Law & the Courts

Again, Pressure Is Not Obstruction

James Comey testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing (Reuters: Kevin Lamarque)
Comey’s written testimony clearly shows the former, not the latter.

I find it difficult to understand how legal experts can read former FBI director James Comey’s submitted testimony and conclude that it makes out a case of felony obstruction of an FBI investigation. That contention was ill-conceived before we saw Comey’s testimony (see, e.g., here, here, and here), and it is even weaker now.

As I’ve tried to explain before, there are two principles at play here. The first is corruption. Perhaps it would help to look at the relevant statute, Section 1505 of the federal penal code (Title 18). It states in relevant part (my italics):

Whoever corruptly, or by threats or 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 under which any pending proceeding is being had before any department or agency of the United States, [shall be guilty of a crime].

Much of the commentariat assumes that any interference in an investigation equals obstruction. It is simply not true. Criminal statutes do not contain idle words. The word “corruptly” states an essential element of the crime. It is the core of the mental state that prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt to establish an obstruction offense. This is a technical legal fact; it is not cavalier rhetoric — a word thrown around by a fired-up commentator in a media interview or a partisan lawmaker in a red-hot congressional debate.

As you can see, aside from acting “corruptly,” there are basically two other ways that the crime of obstructing the administration of law can be committed: by a threat or by use of force. Rather than blow by them with ellipses, I left them in the excerpt above so people would not wonder what I was omitting. But they clearly do not apply to our situation. Even on the most extravagant construction of President Trump’s February 14 plea to then-director Comey on Michael Flynn’s behalf — i.e., a vague, implied threat to fire Comey — no serious person is contending that Trump told Comey, in effect, “Do what I want, or else.”

I will also not bog us down in such technicalities as whether there was a “pending proceeding.” Let’s assume there was an active investigation that satisfies this requirement.

Thus, the question boils down to this: Did Trump corruptly influence or endeavor to influence the FBI’s administration of law?

To demonstrate that a person acted corruptly, it is not sufficient to show that he acted intentionally. The act must also be done with an awareness that the conduct in question violates the law. A political official could corruptly impede an investigation by, say, leaning on the police to drop a case because he’s been bribed by the main suspect. Or, if the political official had, say, been in a fraud conspiracy with the main suspect, he might lean on the police to pull the plug on the investigation to stop the suspect from revealing the official’s own culpability. In these instances, the official would be acting to undermine the investigation for a clearly unlawful purpose.

But if the official impeded or halted the investigation for a legitimate purpose, there could be no obstruction. This underscores the importance of the word corruptly. Not all acts to influence, impede, or outright halt an investigation violate the law; only corrupt ones.

So, what would be a legitimate reason to halt an investigation? This brings us to the second important principle: executive discretion.

It is not enough to say the president is the chief executive. In our system, he is the only executive with constitutional power. (“The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America” —Article II, Section 1.) Every other executive-branch officer is not just subordinate to the president. These inferior officers do not have their own power. The power they exercise is the president’s power. They are mere delegates.

These subordinate executive officials include FBI agents and federal prosecutors. Every day, throughout the United States, these officials exercise executive discretion to shut down investigations or decline prosecutions. Very often, these are cases in which crimes have been committed and a prosecution would be viable.

In our system, it is not mandatory that a viable case be indicted and prosecuted. Instead, in each case, agents and prosecutors weigh the equities: the seriousness of the crime, including the harm to any victims, versus personal considerations relevant to the suspect — his history of criminality or positive contribution to society, whether other negative consequences have befallen him such that prosecution would be overkill, whether there are means other than the criminal law (such as civil suits or community service) that would adequately address the wrongdoing, etc. The Justice Department (of which the FBI is a component) decides, based on the totality of the circumstances, whether further investigation and prosecution are warranted.

In this, again, they are exercising the president’s power. In light of the fact that the president is their superior and the power is his, the president cannot have less discretion than a United States attorney or an FBI supervisor does in weighing the equities and deciding that a case should not be pursued. Charging discretion, moreover, is like the pardon power in this regard: It is a power of the executive that is unreviewable by the courts.

Here is Comey’s recollecton of the president’s remarks about Flynn on February 14:

The President began by saying, “I want to talk about Mike Flynn.” Flynn had resigned the previous day. The President began by saying Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong in speaking with the Russians, but he had to let him go because he had misled the Vice President. He added that he had other concerns about Flynn, which he did not then specify. . . .

The President then returned to the topic of Mike Flynn, saying, “He is a good guy and has been through a lot.” He repeated that Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong on his calls with the Russians, but had misled the Vice President. He then said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” I replied only that “he is a good guy.” (In fact, I had a positive experience dealing with Mike Flynn when he was a colleague as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency at the beginning of my term at FBI.) I did not say I would “let this go.”

The former FBI director goes on to say he understood that the “this” the president wanted him to “let go” referred to “any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December.” As I discussed last night, the FBI is investigating Flynn for allegedly making untrue statements to agents who interrogated him about his communications with ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Making false statements in that context is a felony.

So, what was the president saying? Basically, that the subject matter of the investigation is not the crime of the century, particularly given that Flynn “hadn’t done anything wrong in speaking with the Russians” — which is true: Flynn was the incoming national-security adviser; establishing relationships with foreign counterparts was among his roles in the Trump transition; and the recordings of his conversations showed he had not given Kislyak any commitments to drop sanctions imposed by President Obama.

Also, Flynn “is a good guy” — a combat veteran who has served his country with courage and distinction. Moreover, Flynn had already “been through a lot” — he had been publicly humiliated by his firing, and his professional prospects had significantly dimmed in light of the public reporting that he had been either incompetent or disingenuous in his briefing of Vice President Pence on the Kislyak conversations.

Which is to say that Trump was doing exactly what prosecutors and agents do: looking at the totality of the circumstances and opining that prosecution would be overkill.

Now, you may disagree with his calculus. But it cannot seriously be said that the calculus is not a legitimate exercise of prosecutorial discretion. Those who claim it is illegitimate political interference in law enforcement misunderstand our constitutional system (and have apparently never heard of the pardon power, by which presidents routinely intrude on law enforcement).

Those who claim this is illegitimate political interference in law enforcement misunderstand our constitutional system.

The FBI and Justice Department are not an independent branch of government. They are subordinate to the president, and he gets to prod and even order them to do things. We hope there is not an excess of political interference with the day-to-day enforcement of the laws, because that would undermine public confidence in the system on which the rule of law depends — and thus it would probably be impeachable. But nevertheless, the president absolutely has the authority to exercise prosecutorial discretion.

A legitimate exercise of executive power cannot be corrupt. A president does not corruptly impede an investigation by deciding that the equities weigh in favor of halting it. That is a decision the president gets to make.

Finally, it bears emphasizing that it is not the decision Trump made. He told Comey what he hoped would happen, and why. But he did not order Comey to halt the investigation. Plus, Comey did not halt the investigation; it is continuing to this day. Moreover, Comey acknowledges that Trump was speaking narrowly about Flynn. The president did not ask him to shut down the broader “Russia investigation” — meaning the president was not pretextually lobbying for Flynn in an attempt to make his own potential problems disappear.

You can disagree with Trump’s reasoning. You can conclude that browbeating Comey in this fashion was inappropriate. But this clearly was not obstruction — which is no doubt why then-director Comey did not resign or otherwise treat the matter as if he’d just witnessed a crime.


Comey Testifies,

Trump’s Scandals Change Shape

Comey So Far: Trump’s a Liar, But Not a Target or an Obstructor

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: James Comey’s Prepared Testimony, Explained

— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior policy fellow at the National Review Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.


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