Monday, June 19, 2017

About That Scandal: Can Donald Trump Be Brought To Justice? Yes. No. Maybe.

MARK WEAVER / FIVETHIRTYEIGHT
With news media coverage of the Russia scandal in a sort of stasis -- we're between leaks and the only decent entertainment seems to be Donald Trump's criminal defense lawyers falling all over themselves trying to pretend that he's not under investigation for obstruction of justice -- let's approach his involvement in the successful Kremlin effort to interfere in the 2016 presidential election from a somewhat different perspective.   
By backing into the question of whether Trump can be brought to justice instead of approaching it head on, we expose an essential component of the present and future of the scandal: What can be done when a president of the United States breaks the law?   The deeply dissatisfying short answer usually is damned little.   
But we're not talking about jaywalking across Pennsylvania Avenue.  We're talking about complicity in an unprecedented assault from America's greatest foe on the bedrock of democracy in the most explosive scandal since Soviet spies stole atomic bomb secrets over 70 years ago, something that to my deep vexation keeps getting lost because too many people are fixating on the trees and not the forest. 
When you look at the forest, the constitutional carapace protecting a president from prosecution begins to come apart.   
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There is no question Trump is guilty of obstructing justice at the very least, but how to prove that most serious allegation and get it to stick to the point where the words President Pence begin to roll easily off the tongue. 
Trump, who without question in mentally ill, may completely lose his shit before he can fire special counsel Robert Mueller as he fired FBI Director James Comey, which seems increasingly likely as a slow-motion version of Richard Nixon's Saturday Night Massacre unspools. The president's deeply disturbed psyche simply cannot abide deferring to anyone else while he remains appallingly indifferent, and in fact downright dismissive, of what Russia wrought and what that means to national security.   
The obstruction of justice case against Trump is, in my view, a slam dunk. 
18 U.S. Code Section 1505 requires that it be shown that the perp "corruptly, or by threats of force, or by any threatening letter or communication influences, obstructs, or impedes or endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede the due and proper administration of the law"  (You can look it up.)  What this boils down to is acting with improper intent, which Trump did in spades in:
* Clearing the room before asking his national defense director and NSA director to stop Comey. 
* Clearing the room again before asking Comey to stop investigating Michael Flynn. 
* Firing Comey under false pretenses. 
* Becoming angry with Attorney General Sessions for recusing himself. 
* Becoming angry with Deputy AG Rosenstein for naming Mueller. 
* Floating a bogus story about Barack Obama ordering his Trump Tower phones being tapped to divert the FBI.
For his part, Trump does not believe he obstructed justice.  This is because in his fevered mind there was no underlying crime, only a "witch hunt" of historic proportions. 
There also is a sub-plot here worthy of a Sopranos episode. 
Trump gets AG Sessions to order Rosenstein to reverse engineer the legal justification for him to fire Comey, but over the FBI's Hillary Clinton email server investigation, turns around and says Comey actually was axed for turning up the Russia scandal heat, Rosenstein responds by naming Mueller, and an apoplectic Trump blames the deputy AG for double-crossing him.
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Whether Rosenstein walks the plank (or quits or recuses himself) before Mueller's fate is determined is not out of the question.  But in any event, justice will run its course.
This course, of course, will be criminal in the case of Trump's associates and political in his own case, although it should be noted that the issue of a sitting president being immune from criminal prosecution has not been settled.
The associates said to be under the investigative microscope -- Carter Page, Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, Roger Stone, son-in-law Jared Kushner and the especially oleaginous Flynn -- could face a variety of criminal charges.  Flynn seems a shoo-in unless he lands the big fish for investigators and there are reports that he is blabbing to the FBI. 
It is widely assumed the big fish won't be impeached because the gatekeepers to that political process are House Republicans, and even Trump being caught in flagrante delicto with Vladimir Putin would not move them to bring the hammer down on The Donald until their legislative agenda has been blessed by his signature.   
But what if that agenda remains stalled and the hot winds of electoral armageddon in 2018 are blowing down their necks? 
Well, as extraordinarily shameless as this crew is, then things might change. 

Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal.    

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