Posts Tagged ‘Did Trump obstruct justice?’

The Mueller Report: I read it for you, but you should read it for yourself. pt 5

June 26, 2019

The President’s Efforts to Curtail the Special Counsel Investigation

We may never know why Mr. Trump ordered Mueller to be fired, then changed his mind. Did he give the order in a fit of temper and either reconsider or lose interest once he’d calmed down a bit? Was he eventually persuaded that his concerns about conflicts of interest were so flimsy they would only embarrass him if he kept pushing them? Does he in fact have so little attention span that he simply forgot, as some books have suggested? Or did he decide that derailing Mueller’s investigation would work better than sacking him? Perhaps an impeachment inquiry or criminal prosecution after he leaves office will reveal more, if Mr. Trump is compelled to testify under oath. What we do know, however, is that the efforts to shut down the investigation were not limited to trying to get rid of the chief investigator.

Two days after McGahn refused to order Rosenstein to fire Mueller, Mr. Trump ordered Corey Lewandowski to take a message to Jeff Sessions ordering him to unrecuse himself and take charge of the investigation. The idea was not to simply shut it down, but rather to forbid the FBI from actually investigating any crimes; instead they were to only look at what the Russians had done and how to prevent them from doing it again, without considering whether Trump or anyone else had committed any crimes. This was unusual since Lewandowski had no government position and hence had no real reason to be carrying instructions or memos between the White House and the Department of Justice, aside from the fact that he was known for being utterly loyal to Mr. Trump and hence perhaps more likely to do as he was told. Trump dictated a letter to Sessions stating that Sessions was to announce that since the President was being treated very unfairly, he had decided to unrecuse himself; furthermore, unless Sessions made this statement as dictated and restricted the investigation as instructed, he would be fired. Lewandowski decided that, given the sensitive nature of this message, he should hand it to Sessions in person; but after several unsuccessful attempts to arrange a meeting where he could do so, he decided to give the memo to Rick Dearborn, a senior White House official who had a dinner appointment with Sessions. Lewandowski says that while he thought Trump had tasked him with delivering this message because of his loyalty, Dearborn would be able to do it better because he actually did work for the government and had a long relationship with Sessions. However, when Dearborn saw the message he was to deliver, he became extremely uncomfortable and did not deliver it; although he said he had “handled the situation” he in fact refused to deliver the message and instead threw it away. At this same time Mr. Trump, not knowing the speech he intended Sessions to deliver had not been passed to him, called an impromptu news conference to talk about how “unfair” it was for Sessions to recuse himself from the Russia probe, and to state that Sessions might not be allowed to continue as Attorney General. Trump followed this up by demanding that Reince Priebus, his Chief of Staff at the time, fire Sessions. Ostensibly this was because Sessions had falsely denied discussing campaign-related matters with the Russian ambassador, but those around him believed the real reason was what Trump had been saying for months: his anger over Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation. Priebus resisted, and when Trump insisted Priebus lied and said he’d get Sessions to resign even though he had no such intention. Eventually he was able to convince Trump that if they fired Sessions the second and third ranking people at DOJ, Rosenstein and Rachel Brand, would also resign, and that he would be unable to get anyone confirmed by the Senate to replace them.

The testimony given under oath to Mueller paints a picture of chaos and dread. Hope Hicks said she wanted to “throw herself” between Trump and the press during his July 19 interview lambasting Sessions, but he loved it and loved the coverage it got afterwards. Priebus and McGahn discussed resigning rather than go along with the plan to fire Sessions. Sessions wrote out another letter of resignation and carried it with him whenever he went to the White House after these events. Again, the only thing that prevented a major Constitutional breakdown, with possibly the entire leadership of the Department of Justice resigning , was the refusal of Trump’s underlings to obey orders they thought were “all wrong.” At times they lied and stalled until his temper cooled down, other times they kept trying to talk him out of whatever self-destructive, government-destructive action he was demanding. The whole time he seems to have been loving the press coverage his attacks on Sessions were getting, and his major concern was to time his actions so as to avoid bad coverage during the Sunday news programs.

In considering whether Trump’s efforts to have Lewandowski deliver an ultimatum that he either rein in the Mueller investigation or be fired, the Special Counsel considered the following elements:

  1. Obstructive act: Would these actions naturally obstruct the investigation and any grand jury proceedings that might flow from the inquiry? Undoubtedly; Mueller writes that “Taken together, the President’s directives indicate that Sessions was being instructed to tell the Special Counsel to end the existing investigation into the President and his campaign…” so the entire point of the President’s actions was to obstruct the investigation.
  2. Nexus to an official proceeding: It was public knowledge that there was already a grand jury investigation of the Trump campaign by this time. We don’t know too much about that because this part of the report is redacted.
  3. Intent: Mueller writes: “Substantial evidence indicates that the President’s effort to have Sessions limit the scope of the Special Counsel’s investigation to future election interference was intended to prevent further investigative scrutiny of the President’s and his campaign’s conduct.” Or to put it bluntly: Trump was trying to cover up his own past misdeeds and those of his employees. In particular, Mueller notes that Trump sought to use Lewandowski, someone outside the government who was known to be extremely loyal, to communicate with Sessions, rather than simply talk to him directly or use normal government channels, suggesting that Trump was trying to hide his message to Sessions and to avoid any official record of having communicated with him at all. And it might have worked, if Lewandowski had managed to deliver the message himself instead of passing it to Dearborn to deliver. Dearborn was so freaked out when he read the message he was supposed to pass on that “he recalled not wanting to ask where it came from or think further about doing anything with it,” and instead lied about delivering it and instead trashed it.

Legal experts agree that the fact that Trump failed to obstruct justice because his staff refused to cooperate (or in the case of Lewandoski bungled the job) does not make it any less a crime, just as we routinely throw terrorists in jail for planning bombing attacks on this nation even when they end up talking to an FBI informant instead.

The Mueller Report: I read it for you, but you should read it yourself. pt. 4

June 26, 2019

The President’s Efforts to Remove the Special Counsel

Of all the consequences of firing Director Comey, the worst from Trump’s perspective was the appointment of a Special Counsel to lead the investigation into Russian subversion of our electoral process. This was, of course, inevitable, given the gravity of the question of the integrity of our elections, the lack of trust most Americans had that the President would address the problem in an honest and impartial manner, the deep concerns of most of the nation’s law enforcement and counterintelligence agencies, and the fact that almost everyone else was either a potential suspect or a witness at this point. This was totally predictable and unavoidable in the view of anyone with any political sense or understanding of how American government works, but it caught Mr. Trump completely by surprise. The report states: “According to notes written by Hunt, when Sessions told the President that a Special Counsel had been appointed, the President slumped back in his chair and said, “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.’” Given that Clinton survived a Special Prosecutor with far more sweeping powers and far less neutrality than Mueller had, this seems rather melodramatic. He then became angry at Attorney General Sessions for not protecting him. I have to confess, I have to agree to a point, given that Sessions apparently recommended firing Comey and the appointment of a Special Prosecutor to take over the investigation after that was as predictable as a third Sharknado movie.   Several witnesses report that Trump was in a rage, and he demanded Sessions resign. Sessions agreed, wrote out his resignation letter and handed it to Trump. Trump decided let Sessions stay as AG, but refused to return the letter until other advisors pressured him over several days to do so.

All of this seems understandable given Mr. Trump’s well-known temper and political ignorance, and by itself not very significant. His later efforts to hit back at the Special Counsel before he even began his work, however, were more questionable. Trump began pushing for Special Counsel Mueller to be removed, alleging conflicts of interest. His own advisors told him his claims were, in Bannon’s words, “ridiculous and petty” and Department of Justice ethics officials examined the question and found no cause for concern. Despite this, Trump pressured White House Counsel McGahn to push Deputy AG Rosenstein to fire Mueller over these alleged conflicts. McGahn pushed back, telling Trump that firing Comey wasn’t even his “biggest exposure” compared to his “other contacts” and his efforts to end the Flynn investigation. The report goes on to describe increased pressure from Trump to fire Mueller, and apparent efforts by various advisors and staff to derail these efforts by leaking them to the press, refusing to cooperate and so on. McGahn even prepared to resign rather than participate in firing Mueller, though ultimately he was talked out of resigning by Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus. In the end McGahn did not resign, and Trump did not ask him the next day whether he had instructed Rosenstein to fire Mueller as Trump had wanted.

The Special Counsel considered these facts to be relevant to determining whether this behavior constitutes obstruction of justice:

  1. Obstructive Act: The report considers whether firing Mueller would have naturally delayed, chilled or otherwise impeded any further investigation. After all, firing Mueller would probably have meant he was replaced, but even so the investigation could have been crippled. Therefore, the proposed firing could have obstructed the investigation. It is also crucial to consider whether Trump actually ordered Mueller fired, or merely suggested the DOJ investigate these alleged conflicts of interest. Ultimately, the report rejects Trump’s denials that he ordered McGahn to order Rosenstein to fire Mueller; not only did it find McGahn a more credible witness than Trump with no motive to lie, but his other actions supported his story, other witnesses corroborate parts of it, and DOJ was already well aware of the allegations Trump was making and had concluded they were baseless. So Mueller’s office found Trump’s claim that he was merely making a suggestion that they look at these supposed conflicts to be unbelievable, while McGahn’s claim that Trump told him “Mueller has to go” likely true.[1] Thus we have an attempt to perform an act that would be likely to impede further investigation; this attempt was not carried out only because McGahn refused to do as ordered, and Mr. Trump was either persuaded to drop the matter or otherwise lost interest in it, as he lost interest in firing Sessions.
  2. Nexus to an official proceeding: By this time Mr. Trump knew he was under investigation; he had been warned by McGahn of his legal exposure, the Special Counsel’s office had informed the White House that they’d be interviewing witnesses to Trump’s interference in Comey’s investigation, and Trump himself tweeted that he was under investigation. Therefore, he knew there was an official investigation which could be crippled or completely derailed by firing the Special Counsel, yet he sought to do so anyway.
  3. Intent: “Substantial evidence indicates that the President’s attempts to remove the Special Counsel were linked… to reports that the President was being investigated for potential obstruction of justice.” From his immediate “I’m fucked” to his pushing previously refuted allegations against Mueller and finally to his ordering Mueller be fired, it is clear that he was primarily concerned with protecting himself; and his later denials of having ordered McGahn to fire the Special Counsel suggest he knew the order could be seen as improper.

Once again, the report cites the existence of all three essential ingredients of an obstruction of justice: the act itself, the investigation to be obstructed, and the intent to do so. Mr. Trump had the desire to end the investigation and discussed “knocking out Mueller” by alleging conflicts of interest which his own people described as “silly” and “not real.” The only reason he did not “knock out Mueller” was that his own staff and advisors, realizing the enormity of his proposed actions (McGahn described it as “crazy shit”) refused to cooperate. Attempted obstruction of justice, like attempted murder, is still prosecutable; whether this act does indeed rise to the level of criminality is something that can only be determined, says Mueller, by an impeachment hearing before Congress, where all evidence can be presented and the President can offer his defense against the charges.

[1] Of course too, McGahn answered questions under oath and in person; Trump has refused to do so.