By Alex Bregman
Even before the blockbuster report that President Trump told FBI Director James Comey to back off his Russia investigation and the later report that the president also asked intelligence chiefs to push back against the inquiry, lawyers and politicians were beginning to raise the topic of obstruction of justice.
Pundits pointed to the allegation that Trump asked Comey for a loyalty pledge one week into his administration, which Comey reportedly refused to provide.
They pointed to Trump’s decision to fire Comey after the former FBI chief reportedly asked for more resources for the Russia inquiry.
They pointed to Trump reportedly telling Russian diplomats about Comey’s firing and saying: “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
They also pointed to Trump’s admission that terminating Comey was, at least in part, driven by the Russia probe. He told NBC News: “And, 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.”
But what is obstruction of justice?
Several federal laws prohibit it. But to be convicted, it’s not enough just to “obstruct, influence, or impede” an “official proceeding.” Prosecutors also must prove corrupt intent.
What does that mean?
It’s less than clear. Some judges refer to “an improper purpose” or one that is “evil” or “wicked.”
But the point is, proving obstruction isn’t just about what President Trump did but also what he was thinking while he did it.
In the meeting when, according to Comey’s memo, Trump asked him to “let this go,” the president justified his request by saying that Michael Flynn — the former national security adviser who is a target of the probe — is “a good guy.” Some legal experts say asking for leniency for a friend can’t be obstruction and prosecuting that might even be a violation of the First Amendment.
Many Democrats disagree. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., told Yahoo News, “When you take a look at what this president has done to try to impede the investigation … I think it looks as if there may have been a move toward or actually obstruction of justice.”
Their argument is that Trump acted “corruptly” by asking Comey to be loyal to him rather than follow his oath of office and the law. After he refused, Trump fired him.
Still, it’s hard to pin down the president’s motives. According to reports, Comey has more notes about meetings with Trump, which could be released soon. Maybe they will shed more light on this murk, or maybe the new special counsel, former FBI Director Bob Mueller, will figure it out.
In the meantime, when you hear about “obstruction of justice,” at least you can say, “Now I get it.”