Special counsel Robert Mueller has sought interviews with three top U.S. intelligence officials regarding requests made by President Trump over the Russia probe, signaling an important new step in his investigation:
Trump is now personally under investigation for attempting to obstruct justice.
Our dear president has responded to the development in his typically restrained, understated fashion:
That theme, depicting Trump as the victim of dark forces attempting to unseat him, has also been picked up by Trump’s defenders. As the dependably fawning Newt Gingrich puts it, “The brazen redefinition of Mueller’s task tells you how arrogant the deep state is and how confident it is it can get away with anything.”
It is true that Mueller’s probe has expanded from its initial focus on Russian intervention and possible collusion, branching now into questions of obstruction of justice. Yet any prosecutor — local, state or federal — who stumbled across evidence of possible obstruction would have done exactly the same thing. He or she would have no choice.
And in this case, the evidence of possible obstruction has been flamboyantly public, coming from Trump himself. Let’s review:
♦ Trump repeatedly, insistently ranted on Twitter and elsewhere that the investigation into possible collusion with Russia must be stopped immediately. Even if nothing else had happened, that alone would have been problematic. It’s pretty basic: A sitting U.S. president should never attempt to undermine an ongoing federal investigation, either publicly or privately. That is especially true when the investigation involves his own associates.
♦ On multiple occasions, Trump also secretly pressured the director of the FBI to stop the investigation, at one point intervening with the director to try to halt a criminal probe of a close Trump associate. (The FBI director documented these efforts extensively, at the time they happened, and shared the content of the conversations with his FBI colleagues, also at the time they happened. That makes them extremely difficult to refute.)
♦ When the FBI director did not stop the investigation, Trump fired him. He also ordered subordinates to concoct an obviously false cover story for the firing. (Seriously: Can anyone argue with a straight face that Trump fired Jim Comey because he had been unfair to Hillary Clinton during the campaign? Even Jeff Sessions has balked at doing so.)
♦ The president then publicly attempted to bully and intimidate the former FBI director into silence, suggesting that tapes of their private conversations might contradict his version of events. However, when challenged to produce these alleged tapes, Trump retreated, and still pettily refuses to confirm or deny their existence.
♦ Finally — and this is the really stupid part — Trump told an interviewer on national TV that he had decided to fire the FBI director because he wouldn’t end the Russian investigation. (“When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.”)
♦ To compound the stupidity, Trump also invited the Russian ambassador and foreign minister to the Oval Office the day after the firing, where he also confessed his motivation. (“I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”)
When the crime was committed in public, when the confession is made in public, it would be an obvious dereliction of duty for Mueller NOT to fully investigate. And by all accounts, duty is very important to Mueller.
Unable to contest the trail of evidence on its merits, Trump defenders are reduced to two secondary lines of argument:
1.) As a newcomer to politics, Trump didn’t know better than to interfere. (We’ll call this “the Ryan defense,” after its most prominent advocate, House Speaker Paul Ryan.)
The problems with the Ryan defense are multiple. Most prominently, it accepts Trump’s guilt, but argues that Trump should be judged by a lesser standard and thus be excused. It is less a defense than an excuse.
Sorry. The 71-year-old Trump may be new to the presidency, but after decades in the real estate and casino industries, he is not new to investigations, attorneys and playing hardball. He certainly knew enough about right and wrong to spot the problem when then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch had an informal encounter with Bill Clinton during the campaign. He complained about that endlessly. His insistence on speaking with Comey in private, with no witnesses, also demonstrates both pre-meditation and a full understanding that what he was doing was wrong.
2.) The president didn’t commit obstruction of justice because he is the president, and presidents can’t commit obstruction of justice. We’ll call this the “Dershowitz defense,” after Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor who endlessly champions it on cable TV.
Again, the problems with the Dershowitz defense are multiple. Again, it accepts Trump’s guilt, but argues that nothing can be done about it. It is less a defense than a “Stay Out of Jail Free” card. And although Dershowitz and others like to glide over the fact, at best it provides protection to Trump against criminal prosecution. It provides no protection whatsoever against the larger, more pressing danger of impeachment.
Article 1 of the impeachment counts against President Richard Nixon charged that Nixon, “in violation of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, has prevented, obstructed, and impeded the administration of justice.” Article 2 of the impeachment counts against Bill Clinton charged that he “has prevented, obstructed, and impeded the administration of justice.”
Well, Donald Trump has clearly, repeatedly attempted to impede the administration of justice. And the same basic lack of self-control that caused him to commit that act in plain sight also led to his public confessions to doing so. If any “deep state” put him in this predicament, it has been his own deep state of entitlement.