There are so many smoking guns in the Russiagate scandal that it can be hard to clearly discern what’s going on amid all the haze. But clear away the confusion and what you see is the president flouting the law, not (as usually happens) behind closed doors but in plain sight.
On Wednesday, President Trump proclaimed that Attorney General Jeff Sessions “should stop this Rigged Witch Hunt right now, before it continues to stain our country any further.” Sessions recused himself from the investigation last year, but Trump would dearly love for that decision to be reversed so Sessions could shield him from justice.
That Trump would lash out now is due, no doubt, to the pressure he is feeling from the start of the trial of his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who is closely linked to the Kremlin. Manafort’s trial comes shortly after reports that Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, is prepared to testify that Trump both knew and approved of the June 2016 meeting between Manafort, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Russian emissaries offering to help the Trump campaign.
Trump’s team, on cleanup duty, claimed the president is offering an opinion, not issuing a formal order. But when a boss tells a subordinate he “should” do something, it’s not just an innocent opinion like “that’s a nice shirt.” Last year, then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that the president’s tweets are “official statements.” Indeed, the president fired then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by tweet. If Trump was just expressing a nonbinding opinion, why isn’t Tillerson still on the job?
When the president tells his attorney general he “should” stop an investigation of his alleged misconduct, that is strong evidence of obstruction of justice. It doesn’t matter, from a legal perspective, whether the directive is whispered in secret or shouted for all to hear. It doesn’t even matter whether the investigation is actually stopped or not. A crime is still a crime even if it’s not carried out to a successful conclusion.
Trump’s habit of committing obstruction in public dates back more than a year. On May 11, 2017, shortly after firing FBI Director James B. Comey, he admitted to Lester Holt of NBC News that he did so to stop the investigation of “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia,” which he called a “made up story.”
We have since learned a great deal from Comey’s public testimony about the circumstances leading to his firing. Comey testified that Trump sought to extract a pledge of personal loyalty that Comey would not give, and that the president asked him to end the investigation of his fired national security adviser, Michael Flynn — “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” the president told Comey, according to Comey’s notes of the meeting. Trump’s lawyers argue, preposterously, that he did not break the law because he didn’t know that Flynn was under FBI investigation. Then why did he make the request at all? Furthermore, according to investigative reporter Murray Waas, “a confidential White House memorandum, which is in the special counsel’s possession, explicitly states that when Trump pressured Comey he had just been told by two of his top aides — his then chief of staff Reince Priebus and his White House counsel [Donald] McGahn — that Flynn was under criminal investigation.”
Waas’s scoop, assuming it is accurate, adds to the mountain of existing evidence about Trump’s attempts to obstruct justice. A great deal of this incriminating material is available to anyone with a Twitter account. Here is Trump quoting an attack against his own attorney general: “The recusal of Jeff Sessions was an unforced betrayal of the President of the United States.” Attacking the special counsel: “Bob Mueller is totally conflicted, and his 17 Angry Democrats that are doing his dirty work are a disgrace to USA!” Attacking Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein: “Mueller is most conflicted of all (except Rosenstein who signed FISA & Comey letter). No Collusion, so they go crazy!” Attacking the FBI and the Department of Justice: “the DOJ, FBI and Obama Gang need to be held to account.”
Little wonder that Mueller is reportedly investigating Trump’s tweets, which form the most public confession of official misconduct in U.S. history. Trump’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, may call “obstruction by tweet” a “bizarre and novel theory,” but what’s truly “bizarre and novel” is Trump’s behavior. The president is engaged in a cynical and all-too-successful campaign to diminish public support for the Mueller investigation, potentially setting the stage for Mueller to be fired and the inquiry terminated. On at least two occasions (in both June and December of 2017), Trump tried to fire Mueller, only for alarmed aides to dissuade him.
Note that to be convicted of obstruction of justice under 18 U.S. Code § 1503 , you don’t have to be successful in stopping a federal investigation — you just have to “endeavor” by “any threatening letter or communication” to “influence, intimidate or impede” an officer of the court. Prosecutors do, however, have to prove “corrupt intent.” Trump’s tweets and tirades provide a gold mine of such corroboration.
The impeachment proceedings would have already started if congressional Republicans weren’t colluding with Trump to obstruct justice.