President Donald Trump had the legal authority to fire FBI director James Comey. But if Trump’s intention in so doing was to impede the investigation into his campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia then it could constitute obstruction of justice, an impeachable offense, legal experts told ThinkProgress earlier this week.
But establishing that Comey’s firing was obstruction of justice involves proving Trump’s state of mind. That’s very difficult to do.
If, as Trump claimed in his letter, he fired Comey because of his misconduct during the Clinton email investigation, that would be perfectly legal. If Trump really was trying to protect himself or his allies, that would be a “corrupt purpose.”
That’s why Trump’s interview with NBC’s Lester Holt is so extraordinary.
Trump told Holt that “when I decided to do it, I said to myself… this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story.” Here Trump is admitting that his dissatisfaction with Comey was based, at least in part, on Comey’s decision to pursue an investigation into potential collusion between his campaign and Russia.
He is telling Holt his state of mind.
Pres. Trump on firing Comey: "I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story." https://t.co/hxqM1LI6BE
— NBC Nightly News (@NBCNightlyNews) May 11, 2017
The articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton both included obstruction of justice. Congressman Joaquin Castro believes Trump is guilty of the same offense.
This is obstruction. This President is purposefully testing the American democratic system. https://t.co/Qrr1DWBzaj
— Joaquin Castro (@JoaquinCastrotx) May 12, 2017
As does Laurence Tribe, a professor of Constitutional law at Harvard.
#lesterholt interview is the Nixon tapes + 18-minute gap on steroids: enough right there to start drafting several Articles of Impeachment.
— Laurence Tribe (@tribelaw) May 12, 2017
Trump also seems to be under the impression that he is in charge of the investigation into his own campaign and empowered to expand or end it. Trump told Holt that he might “lengthen out the investigation.”
Ultimately, Comey’s firing seemed to reflect Trump’s frustration that Comey, in pursuing the investigation, was being “disloyal” to Trump. The New York Times reports that Trump invited Comey to dinner in January and demanded he pledge his “loyalty.” Comey refused, promising only to be honest.
The Deputy White House Press Secretary, Sarah Sanders, also linked Comey’s firing today to the Russia probe. Sanders said during her press briefing that she hoped Comey’s firing would help bring the investigation “to its conclusion.”
While Trump could theoretically face criminal charges for obstruction of justice, it is not a practical possibility. (Trump, for one thing, controls the Department of Justice.)
Therefore, accountability for obstruction of justice would have to be exercised through impeachment. With Republicans in charge of both chambers, impeachment proceedings do not seem in the offing.
But the partisan makeup of Congress is not static. If things change, Trump might find his own words from his interview with Lester Holt used against him in articles of impeachment.