There have been so many important economic and foreign policy stories to write about these days, and certainly RealityChek will be covering lots of them. But this of course is #ComeyDay, as they’ve said on Twitter, and I thought the most useful item I could post today would focus on one of the central questions raised by the Russiagate controversy: Has President Trump committed an impeachable offense?
Before beginning, though, it’s vital to recognize that although the Constitution provides for impeachment (and removal – they’re two separate matters) of government officials, including the president, on the grounds of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the Framers never defined this term. Not surprisingly, legal specialists have made any number of convincing arguments for infusing these words with some specific content. But at least based on this Congressional Research Service survey, the consensus seems to be that “high crimes etc” mean anything that a majority of the House of Representatives (which impeaches) and two-thirds of the Senate (which conducts the trial, and whose guilty verdict on any specific charges, or “articles” results in removal from office) believe it means.
So legally and Constitutionally speaking, the debate on whether the president is guilty of the specific crime of obstruction of justice is beside the point. Politically speaking, though, finding this kind of actual violation of criminal law would make impeachment and removal votes much easier to justify for lawmakers when they face the electorate.
The main evidence so far in favor of an obstruction charge consists of two claims made by Comey under oath in his opening statement today to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. First, according to the former FBI Director, in a one-on-one February 14 Oval Office meeting, Mr. Trump made the following comments about the bureau’s probe of former White House national security adviser Michael J. Flynn:
“‘He is a good guy and has been through a lot.’” He repeated that Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong on his calls with the Russians, but had misled the Vice President. He then said, ‘I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.’”
Second, in phone calls with the president on March 30 and April 11, Comey said Mr. Trump referred to a “cloud” that was undermining presidency’s agenda that he wanted Comey’s help in lifting. In the first phone call, according to Comey,
“the President called me at the FBI. He described the Russia investigation as ‘a cloud’ that was impairing his ability to act on behalf of the country. He said he had nothing to do with Russia, had not been involved with hookers in Russia, and had always assumed he was being recorded when in Russia. He asked what we could do to ‘lift the cloud.’ I responded that we were investigating the matter as quickly as we could, and that there would be great benefit, if we didn’t find anything, to our having done the work well. He agreed, but then re-emphasized the problems this was causing him.”
Comey added that President Trump “finished by stressing “the cloud” that was interfering with his ability to make deals for the country and said he hoped I could find a way to get out that he wasn’t being investigated.”
In the April 11 call, Comey stated that Mr. Trump
“asked what I had done about his request that I ‘get out’ that he is not personally under investigation. I replied that I had passed his request to the Acting Deputy Attorney General, but I had not heard back. He replied that ‘the cloud’ was getting in the way of his ability to do his job. He said that perhaps he would have his people reach out to the Acting Deputy Attorney General. I said that was the way his request should be handled. I said the White House Counsel should contact the leadership of DOJ to make the request, which was the traditional channel.”
It seems clear, therefore, that the “cloud” references concerned the president’s belief that Comey should have informed the public that he personally was not being investigated by the FBI for anything. That is, it had nothing to do with the Russiagate investigation or the separate Flynn investigation. And responding to separate questions from California Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Florida Republican Marco Rubio, Comey explicitly agreed.
The question still remains, however, of whether Mr. Trump’s Flynn comments constitute obstruction. At this point, definitive answers aren’t possible. For one, the president’s personal attorney has denied Comey’s claim that any such Flynn-related statements were made at all. For another, as all the legal community seems to agree, obstruction of justice is a complicated act consisting of numerous criteria that need to be met. But what’s certainly noteworthy for the time being is what Comey himself has said about the matter – and what he hasn’t said.
It’s important to observe that Comey at one point did indeed tell the Senate panel, that although he found the Flynn remarks “very disturbing, very concerning,” he also said
“I don’t think it’s for me to say whether the conversation I had with the president was an effort to obstruct….that’s a conclusion I’m sure the special counsel will work towards to try and understand what the intention was there, and whether that’s an offense. “
Considering Comey’s willingness to expound at great length last July on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s innocence of the charge of criminally mishandling classified information on her personal server, that sounds coy at very best.
In addition, Comey was given repeated chances to characterize the Flynn statements as obstruction. For instance, Idaho Republican James Risch asked him whether the president “directed” or “ordered” him to “let it go.” Comey responded, respectively, “Not in his words, no” and “those words were not an order.”
Comey then added that “I took it as a direction” because “this is a president of the United States with me alone saying I hope this. I took it as, this is what he wants me to do. I didn’t obey that, but that’s the way I took it.”
Also pertinent: In response to a question from Rubio, Comey said that President Trump never asked him to “let go” the Flynn investigation after the February 14 meeting. Moreover, Comey told Republican James Lankford of Oklahoma that neither any White House nor Justice Department staffers, nor the heads of any of the intelligence agencies ever mentioned to him dropping the Flynn probe.
As Lankford concluded: “The key aspect here is if this seems to be something the president is trying to get you to drop it, it seems like a light touch to drop it, to bring it up at that point, the day after he had just fired Flynn, to come back here and say, I hope we can let this go, then it never reappears again.”
Keeping in mind that other shoes could always drop, that’s an observation I hope will remain front and center as the Russiagate probes – and press coverage – drag on.