. (Constitutional lawyer Larry Tribe also points me to the federal statute that prohibits sending a “threatening letter or communication” that “endeavors to influence … the due administration of justice.”)
“The original tweet was in my view an important piece of evidence in the pattern of Trump’s possible obstruction of justice and witness intimidation,” says ethics guru Norman Eisen. “The fact that Trump has now admitted it was misleading adds to that evidence.” He explains, “Remember, obstruction is a crime of corrupt intent. Dishonesty of this kind further documents that intent. Moreover, today’s admission eliminates more benign explanations, such as that Trump really believed Comey was lying and had evidence to prove it. By process of elimination, what is left is the intent to impede the investigation by harassing the main witness against Trump.” He concludes: “Bottom line: Another tweet has landed in Mueller’s exhibit file, which is already bulging with them.”
The effort to intimidate Comey with a threat about nonexistent tapes did not occur in a vacuum. He told Comey, after clearing the Oval Office of witnesses, that he would “hope” Comey would let his fired national security director, Michael Flynn, go. Purportedly Trump asked Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Mike S. Rogers to weigh in with Comey as well. He then concocted a phony rationale for firing Comey. He sent aides out to lie in order to support that cover story (before confessing he had Russia in mind when he fired Comey). Those facts suggest an effort to obstruct justice, to prevent the prosecution of Flynn and potential discovery of incriminating or embarrassing information about him or his campaign. Lawyers who have been wrongly arguing that firing Comey cannot be the basis for an obstruction-of-justice charge have a problem: It’s not just the firing that is at issue.
Recall that in 1974, House Judiciary Committee members drew up an article of impeachment against Richard Nixon for abuse of power, which, among other things, cited his approval of a plan to misuse the CIA to shut down the FBI investigation of the Watergate burglary (“interfering or endeavoring to interfere with the conduct of investigations by the Department of Justice of the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the office of Watergate Special Prosecution Force, and Congressional Committees”). Trump has the benefit of subservient Republicans in Congress with regard to impeachment. Mueller, however, is a whole other matter.