Trump and Obstruction: What Alan Dershowitz Gets Wrong

Special Counsel Robert Mueller reportedly is investigating President Trump for possible obstruction of justice. The investigation is in its early stages, but one prominent legal voice has already decided obstruction charges would be improper. Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz has been all over cable news, Twitter, and elsewhere, claiming a president cannot be charged with obstruction for firing the FBI director or trying to shut down an investigation. But Dershowitz’s arguments don’t hold up.

Trump's firing of James Comey may have been obstruction of justice

Former FBI Director James Comey

The Allegations of Possible Obstruction

The facts are familiar by now. Former FBI director James Comey provided more details in his recent testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Among other things, Comey testified about the meeting where President Trump cleared the room and then told Comey he hoped he could drop the investigation of former national security advisor Michael Flynn.

When Comey didn’t drop the Flynn investigation, Trump fired him. Trump later admitted he acted at least in part because of Comey’s handing of the “Russia thing.” He also told Russian officials that firing Comey had relieved pressure Trump was feeling from the Russia matter. Comey himself testified he believes he was fired because of the Russia investigation.

Obstruction of justice occurs when someone corruptly impairs, obstructs or impedes the due administration of justice in an official proceeding, or endeavors to do so. Many observers, including the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, believe Trump’s actions could potentially amount to obstruction. (For a deeper dive into the crime of obstruction and how a federal prosecutor would approach the case, see my earlier post here.)

Professor Dershowitz’s Argument

Professor Dershowitz disagrees. He argues that regardless of the reasons for Trump’s actions, they could not legally constitute obstruction of justice. He notes that the president, as head of the executive branch, has the constitutional authority to fire the FBI director. He also has the power, as the FBI director’s boss, to tell the director to halt a particular investigation. In fact, Dershowitz notes, Trump could have called in Comey and said, “I’m pardoning Flynn, you are to stop this investigation right now.”

Because the president has these powers, Dershowitz says, Trump’s actions could not be obstruction. Unlike committing perjury or threatening a witness, firing the FBI director or telling him to stop an investigation is something a president may lawfully do. Dershowitz claims obstruction of justice can never be based solely on a president exercising this constitutional authority as head of the executive branch.

Because the president’s actions were otherwise lawful, Dershowitz says, criminal charges necessarily would be based solely on what was on the president’s mind. And that, he claims, would be improper. In one article he argues, “Even assuming that Trump was improperly motivated in firing Comey, motive alone should never constitute a crime. There should have to be an unlawful act.” Elsewhere he argues that charging Trump would amount to prosecuting the president  “based on what he was thinking rather than what he was doing.”

Dershowitz agrees Trump’s actions may have been unwise and may have political consequences. But absent evidence of some other crime, he says, they could not legally constitute obstruction of justice.

The Issue of Corrupt Intent

Dershowitz’s argument rests on his claim that it’s improper to make something a crime “based on what was in the President’s mind.” But a great deal of criminal law hinges on just that: what was in the defendant’s mind, or what was his intent. Dershowitz is correct that motive alone cannot be a crime. But often it is precisely the defendant’s motive, or intent, that makes an otherwise lawful act potentially criminal.

If I shred my business files because I’m cleaning out my office, that’s not a problem. But suppose I shred the same files because they have been subpoenaed and I don’t want to turn them over to the grand jury. The same action now becomes the crime of obstruction of justice, based on what was in my mind. I acted with corrupt intent, and my otherwise lawful act is now criminal.

Or to take an example from the current prosecution of Senator Bob Menendez: If I take a U.S. Senator on my private jet for a vacation at my Dominican villa because we are old friends, that’s perfectly innocent. If I take him on the same trip to influence him to intercede on my behalf in a dispute I have with the government, now I am acting with corrupt intent and the same actions may become bribery.

Dershowitz himself is inconsistent on this point. He agrees a president could be prosecuted if he lied to the FBI during an investigation, a violation of the False Statements statute, 18 U.S.C. 1001. But whether a false statement is a crime also depends on the defendant’s intent.  If the president made a false statement to the FBI because he simply forgot some relevant facts or misunderstood the question, that would not violate the statute. To be criminal a false statement must be a knowing and deliberate lie. And to prove that intent, a prosecutor would have to prove what was in the president’s mind – the very thing Dershowitz claims is prohibited when it comes to obstruction.

Dershowitz argues that, “A president cannot be charged with a crime for properly exercising his constitutional authority.” I agree – but the key word is “properly.” If the president acts with the corrupt intent to save himself from legal jeopardy, he is not properly exercising his authority.

If Trump tried to thwart an investigation because he feared it might lead to him, that could be obstruction of justice. Contrary to Dershowitz’s claim, this would not amount to charging the president based on his motive alone. It would be based on his actions, which become potentially criminal when carried out with corrupt intent.

The Power to Pardon

Dershowitz also argues the president could have pardoned Flynn and ended the investigation that way. That’s true, but it’s beside the point. The issue then just shifts to whether the pardon was granted for a corrupt reason. The power to pardon does not include power to do so for criminal reasons. Nor does the greater power – the ability to grant a pardon – mean that the lesser power of influencing or halting an investigation may be done corruptly.

Dershowitz apparently believes a president never could be charged with obstruction based on granting a pardon. I don’t agree. Suppose prosecutors could prove a president pardoned someone in return for that person’s explicit promise not to testify against the president? Sounds like obstruction to me. The president can do it, and the pardon would be valid, but that doesn’t mean the president is immune from the legal consequences of his corrupt actions.

Dershowitz has argued, “Obviously if a president accepts a bribe in exchange for a pardon that is corrupt act, without regard to motive or intent.” But you can’t have a corrupt act “without regard to motive or intent.”  It’s the defendant’s intent that makes an act corrupt in the first place. Without corrupt intent, there is no bribe. Granting a pardon in exchange for a bribe could indeed be the corrupt act of bribery — and granting a pardon to head off an investigation that was pointing toward the president could be the corrupt act of obstruction of justice.

Caspar Weinberger was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush

Former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger

The Iran-Contra “Precedent”

Dershowitz has repeatedly claimed (see here and here, for example) there is “precedent” supporting his view, and has challenged his critics to “distinguish that precedent.” He notes that President George H.W. Bush pardoned Caspar Weinberger, his secretary of defense, and five other individuals who were implicated in the Iran-Contra affair. Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh was furious and suspected Bush may have acted to prevent those individuals from implicating Bush himself.

Dershowitz notes that Walsh did not charge Bush with obstruction of justice for those pardons. He claims this supports his argument that a President can never be charged with obstruction for exercising his constitutional powers, “regardless of his mental state.”

But a failure to bring a case is not “precedent,” at least not in the way lawyers usually talk about it. Lawyers refer to precedent in terms of authoritative court decisions or other formal legal opinions that analyze a particular legal question. A decision not to bring charges is not a precedent that can guide future cases.

For example, suppose I represented a police officer charged with shooting and killing an unarmed civilian. I could not cite as precedent other cases of deadly force where officers were not indicted and argue that means my client cannot be charged. The Independent Counsel chose not to indict Bill Clinton for perjury or obstruction after he survived impeachment. That does not establish a precedent that a president cannot commit those crimes.

Criminal cases are extremely fact-specific. There may be any number of reasons charges are not filed. In the Bush example, maybe Walsh decided, despite his personal anger and disappointment, that the evidence of Bush’s corrupt intent wasn’t there. Maybe Walsh exercised his discretion not to pursue criminal charges because Bush had already lost the election and was leaving office anyway. Or maybe Walsh just blew it and made a bad decision.

In the end, the only thing the Walsh example tells us is that Walsh chose not to file charges on the facts of that case. That decision tells us nothing about whether charges against Trump would be appropriate or legally sound. It certainly doesn’t amount to a precedent that needs to be distinguished.

The Comey Letter to the FBI

Dershowitz has also argued that Comey’s letter to his former colleagues at the FBI after he was fired supports Dershowitz’s arguments. In the letter Comey said, “I have long believed that a President can fire an FBI Director for any reason, or for no reason at all.” Dershowitz claims this proves Comey agrees with him that the president had the absolute right to act as he did. But trying to turn a farewell letter to colleagues into a legal analysis is a stretch. Comey obviously was not opining on the finer points of obstruction of justice law.

During his Senate testimony, when asked whether he thought President Trump had tried to obstruct the Russia investigation, Comey replied that was a matter for the Special Counsel to consider. If he agreed with Dershowitz, one might have expected Comey to reply, “No, Senator, I believe the president had the absolute right to do what he did and that it could never legally amount to obstruction of justice.”

But not even Dershowitz believes Comey’s letter is literally correct. Dershowitz has conceded that if the president took a bribe to fire Comey, that would be a crime. So he doesn’t really believe the president could fire Comey “for any reason.”

To the extent we want to consider Comey’s letter at all, it’s reasonable to conclude Comey simply meant the president can fire the FBI director for any lawful reason. It’s probably a good bet that Comey does not believe it’s OK for the president to fire the FBI director to save himself from being prosecuted.

Nixon told Frost, "If the President does it, that means it's not illegal."

David Frost interviews Richard Nixon

If the President Does It, It’s Not Illegal?

Richard Nixon famously told David Frost that if the president does something, that means it’s not illegal. Dershowitz does not go that far. He agrees the president could not grant a pardon or cancel an investigation in exchange for a bribe, because that would be an independent criminal act. He also agrees a president could be charged with obstruction for committing perjury or telling others to lie. But absent some other criminal act, he argues, the president cannot be charged with obstruction.

If proof of bribery or another criminal act would justify an obstruction charge, it must be because, in Dershowitz’s view, the criminal act establishes corrupt intent. So Dershowitz is not really saying the president could never be charged with obstruction for exercising his executive authority. He’s just arguing about what constitutes adequate proof of corrupt intent. At least where the president is concerned, he apparently believes corrupt intent can only be established by an independently criminal act.

The basis for this claim is unclear. Again, otherwise lawful acts, such as shredding my files, may become criminal if carried out with the intent to obstruct justice. I know of no legal authority for the proposition that obstruction of justice requires proof the obstructive acts also violated another criminal statute. Dershowitz certainly doesn’t point to any such authority. It seems to be some special rule he has created only for the office of the presidency.

Concerns about Vagueness

Dershowitz’s real concern actually appears to be over the breadth and language of the obstruction of justice statute itself. He argues civil libertarians should be worried about prosecutors charging criminal misconduct based on potentially vague terms such as “corrupt intent.”

These are legitimate issues often raised in white collar cases. White collar law deals with broad terms like fraud and corruption that are not well defined. In particular cases there may be valid concerns about vagueness and whether a defendant was truly on notice that his conduct might be criminal.

But Dershowitz isn’t simply saying that because of the breadth of the statute and the president’s position, prosecutors should consider charges only if the evidence of corrupt intent is overwhelming. That would be a legitimate argument. Rather, Dershowitz is claiming that unless the President commits another crime as well, he could never be charged with using the power of his office to obstruct justice, even if he stood on a soapbox on 5th Avenue and confessed that was his purpose.

If Dershowitz wants to argue for reform of obstruction of justice law, that’s perfectly valid. But he shouldn’t use concerns about that law to attempt to carve out some kind of special exemption for the president. It’s not new or unique to have criminal charges hinge on the defendant’s state of mind — it happens all the time. The president is no exception.

Should Trump Be Charged With Obstruction?

I have no idea whether Trump is likely to be charged. And I’m not arguing he clearly obstructed justice. A great deal of investigation remains to be done before the experienced prosecutors in the Special Counsel’s office could make that decision. Any obstruction case would face some significant legal and evidentiary hurdles. It’s not even clear a sitting president can be indicted at all.

Even if an indictment is legally possible, the Special Counsel could exercise his discretion not to bring charges. As I’ve argued before, the appropriate remedies may be political rather than criminal.

But as long as we still believe no one is above the law, it can’t be the rule that the president, and the president alone, is free to wield his otherwise lawful powers in a corrupt way.

At bottom, that’s the argument Dershowitz is making — and that’s why he’s wrong.

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Update: No Charges To Be Filed Against Former Oregon Governor and First Lady

Federal authorities in Oregon announced Friday they will not be filing any criminal charges against former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber and former first lady Cylvia Hayes. The investigation led by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Oregon had been going on for more than two years. Kitzhaber resigned in 2015 in the midst of a scandal involving allegations that Hayes may have traded on her position in his administration to obtain lucrative private consulting contracts.

I wrote about the investigation back in 2015 when it first began. This post discusses the nature of the allegations and what the grand jury might be investigating. This post talks about the law of honest services fraud and whether it might apply to Oregon’s first lady.

After a more than two-year investigation, no criminal charges. That’s sometimes the nature of white collar criminal investigations. With a street crime, such as a homicide, we know a crime has been committed. With white collar, often it takes a lengthy grand jury investigation to determine whether a crime has been committed at all — and sometimes the answer is no.

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Lying on a Security Clearance Form: The Crime of False Statements

A number of Trump administration figures are under investigation for having contacts with Russian officials. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn allegedly had repeated contacts with the Russians during the Trump campaign and transition. Flynn was forced to resign and has asserted his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent in response to the ongoing inquiries.

At his confirmation hearing Attorney General Jeff Sessions denied having any contact with Russian officials, but he later admitted to having several meetings with the Russian ambassador. This led to allegations that Sessions may have committed perjury during his hearing testimony.

Most recently there were reports that Trump’s senior advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner allegedly met with Russian officials about setting up some back channel communications through the Russian embassy. Kushner also is alleged to have had multiple contacts with other Russians, including a Russian banker closely tied to Russian intelligence.

The FBI, Special Counsel, and several Congressional committees are now investigating these various contacts. Some may turn out to be criminal, others may turn out to be simply unwise, and others may be perfectly innocent. But most have one thing in common: the administration officials who had the Russian contacts apparently failed to disclose them when they applied for a security clearance.

Even innocent contacts could result in criminal prosecution if people lied about them or failed to disclose them when required. The charge would be false statements, a key workhorse in the white collar crime stables.

False statements on a security clearance form may be a crime

SF-86: Questionnaire for National Security Positions

The Disclosure Requirement: Form SF-86

All those seeking a security clearance and access to classified information are required to complete a Standard Form 86, or SF-86. This lengthy (over 100 pages) questionnaire is painfully familiar to many government employees. The federal government uses the information in the SF-86 to conduct a background investigation and determine whether access to classified information is appropriate.

The SF-86 requires you to report detailed information about your personal background, employment history, education, marital status, family members, places you have lived, travel, and much more. It also asks about foreign contacts and foreign activities.

In particular, question 20B.6 asks whether the applicant has had any contact at all with any foreign governments or their representatives in the past seven years. If the answer is “yes,” the applicant must provide detailed information about those contacts.

All high-level members of the new administration would have filled out an SF-86. The allegation concerning Kushner, Flynn, Sessions, and others is that when completing the form they failed to report their various meetings with Russian officials.

The Relevant Statute: False Statements

The instructions for the SF-86 include the following warning:

The U.S. Criminal Code (title 18, section 1001) provides that knowingly falsifying or concealing a material fact is a felony which may result in fines and/or up to five (5) years imprisonment.

Many of us have seen similar warnings on other government forms. But what exactly is title 18, section § 1001, and what does it require the government to prove?

False statements, 18 U.S.C. § 1001, makes it a crime to knowingly and willfully –

1) falsify, conceal, or cover up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact;

2) make any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation; or

3) make or use any false writing or document knowing that it contains any materially false, fictitious or fraudulent entry,

in any matter within the jurisdiction of one of the three branches of the federal government.

The false statements statute is extremely broad. It potentially applies to virtually any lie to the federal government. Unlike perjury, you don’t have to be under oath. The government does not need to be harmed or to have relied on your statement in any way. The lies may be written (as on an SF-86) or verbal.  (Martha Stewart and Scooter Libby were both convicted under 1001 for lying during FBI interviews.)

Sometimes the false statement itself is part of the central misconduct in a case. If I lie on an application for a government grant or contract, the lie is an integral part of my criminal scheme to cheat the government out of something. False statements may be one of the statutes used to prosecute such a scheme, along with mail or wire fraud or other appropriate charges.

But sometimes a violation of section 1001 falls into the category of a cover-up crime, similar to perjury or obstruction of justice. In such a case the false statement is a secondary offense that conceals some other underlying misconduct. That’s the allegation in the investigations involving Trump officials. The claim is they lied on the SF-86 in order to conceal underlying contacts with the Russians that may have been improper — or at the very least embarrassing.

False Statements on a Security Clearance Form

To convict under section 1001, the government must prove the following elements beyond a reasonable doubt:

1) The defendant made a false statement, used a false document or writing, or concealed facts through a trick, scheme, or device;

2) The false statements or concealed facts were material;

3) The statement or concealment took place in a matter within the jurisdiction of one of the three branches of the federal government; and

4) The defendant acted knowingly and willfully.

Let’s consider how these elements would be met in a hypothetical case involving failure to disclose foreign contacts on an SF-86.

1) False Statement, Writing, or Concealment

The first requirement is that the statement be false. That may seem a bit obvious. But as it is with the related crime of perjury, the requirement of actual falsity is important. It means there is no room for ambiguity or uncertainty. If a question or answer is open to different interpretations, a statement that initially appears false may not be.

The statute prohibits making false statements and using false documents. The SF-86 asks whether the applicant has had any contact with foreign representatives in the past seven years and asks the applicant to check “yes” or “no.” Checking “no” could be a false statement under section 1001(a)(2) if in fact such contacts had occurred.

Section 1001(a)(1) also prohibits concealing material facts through a “trick, scheme, or device,” even in the absence of outright lies. This portion of the statute likely would also come into play in a case involving failure to disclose meetings with foreign officials. The SF-86 requires the applicant to list the details about any foreign contacts. Failing to list those meetings could qualify as concealment of material facts.

Because there is no general duty to speak to the government, the concealing material facts theory may be used only when the defendant is under a duty to disclose the facts in question. In this case the obligation to disclose is readily found in the requirements of the SF-86 itself. Those who choose to complete the application are required to provide all relevant information.

2) Materiality 

As with the related crime of perjury, the false statements or concealed facts must be material. The law does not punish lies that are trivial or irrelevant.

Materiality is defined very broadly. The statement need only have the potential to affect the decision of the agency to which it is made. There is no requirement that the statement actually affected any outcome, that it was believed, or that the government relied on it in any way. In other words, materiality is judged based on the nature of the statement, not on any actual impact that it had.

In this case materiality would be clear. A primary purpose of the SF-86 is to reveal any potential foreign entanglements that might pose a security risk. Information about contacts with Russian officials, especially so close to the election, would undoubtedly have the potential to affect the decisions of those doing the background investigation. Lying about or concealing that information could therefore violate the statute.

3) Within the Jurisdiction of the Federal Government  

The statement or concealment also must be in a matter within the jurisdiction of one of the three branches of the federal government. “Jurisdiction” is broadly defined. It simply means the agency or office to which the statement is made has some authority to act on the matter in question.

This requirement serves to establish a basis for federal criminal jurisdiction. The lies must be in connection with business of the federal government. Lying to your boss, or your neighbor, or even to a state agency is generally not going to fall within the statute.

In this case the jurisdiction requirement would be easily satisfied. The SF-86 is submitted to the Executive branch, which has the authority to act on the information and investigate whether to grant a security clearance. Any statements or concealment on the SF-86 are plainly in a matter within the jurisdiction of the Executive branch.

4) Knowing and Willful 

As with so many white collar offenses, the intent requirement is where the rubber meets the road. In any case involving an allegedly false SF-86, the key issue would be proving the defendant’s state of mind.

The knowing and willful requirement means the lies or concealment must be intentional and done with a bad purpose. The statute does not apply to mistakes or inadvertent failures to disclose. It doesn’t apply if a person was simply confused or misunderstood the question. It doesn’t apply if he failed to disclose the relevant information because he forgot it.

Courts generally interpret the “willful” requirement to mean the defendant knew not only that the statement was false but also that making the false statement was unlawful. That would not be much of a hurdle in an SF-86 case. The form itself warns that false statements or concealment can be a criminal offense. Any applicant would certainly know that foreign contacts are critical information when it comes to granting a security clearance.

The Defense: Lack of Criminal Intent

Attorney General Jeff Sessions

At this point it may be undisputed that SF-86 forms filed by various Trump officials are inaccurate. But filing a false form is not automatically a crime. The issue will be why the information was missing. The government would bear the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant deliberately sought to lie about or conceal the foreign contacts.

Attorney General Sessions has claimed officials conducting his background investigation told him he did not need to report some of his contacts with foreign officials. If this is true, it could be a defense. It suggests Sessions did not act willfully because he did not believe failing to include that information was unlawful. Even if the advice were incorrect, that would not matter if Sessions believed he was properly filling out the form.

Jared Kushner apparently has claimed he forgot about some of his meetings with Russian officials. If he omitted foreign contacts because he honestly forgot about the meetings, that too would be a defense. Again, it demonstrates a lack of intent. If he did not recall the meetings when he completed the form, then he did not willfully conceal the information.

Michael Flynn may also claim he forgot about various Russian contacts. Or he may claim he did not believe they needed to be disclosed. His position is unclear at this point, because he has declined to speak with investigators unless he is granted immunity.

To prove a crime the government would need to establish that a defendant was not forgetful or acting on outside advice but was deliberately and wrongfully trying to conceal the information. Absent some direct evidence (such as statements by the defendant), the proof may consist of circumstantial evidence that ultimately makes innocent explanations completely implausible.

Whatever the outcome of the investigation into the Russian contacts themselves, the potential false statements are a separate investigative track. Even if the underlying contacts end up being perfectly innocent, lying about those contacts could be criminal.

People in D.C. are familiar with the maxim that sometimes the cover-up is worse than the original misconduct. The Independent Counsel will determine whether that’s the case here.

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