“Who are we to believe: Mr. Comey, who would have no reason to accuse the president of obstruction of justice, and who has apparently preserved meticulous notes of his conversations? Or the president, who fact-checkers have demonstrated has told more lies in less time than any other modern occupant of the Oval Office?”
MAY 17, 2017
After the revelations of the past 24 hours, it appears that President Trump’s conduct in and around the firing of the F.B.I. director, James Comey, may have crossed the line into criminality. The combination of what is known and what is credibly alleged would, if fully substantiated, constitute obstruction of justice. It is time for Congress and a special counsel in the executive branch to conduct objective, bipartisan inquiries into these allegations, together with the underlying matters involving Michael Flynn and Russia that gave rise to them.
First, the facts. On Jan. 26, Sally Yates, then the acting attorney general, informed the White House that Mr. Flynn had apparently lied about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. The next day, President Trump hosted Mr. Comey for a private dinner, during which he allegedly asked Mr. Comey repeatedly whether he would pledge his “loyalty” to him, which Mr. Comey declined to do.
On Feb. 14, the day after Mr. Flynn’s resignation as National Security Advisor, President Trump allegedly held Mr. Comey back after a meeting to say that Mr. Flynn had done nothing wrong and that, “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” Mr. Comey declined to drop the investigation, going on in March to confirm before Congress that it was ongoing, and later requesting greater resources from the Department of Justice to pursue it.
Finally, on May 9, President Trump fired Mr. Comey. We were first told he did so because Mr. Comey bungled the F.B.I.’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email. Two days later, President Trump changed his story: “In fact, 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.’” The day after that, President Trump threatened Mr. Comey on Twitter, warning him against leaking to the press.
Any one of these facts or allegations, by itself, likely would not constitute obstruction of justice. After all, as the F.B.I. director himself stated, the president has the undisputed power under the Constitution to hire and fire members of his administration in the normal course of government business.
But what he cannot do is exercise that power corruptly, to spare himself or those associated with him, like Mr. Flynn, from scrutiny and possible criminal liability. To do so would run afoul of a series of federal statutes that define the crime of obstruction of justice. They are variations on the theme that anyone who “corruptly” or by “any threatening letter or communication” tries “to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice” will be subject to criminal penalties.
The operative word here is “corruptly.” It means “an improper purpose,” or one that is “evil” or “wicked.” There is no precise formula for defining it; those involved in the administration of justice must continually wrestle with its interpretation.
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