Saturday, June 10, 2017

Trump and Obstruction of Justice: What did the President do and why?

The penultimate question of the 1973-74 Senate Judiciary Committee investigation of Richard Nixon and Watergate was Republican Senator Howard Baker’s “What did the President know and when did he know it?”  Now the question to be asked is “What did the President do and why?”
Former FBI director James Comey’s testimony on June 8, was significant in many ways.  The first was that it represented a major transformation in the debate surrounding Donald Trump and his presidency.    If before Thursday the main line of questioning was Russian involvement in US elections along with Trump or his surrogates collaboration with them (and that is still a major and important focus of the congressional and special prosecutor investigations), the Comey testimony shifted the debate to questions of whether the president engaged in obstruction of justice when he took certain actions against him or others.  Second, the testimony places Trump and his defenders on the defensive, further damaging the policy agenda of a presidency that is already dead.
Prior to Thursday partisan Democrats fantasized about a Trump indictment and impeachment.  But that was the talk of MSNBC ratings mongering and hyperventilated blog sites.  Republicans largely could ignore this talk, dismissing it as partisan chatter.  Yes the NY Times, CNN, and the Washington Post speculated on this too, but again more to sell papers than anything else.  Comey’s testimony changed that, putting Republicans, conservatives, and Trump supporters on the defense.  The focus of the public discourse , even on Fox national news, now is on whether Trump broke the law, specifically engaging in criminal obstruction of justice.  The former now are debating on the latter’s terms, and this is not good for Trump.
Too much of the debate since Thursday has been predictably partisan, breaking along Republicans acquitting Trump and Democrats convicting him.  But there is no question that the debate now centers on the two questions of what did the president do and why?  The reason for this gets down to basic criminal law–proving actus reus and mens rea.
For anyone who has every taken a criminal justice law  course they know that there are two elements to proving someone is guilty of a crime.  First one must prove that one did a specific deed in question that is prohibited by law–actus reus–and second, that the person acted with the requisite mental intent–mens rea.  Criminal liability is not strict liability–the government must also prove some level of intentionality, and do so beyond a reasonable doubt.  In a free society such as the United States, the government carries the burden to prove guilt, and a jury trial is the classic mechanism of determining that, assigning to 12 reasonable people the task of ascertaining whether the burden has been met.
Obstruction of justice is defined in various places in federal law.  18 U.S. Code § 1505 declares as obstruction of justice:

Whoever corruptly, or by threats or force, or by any threatening letter or communication influences, obstructs, or impedes or endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede the due and proper administration of the law under which any pending proceeding is being had before any department or agency of the United States, or the due and proper exercise of the power of inquiry under which any inquiry or investigation is being had by either House, or any committee of either House or any joint committee of the Congress—

Section 1505 has two important requisites.  One refers to actions that seek to obstruct, impede, or influence some proceeding by any federal agency or Congress (actus reus), and the other to the corrupt purpose (mens rea).  To show that Trump engaged in both one needs to prove both elements and that there is a nexus or connection between the two.
Much of the Comey testimony centered around actus reus–what did Trump actually do.  There were accusations about whether Trump said certain things to Comey such as call him to encourage him to stop the Flynn investigation.  While Trump has called Comey a liar and vice-versa, it would be hard to impeach Comey.  Yes, he may be a disgruntled former employee with reasons to get even, but given his long track record in government there is no reason to question Comey’s veracity under oath  where lying to Congress would bring with it both a major blow to his reputation and a possible felony charge for lying to Congress.  Some of the Trump defenders are factually challenging the Comey testimony, but instead the real battle has shifted from what the president did to what he intended.
Trump’s defenders are arguing that the president did not fire Comey to impede any investigation.  They offer some alternative reasons for his dismissal.  But increasingly they seem to be arguing a case of ignorance–that Trump simply did not understand how government works and the protocols about contacts between the president and his staff, especially those who do investigations.  Such a defense is damning the president with faint praise.
Such a defense first effectively  concedes the president is clueless about how government works and what a president can do. “Trump is not a crook because he had no idea what he could do as president.”  For someone who argued his fitness to be president, this is not a ringing endorsement of the president by his defenders.   Moreover, such a defense holds Trump to a lower standard of conduct than his predecessors.  I do not recall anyone giving Obama or previous presidents grace periods to learn their job or get up to snuff in terms of understanding their legal and constitutional duties.  One is president from January 20, upon taking the oath of office.  In addition, even if the president did nothing illegal, I see no one discussing the ethics of this issue.  By that, under any code of conduct that would should hold any public servant to, Trump’s behavior with Comey (and perhaps more broadly as president) is hardly the model of ethical conduct and decorum.  It should not just be enough to hold someone up to a minimum legal standard of conduct; the ethics of public service sets a higher bar and none of Trump’s defenders seem nowhere near defending the ethical propriety of their man.
Second, how many times have we all heard the phrase “ignorance of the law is no excuse.”  I cannot commit a crime and then say I am innocent because I did not realize I am not supposed to rob, kill, etc.”  Intentionally is generally about wishing to do something prohibited by the law, not necessarily intention to break a law I know that exists.  If I intend to kill someone I am guilty of murder even if I did not know the murder statute exists.  To say that Trump may have intended to fire Comey to impede an investigation but that the president did not violate a law because he did not understand how government operates is simply besides the point.
Third, even if Trump did not understand what he could do as president, the Justice Department is full of attorneys who could have advised him.  Other presidents turn to counsel to get advice, there is no reason for Trump not to have done so.  Fourth, some argue that there is no smoking gun to prove intent, such as an actual memo or tape recording, and therefore any speculation about mens rea is merely circumstantial.  In reality, determinations of intentionality are often if not usually circumstantial; intent or what is in our hearts is often proved by what we do under specific circumstances.  Thus, to show Trump acted with requisite intentionality to violate federal law, the standard would be whether 12 reasonable jurors with open minds would come to believe beyond a reasonable doubt that Trump intended to corruptly impede, obstruct, or influence a federal investigation.  The simply answer is right now we do not know, the investigations are only beginning and they will take time.  We should neither rush to judgement nor dismiss the accusations at this point, the fact finding has only just begun.
These investigations are a problem for Trump.  Once Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton were facing investigations, their presidencies effectively ended.  But for all three in occurred in their second terms after each has achieved significant policy victories.  Trump has no legislative policy or other real victories to count, and his presidency is now hobbled from its inception.  The irony  here is that if one loved the gridlock of the Obama years, we now will face that at least as long as the Mueller and Congressional investigations continue, which certainly will be well into 2018.


  1. The Lester Holt interview is the functional equivalent of the Smoking Gun tape. The president admitted in it -- and elsewhere -- that he fired Comey to stop the Russian investigation. Clearly mens rea.

    In other news, the deputy solicitor of the United States moved this week from the solicitor general's office to Bob Mueller's. I doubt that that he would have done that unless he thought there was some interesting litigation coming down the pike.

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  3. he president admitted in it -- and elsewhere -- that he fired Comey to stop the Russian investigation. Clearly mens rea.

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