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Obstruction of Justice

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Joined: 07 Mar 1999
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Location: Berkeley, California

PostPosted: Thu Feb 15, 2018 5:17 pm    Post subject: Obstruction of Justice Reply with quote

Lock him up:
By Greg Sargent February 15 at 10:05 AM

Former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus has given a remarkable interview published by Vanity Fair that is getting some attention because it confirms once again that the most powerful person in the world is a raging, abusive megalomaniac. We learn that President Trump erupted at his staff over accurate media coverage of his paltry inaugural crowd; that officials competed for the title of most obsequious suck-up to Trump; and that Trump once commanded Priebus to swat a fly.

But buried in the piece is something potentially more important: revelations that shed light on Trump’s state of mind at key moments throughout his efforts to hamstring the investigation into Trump campaign collusion with Russian efforts to sabotage our democracy.

The piece tells us that very early on, Trump began to “lash out wildly” at law enforcement officials who were in a position to investigate his administration. Priebus and White House counsel Donald McGahn tried to stall the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey. But Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein’s memo, Vanity Fair reports, gave Trump the “pretext” to go forward.

The word “pretext” is not used by Priebus. But the piece relies on extensive cooperation from Priebus, which suggests that this may be how Priebus viewed it. As you’ll recall, that “pretext” was Rosenstein’s memo excoriating Comey over the FBI’s mishandling of the Hillary Clinton probe — a memo Trump ordered up in a meeting just before firing Comey. If Priebus really viewed this as a “pretext,” or believed Trump did, you’d think that would be of interest to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is probing whether Trump’s efforts to derail the investigation constituted obstruction of justice.

“We already had some evidence that the Rosenstein memo was a pretext in the sense that Trump used it as an excuse to fire Comey for other reasons,” Eric Posner, a University of Chicago law professor who has co-authored a useful paper on presidential obstruction of justice, told me this morning. “The material in the Vanity Fair piece reinforces that impression . . . it’s another element that Mueller will want to look at.”

Mueller interviewed Priebus in October. “I suspect that Priebus has already been asked about Trump’s motivation for firing Comey and almost firing Sessions,” Posner told me, referring to Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The Vanity Fair piece, which is adapted from a forthcoming book by Chris Whipple, offers new details on Trump’s almost-firing of Sessions as well. It reports that Trump subjected Sessions to an abusive tirade for failing to protect him from the investigation, which was already known.

But the piece adds more. After Trump ordered Mueller fired in June by his White House counsel (who refused to carry out Trump’s directive), Trump ordered Priebus to “get Sessions’ resignation flat out,” according to a White House insider. That insider quotes Trump saying to Priebus: “Don’t give me any bulls—. Don’t try to slow me down like you always do. Get the resignation of Jeff Sessions.”

Priebus talked Trump out of it. But if this is right, it shows again that Trump may have wanted Sessions out and to replace him with an attorney general who would constrain the Mueller probe where Sessions did not. After all, Trump allegedly had just ordered Mueller fired but had failed to get his wish. It will not be easy to prove Trump obstructed justice — it will require showing that he acted with “corrupt intent” and an “improper purpose,” such as protecting himself and his associates from accountability — but this adds to a pattern that appears to shed light on Trump’s state of mind in this regard.

“There’s often a tendency for observers to think that Trump is just out of control,” Posner told me. “This [Vanity Fair interview] gave more of an impression of him being instrumentally rational in getting what he wants. The more you think that Trump is acting pursuant to a clear plan in his mind to protect himself and his family from these investigations, the more you’ll think that it’s obstruction of justice.”

“He didn’t just scream at people and leave it at that,” Posner added of Trump. “He did all kinds of things over many months to try to derail the investigation. In a few cases he was deterred by his aides. But in many cases he was able to act. That strengthens the argument that he acted, as the law requires, with improper purpose or corrupt intent. It means he intended to block this investigation because it threatened him politically.”

To be sure, there is a separate set of questions over whether a president can be held criminally liable for obstruction of justice. But this isn’t just about that. It’s also about learning what really happened for the purposes of basic accountability. Mueller could end up establishing a pattern of very serious or potentially impeachable misconduct. This would have important political significance (whether or not congressional Republicans act on it, which they probably won’t). And this new interview suggests that’s a more likely outcome.
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