On Friday the potential for an obstruction of justice case against President Donald Trump took a quantum leap in strength and legal sustainability when the New York Times reported that Trump had advised two of the investigation’s targets that the Russia “pressure” was off and that Trump had fired FBI Director James Comey, who he described as a “nut.”
It was shocking enough that the President had invited two of the targets of an ongoing FBI counter intelligence investigation — Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak — to a special Oval Office meeting May 10, just a day after firing Comey, and that he excluded the American press while including the Russian press, including a photographer.
The meeting also triggered a major controversy when it was revealed that the President disclosed classified information to the two Russians in what seemed to be a spontaneous and careless manner (though Trump later asserted, correctly, that he has a right to declassify information as he sees fit).
But according to the Times report Friday, the President also advised Lavrov and Kislyak that:
“I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job.” The Times account also noted that the President observed that “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
The statement may well be viewed by the newly appointed Department of Justice special counsel, Robert Mueller, as placing a bright spotlight on the President’s true intent in firing Mr. Comey: deliberate interference with the progress of the Russia probe.
This could constitute an obstruction of justice and a possible impeachable offense under US law, if the President fired Comey with the specific intent of impeding the due administration of justice in the Russian investigation.
Mueller has been directed to investigate the possibility of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, who were actively attempting to influence the American presidential election.
In an obstruction of justice case, it is usually easy to prove that a potential defendant engaged in a number of suspicious acts. What is hard to prove is that the acts were performed with a specific criminal — rather than an innocent — intent.
Trump’s position on the Comey firing has shifted several times over the past few days from a claim that the firing was motivated by a critical memo prepared by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (a claim Rosenstein denies) to the President’s current assertion that he intended to fire Comey before Rosenstein even wrote his memo.
Trump has variously asserted that Comey was incompetent, that morale was low in the FBI and that Comey was a “showboater.” These claims would supply an innocent motive to the firing, though Trump’s loyalty demands and his alleged request that Comey lay off his former national security adviser have caused many to suspect an improper and possibly criminal motivation, even before Friday’s startling developments.
Now they can add to the growing stack of motive evidence these accounts of explicit statements to the Russians that the Russia investigation “pressure” was off and the FBI “nut” was out of the way.
Trump supporters will assert that this was just an honest expression of Trump’s legitimate foreign policy objective, a peaceful alliance with the Russians and the elimination of an incompetent FBI director. This is becoming an increasingly difficult concept to sell as dark clouds gather over the President and his new administration.