Exactly what is obstruction of justice? The Merriam-Webster Law Dictionary defines it as “the crime or act of willfully interfering with the process of justice and law especially by influencing, threatening, harming, or impeding a witness, potential witness, juror, or judicial or legal officer or by furnishing false information in or otherwise impeding an investigation or legal process.” It is also a federal offense.
The phrase has certainly been associated with Trump before; many months ago, former FBI director James Comey claimed that the president ordered him to “let go” of Comey’s investigation into Flynn’s activities. Trump fired Comey shortly after that and, as CNN legal analyst Steve Vladeck explained in a June 2017 piece titled “What is obstruction of justice?”, “I think the key is that the most significant step Trump appears to have taken is not his specific discussions with Comey, but his decision to fire Comey entirely because of his dissatisfaction with the shape and progress of the Russia investigation … On Flynn, it devolves into a fight over what Trump intended and what Comey understood him to intend. Contrast that with firing Comey, where there’s nowhere near the same mess about why he did it.”
On Friday, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his election-season conversations with the Russian ambassador. Soon after, ABC News reported that an unnamed “source” said Flynn had agreed to testify that Trump himself ordered Flynn to make contact with the Russians.
The next day, President Trump took to Twitter to say “I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!”
The tweet was significant because it’s the first time Trump said anything to suggest he knew Flynn had lied to the FBI.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the California congressman who is the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, promptly responded to Trump’s tweet by asking “‘If that is true, Mr. President, why did you wait so long to fire Flynn? Why did you fail to act until his lies were publicly exposed? And why did you pressure Director Comey to ‘let this go?'”
Schiff’s fellow Californian Rep. Ted Lieu openly accused Trump of obstruction of justice.
Brooking Fellow Susan Hennessey called Trump’s tweet “a pretty substantial confession to essential knowledge elements of an obstruction of justice charge.”
Walter Shaub, formerly the Director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, tweeted this in response to Trump (all punctuation lifted from the original):” …just couldn’t resist commenting on Flynn. Are you ADMITTING you knew Flynn had lied to the FBI when you asked Comey to back off Flynn???????????????????????????????????????????”
Matthew Miller, formerly a Justice Department official under the Obama administration, said “Oh my god, he just admitted to obstruction of justice. If Trump knew Flynn lied to the FBI when he asked Comey to let it go, then there is your case.”
The Daily Beast’s national editor Justin Miller re-tweeted Trump’s statement under the rhetorical question “The next day Trump asked Comey to stop investigating Flynn, and when he didn’t, fired him. If that’s not obstruction of justice, what is?”
Later on Saturday evening, however, unnamed “sources” said that Trump’s lawyer, John Dowd, actually wrote the tweet. CBS News reported that “Dowd meant to convey that Flynn was fired for lying to Pence and other White House officials about his conversations with Kislyak, and ‘now we know’ that he lied to the FBI, according to these sources. But Dowd bungled the tweet and created confusion around Mr. Trump’s knowledge of events.”
Not everybody bought this story, however. As one attorney noted on Twitter: “We’re supposed to believe John Dowd wrote pled instead of pleaded?”
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