Special counsel Robert Mueller wants very much to speak with Donald Trump on the topic of obstruction of justice as it pertains to the ongoing Russia collusion investigation. Mueller is so interested in having that conversation, in fact, that he has offered to ask some of his questions in writing instead of asking them all during a proposed in-person interview, which is no small thing.
Why is Mueller so hot to chat with Trump about obstruction, and how does this involve the ongoing trial of Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort? Before getting into that, let’s talk about exactly what we’re talking about.
Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute explains it thusly:
Obstruction of justice is defined in the omnibus clause of 18 USC § 1503, which provides that “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 administration of justice, shall be (guilty of an offense).’ § 1503 applies only to federal judicial proceedings. Under § 1505, however, a defendant can be convicted of obstruction of justice by obstructing a pending proceeding before Congress or a federal agency. A pending proceeding could include an informal investigation by an executive agency.”
The refrigerator magnet version is simplicity itself: “Don’t get in the way.” Prosecutors and investigators are going to do what they do, and if you screw with the process, they will burn you down on an obstruction charge. Case law is riddled with instances of people who were as innocent as the new-fallen snow of what they were being investigated for but wound up getting smacked with obstruction because they impeded the original investigation.
Presidents are far from immune to charges of obstruction. In 1998, President Bill Clinton was charged with that very crime because he lied about his girlfriend during an investigation into a failed real estate deal. Clinton did nothing wrong on Whitewater but found himself hit with a count of obstruction for the actions he took while trying to hide his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinski. The mansion of the law has many rooms, and prosecutors have keys to all the doors.
Why is the special counsel so interested in talking about obstruction of justice with the president of the United States? Well, let’s see now …
The matter of former FBI Director James Comey will surely be discussed. Comey was in charge of the Russia investigation when the newly minted Trump administration first took office. On January 27, 2017, Trump personally demanded a “pledge of loyalty” from Comey, which could be construed as an elliptical reference to the Russia probe.
Two weeks later in the Oval Office, Trump pointedly asked Comey to “let this go,” referring to the investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had resigned in disgrace the day before. Flynn, it should be noted, is now cooperating with special counsel Mueller.
Trump continued to apply pressure on Comey to end the investigation through the months of March and April of 2017, calling on him repeatedly to lift the “cloud” of the inquiry. That same March, Trump leaned on CIA chief Mike Pompeo and director of national intelligence Dan Coats to get them to convince Comey to end the Flynn investigation, which would in turn disrupt the Russia investigation.
James Comey did not respond to the increasing levels of pressure levied against him by the president and his agents, so on May 9, the president fired him as FBI director. The next day, according to The New York Times, Trump informed visiting Russian officials that firing Comey had “taken off” the “great pressure” of the Russia inquiry. The day after that, he told NBC News with his bare face hanging out that he had fired Comey because of “this Russia thing.”
One grimly amusing aspect to all this is the genuine fear Trump’s lawyers have of letting their client within fifty yards of Robert Mueller. Any on-the-record conversation between Mueller and Trump carries double-barreled peril for the president. They are worried, with cause, that Trump might lie under oath about any number of Russia-related topics, opening him up to charges of obstruction and perjury.
Worse for them, however, would be if Trump does with Mueller what he apparently did with those Russian officials and NBC News: He might tell the truth, incriminating him and others in any number of ways, and God only knows what could happen then. For the Trump legal team, as Greg Sargent wryly noted in The Washington Post, “This is not a position of strength.”
Trump inappropriately pressured Comey to stop the investigation on numerous occasions and with increasing vigor. When Comey did not comply, Trump fired him, derailing the investigation until Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself (to Trump’s ongoing fury) and Mueller was appointed. These acts, taken together, would appear to be almost a clinical exercise in obstruction of justice.
The case for obstruction extends even to Trump’s volcanic behavior on Twitter. Most of us are numb to it by now; personally, I think it’s probably quite similar to what you’d have gotten if someone had been able to plug Richard Nixon’s id directly into a Teletype machine roundabout June of 1974.
If we hold Trump to the standard set in the articles of impeachment against Nixon, that he “made false or misleading public statements for the purpose of deceiving the people of the United States,” his Twitter conversation with the country stands as one long chain of deliberate lies that puts Richard Nixon’s wrestling match with the truth in deep shade.
What does all this have to do with Paul Manafort, the fellow on trial in Virginia? Robert Mueller has quite a lot to work with on the topic of obstruction, but the biggest club in his bag has everything to do with Manafort, because Manafort — along with Donald Trump Jr. — participated in the now-infamous “Trump Tower meeting” in June of 2016.
At that meeting, which took place at the height of the presidential campaign, Russian agents sought to trade information on Hillary Clinton for the lessening or outright removal of sanctions against Russia imposed by the Magnitsky Act. Nothing ultimately came of that meeting, despite Trump’s public brag two days before it happened that some big anti-Hillary news was soon to come.
That news never came, but when the media broke the story about the meeting, the White House realized the optics of Russians meeting with Trump campaign officials at the highest levels were decidedly poor. At this point, Trump personally dictated a statement for the press declaring that the meeting had only been about the adoption of Russian children by US citizens. That statement was a brazen lie from start to finish.
Again, the Nixonian standard for obstruction — false or misleading public statements for the purpose of deceiving the people of the United States — seems to be vividly in play.
Paul Manafort was at that Trump Tower meeting, and if convicted at trial, could be compelled to testify about Trump’s knowledge of it. From the sound of things, Mueller may already have a corroborating witness to bolster Manafort’s potential testimony about the meeting: Trump’s former attorney and personal fixer, Michael Cohen, claimed last week that Trump knew all about it. Trump and his legal team have, of course, denied everything. If history is any guide, said denials are further proof that it’s all true.
This is one of the many reasons why the bank and tax fraud trial of Paul Manafort is a historically big deal. Robert Mueller is, by all appearances, building a case for obstruction of justice against Donald Trump, and Manafort’s possible testimony in the matter could be a cornerstone of that case. We watch, and we wait.