President Trump is both ignorant as to the basic principles underlying our constitutional system (e.g., no one is above the law, not even the president) and invariably insistent upon putting his own needs and interests above all others. Again and again, he has tried to treat the Department of Justice and the FBI — which is charged with investigating an assault on American democracy — as his personal Praetorian guard. They should be loyal to him, shutting down the meanies investigating whether he received inappropriate, not to mention illegal, help from the Russians to win the 2016 election.
If it is established they gave him a leg up, he would not be able to see beyond the knock to his ego. He cannot bother to worry about securing the country against future attacks to our electoral system. The latter is of little concern; the former is his obsession.
With this in mind, one can see why Trump would try to obtain a loyalty oath from James B. Comey, the former FBI director, and why the president leaned on him to go easy on Michael T. Flynn, the fired national security adviser. It would also explain why he badgered his attorney general to overlook ethical conflicts and remain in charge of the Russia investigation. Trump insisted that Jeff Sessions was there to protect him, in the manner that Robert Kennedy protected his president brother, John F. Kennedy. This explains why Trump felt empowered to ask Andrew McCabe, the acting FBI director at the time, which candidate he backed during the 2016 election, and to excoriate him because his wife received Democratic contributions for her failed Virginia state Senate bid. Trump does not respect the necessary separation between himself and the DOJ, because he doesn’t recognize there should be anything akin to an apolitical administration of justice. It’s all about him, all the time.
In the context of an obstruction of justice claim, this is deadly. He’s not off the hook because he failed to comprehend that our constitutional system doesn’t accept that mentality. In fact, his oft-revealed mindset is what may sink him.
The normal problem in these cases is proving whether an accused obstructionist had “corrupt” intent. That is, did he interfere with an investigation to protect himself or further his own interests. Here, Trump is shouting his corrupt intent — though he has no idea it’s corrupt — from the rooftops. He’s not at all embarrassed to admit he tried to strong-arm the FBI and shut down Comey. In fact, he believes he was entitled to do these things.
This mindset came across loud and clear on Wednesday during an exchange with reporters. The Post reports:
The president suggested he could be investigated for obstruction of justice as part of the Russia investigation because he was “fighting back” and again reiterated there was “no collusion” between his campaign and Moscow.
“Oh well, ‘Did he fight back?’ ” Trump said, “You fight back, oh, it’s obstruction.”
There it all is — the self-pity; the inability to differentiate between responding to critics in a political context and illegally undermining the Justice Department in a legal context; and the misunderstanding that, because he did not think there was collusion, it was perfectly fine to submarine the investigation. Frankly, the last of these is an error many of the president’s defenders make when they declare Trump could not obstruct justice if he felt he was innocent. (Most subjects insist they are innocent, but that doesn’t entitle them to interfere with the FBI, the DOJ or the courts.)
By the way, Trump either doesn’t understand the term “collusion” or is intentionally muddying the waters. Collusion, as we have discussed, is not a crime and does not — at least to the dictionary definition — entail overt, detailed planning. The legal problem for Trump arises if he either solicited help from or aided a foreign power in intervening in our election on his behalf. He did this publicly when he called for Russia to hack Clinton’s emails. His son, Donald Trump Jr., did this explicitly when he leaped at the chance to get dirt on Hillary Clinton. And that’s just two instances that essentially have been publicly confirmed.
There may be more evidence of soliciting helping and aiding the Russians — whether it be coordination on the release of the WikiLeaks emails, or any synchrony between the Trump campaign and the Russian “active measures” effort to interfere with the election. Money that might have flowed into his pockets from Russians through shell companies might be part of this. Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, will follow all of the evidence wherever it leads.
In the context of an interview under oath, one can imagine horrible (from the perspective of Trump’s lawyers) exchanges that might go like this:
Mueller: Did you want Comey out so the Russia hoax would end?
Trump: Damn right! This was just the Democrats up to take away my tremendous win — the biggest ever — and I wasn’t going to allow it. I let Comey stay. He owed it to me. I mean, if he wasn’t going to help, I’d have gotten my own guy.
Mueller: When you asked Comey for his loyalty you were telling him he better look after you, protect you from this witch hunt?
Trump: You got it!
Trump of course might deny all this, only to be contradicted by other evidence and face questions of whether he lied under oath. And remember, if the president genuinely thought squelching the FBI was absolutely the right thing to do, wouldn’t he have told anyone who asked? Lots and lots of people would have heard such assertions coming from his mouth. Come to think of it, he did tell [NBC News anchor] Lester Holt that he had the Russia investigation in mind when he fired Comey. In essence, the entire country may have been witness to an admission of guilt, one any prosecutor would give his eye teeth to obtain.
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