Sheldon Silver, Bob McDonnell, and the Sorry State of Public Corruption Law

The Supreme Court’s Bob McDonnell decision claimed its highest-profile casualty last week. On July 13 the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit threw out the corruption convictions of Sheldon Silver, the former Speaker of the New York State General Assembly. The court ruled that, in light of McDonnell, Silver’s jury was not properly instructed on what constitutes an “official act” in a corruption case.

Silver is not out of the woods yet; he may well be convicted again after a new trial. But his case does highlight how much easier it is in the post-McDonnell era for public officials to sell government access to the highest bidder.

Regular readers know I’ve written extensively, and critically, about McDonnell. By adopting an artificially narrow definition of “official act,” the Court in McDonnell cleared the way for public officials to enrich themselves through secret gifts and payments. The Silver case highlights the safe harbors McDonnell creates for corrupt behavior and the sorry state of public corruption law.

Sheldon Silver

Facts of the Silver Case

Sheldon Silver was first elected to the New York State Assembly in 1976, representing much of lower Manhattan. He was elected Speaker in 1994 and held that position until he resigned in 2015. As Speaker, he was one of the most powerful politicians in the state.

In 2015 the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (then headed by the recently-fired Preet Bharara) indicted Silver. The charges were based on two different corruption schemes.

In the first, the government charged that Silver agreed to do political favors for Dr. Robert Taub, a physician and researcher at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital who specialized in mesothelioma. Silver obtained state grants worth $500,000 to support Dr. Taub’s research, introduced a state resolution commending Dr. Taub, worked to help secure jobs for his children, and did other favors for him.

In return, and to curry favor with Silver, Dr. Taub regularly referred mesothelioma patients who needed legal representation to a law firm with which Silver was affiliated. Silver received a percentage of any legal fees that resulted. Over a ten-year period, Silver earned about $3 million from Dr. Taub’s referrals.

The second scheme involved two major New York real estate developers. Over a number of years Silver took actions in the state legislature to benefit the developers on issues related to real estate taxes and rent legislation. In return, the developers sent tax-related work to another law firm that also had an arrangement with Silver. These referrals resulted in nearly another $1 million in fees for Silver.

In short, the government charged that Silver enriched himself to the tune of about $4 million through these referral schemes, which were not disclosed to the public. In return, he used the considerable powers of his office to benefit those providing the referrals.

The charges against Silver included honest services fraud and Hobbs Act extortion under color of official right. These were also two of the primary statutes used in the McDonnell indictment. Both charges, which are essentially bribery by another name, are commonly used in public corruption cases.

Bob and Maureen McDonnell

Bob and Maureen McDonnell

The Bob McDonnell Decision

Former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell and his wife Maureen were convicted on multiple counts of corruption in 2014. Prosecutors charged that the two accepted more than $175,000 in secret gifts and loans from businessman Jonnie Williams. In return, Williams sought to have the McDonnells promote his company’s dietary supplement, Anatabloc, within the Virginia government.

In exchange for the gifts, McDonnell introduced Williams to Virginia health researchers and arranged meetings for him with other government employees. He also held a product launch event for Anatabloc at the Virginia Governor’s mansion, attended by other state employees and health officials.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit unanimously upheld the McDonnell convictions. But in June 2016 the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed.

Bribery requires a quid pro quo, an exercise of government power in exchange for something of value. There was no doubt Williams had showered the McDonnells with secret gifts that satisfied the quid side of the equation. But the Supreme Court ruled that in a federal corruption case the quo agreed to by a public official must fit a specific definition of an “official act.” McDonnell’s actions, the Court concluded, did not rise to that level.

The McDonnell Court held that an official act must be a “decision or action on any question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy” that is or may be pending before the public official. It must be specific and focused, and involve a “formal exercise of government power” similar to a lawsuit before a court or a hearing before an agency. The public official must take an action “on” that matter, such as taking steps to resolve it somehow or pressuring another to do so.

Merely arranging a meeting or holding an event, the Court held, does not constitute an official act. These are simply routine political courtesies and interactions with constituents, not decisions or actions on a particular matter or controversy. If they could form the basis of a corruption case, the Court said, politicians would be unable to perform routine services for any supporter without fearing a potential criminal prosecution.

Timing Is Everything

The McDonnell case was on appeal when Silver went to trial, but the Supreme Court had not yet decided it. Silver’s attorneys requested a narrow definition of “official act” similar to the one argued for by McDonnell. Consistent with Second Circuit law at the time, the trial judge rejected this request. The judge told the jury that official acts included anything the public official did “under the color of official authority.”

As the Court of Appeals noted, this was completely correct at the time. The trial court and prosecutors could not be faulted for the instruction. But the McDonnell decision, which came down just a few weeks after Silver was sentenced, changed the rules.

In light of McDonnell, Silver was convicted based on a broader definition of “official act” that is no longer the law. The Court of Appeals noted that some of the things Silver did, such as obtaining state grants or introducing official resolutions in the House, could still quality as official acts after McDonnell. But other things included in the indictment, such as writing letters or attending meetings on behalf of his benefactors, would not.

It was impossible for the Court of Appeals to be certain which of Silver’s actions the jury actually relied upon, or how they would have viewed those actions if they had been instructed consistent with the McDonnell holding. That meant it was possible Silver was convicted for political favors that would not meet McDonnell’s definition of official acts and so would not be a crime. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals vacated the convictions and ordered a new trial to allow a properly instructed jury to consider the evidence.

The Post-McDonnell World

The Silver case provides a good case study of the state of public corruption law in the post-McDonnell world. Silver received about $4 million in secret benefits from individuals and companies that were seeking his help in his official capacity. Whether these corrupt deals were actually criminal has now been cast into doubt by the McDonnell case.

McDonnell and his supporters argued that his convictions risked criminalizing routine political courtesies and constituent services for those who support a politician. Such interactions are indeed an integral part of politics. And as long as we have a system of privately funded campaigns, politicians inevitably will respond to their supporters.

But Silver was not simply acting on behalf of routine political supporters — individuals who gave him campaign contributions or helped him raise legal contributions from others. Like Governor McDonnell, Silver was receiving personal benefits that went into his own pocket. Those gifts were secret, not publicly disclosed for the voters to see.

The essence of corruption is politicians acting not for the good of those they are elected to represent but in order to enrich themselves. Corrupt politicians abuse the trust of their public office by acting not on behalf of all their constituents but on behalf of those who are secretly paying them off. And access to the corridors of power becomes simply another commodity available to those willing and able to pay.

By its obsessive focus on a narrow and overly legalistic definition of “official acts,” the McDonnell Court missed the corruption forest for the trees. The key to corruption is not the precise nature of what the politician does. It’s the overall corrupt relationship, including whether support is public or secret, whether it is within any applicable legal limits, and whether it goes to the politician’s campaign or into his or her personal bank account. McDonnell imposes precise limitations on the quo side of a bribery transaction, while ignoring the overall corrupt relationship that allows a public official to secretly profit from his or her position.

The original jury instructions in Silver’s case embodied this concept: corruption may be found when there are secret payoffs to a politician in exchange for any actions done “under the color of official authority.” There are many things done under the color of official authority that do not meet the McDonnell definition of “official act.” But regardless of how large the personal benefit or how corrupt and secret the relationship, sale of those political favors is now outside the reach of federal corruption law.

This is the unfortunate result of the McDonnell case. The wealthy and connected are free to keep politicians in their back pockets through secret, personal gifts. In return, those politicians may provide political favors, grease the wheels of government, and provide access to government power. They are free to skate right up the “official act” line, personally enriching themselves through their public office, while the general public is kept in the dark.

It’s Not Over for Silver

It’s important to recognize that the Second Circuit did not find the evidence against Silver was insufficient, just that the jury was not properly instructed. The United States Attorney’s Office promptly announced that it intends to re-try the case. Former U.S. Attorney Bharara Tweeted that the evidence was strong and he expects Silver to be convicted again after a new trial.

The case on retrial will certainly be more challenging for the government. The universe of actions that may qualify as “official acts” has been substantially narrowed. Some of Silver’s actions fall outside of the statute of limitations, and that may be an issue in the new trial as well. The Court of Appeals also suggested that some of Silver’s actions, even if they did amount to official acts, might have been so insubstantial that a jury would not find they satisfied the quo requirement for a corrupt relationship. That defense argument will likely be a focus of the new trial as well.

Silver clearly won the battle in the Second Circuit. It remains to be seen whether he ultimately will win the war. But there’s no doubt the McDonnell decision has made rooting out and prosecuting public corruption significantly more challenging.

That’s the true legacy of Bob McDonnell: making life easier for corrupt politicians everywhere.

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You can read more of my commentary on the McDonnell case here:

Supreme Court Narrows Federal Bribery Law in a Win for Bob McDonnell

The Bob McDonnell Case May Have Been Won Months Before Trial

Bob McDonnell’s New Trial Motion and the Definition of “Official Act”

Bob McDonnell, Bribery, and “Official Acts” – Part II

Yes, Colluding With Russians to Interfere with the Election Is a Crime

The Special Counsel and several Congressional committees are investigating Russian interference with the 2016 election and the possible involvement of Trump campaign officials. The investigations are in their early stages, and it’s not yet clear whether any collusion took place. But some have suggested that even if it did, it would not be criminal.

Fox News commentator Brit Hume recently made this claim on Fox News Sunday. When one of the panelists noted that a grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia was conducting a criminal investigation, Hume interrupted:

But what crime? Can anybody identify the crime? Collusion, while it would be obviously alarming and highly inappropriate for the Trump campaign, of which there is no evidence by the way, of colluding with the Russians — it’s not a crime.

Hume was echoing a claim made by other Fox News pundits and supporters of the president. They imply the investigations must be politically motivated because collusion with Russians to interfere with our election, even if it did take place, would not be criminal.

No one knows yet what the various investigations will reveal. It’s certainly possible that no criminal misconduct will be found. But it’s wrong to suggest that criminal law is not even implicated here. If Trump campaign officials actively worked with Russians seeking to influence the outcome of the election, there are a number of potential criminal violations.

Collusion is like criminal conspiracy, a partnership in crime

The Most Likely Charge: Criminal Conspiracy 

Collusion is defined as a secret agreement to cooperate in some dishonest endeavor. This sounds a lot like criminal conspiracy, which prohibits agreements to pursue a criminal end. And indeed, the potential charge that most clearly applies to the Russian collusion allegations is the federal conspiracy statute, 18 U.S.C. § 371.

Section 371 prohibits two kinds of conspiracies: conspiracy to commit any offense against the United States and conspiracy to defraud the United States. Both theories potentially apply to any Russian collusion. The nature of a conspiracy charge makes it particularly appropriate for these allegations.

In a conspiracy case the offense is the agreement itself – the partnership in crime. A defendant must join the agreement with the intent to further its criminal objectives. But a defendant need not personally commit the crime that is the object of the conspiracy. In other words, it’s a crime to conspire to help another person commit an offense even if you don’t commit it yourself.

You also can conspire to help someone else commit a crime that you couldn’t possibly commit yourself – for example, because the statute doesn’t apply to you. The Supreme Court recently affirmed this principle in Ocasio v. United States, a case I wrote about here.

Finally, a conspiracy does not have to be successful. Conspiracy is a separate offense independent of the underlying object of the conspiracy. If the crime you conspire to commit is never carried out, for whatever reason, you can still be prosecuted for the conspiracy itself.

These features of conspiracy law have some obvious implications for any investigation of Russian collusion. For example, if Trump officials conspired to help Russians interfere with the election, they could be liable for conspiracy even if only the Russians did the actual interfering.

Similarly, if Trump officials conspired to help Russians violate bans on foreign involvement in U.S. campaigns, they could be liable for that conspiracy even though they were not foreign nationals and could not have committed the crime themselves.

Finally, because a conspiracy charge does not require proof that the conspiracy was successful, it would not require prosecutors to prove that any attempted interference actually impeded the election or affected the outcome.

Conspiracy to Defraud the United States

Section 371 prohibits conspiracies to defraud the United States “in any manner or for any purpose.” Typically, to defraud means to use dishonest methods to deprive someone of money or property. Using traditional mail or wire fraud to charge that the public was defrauded of its right to a fair election therefore would be problematic, because the intangible right to a fair election is not “property.”

But for purposes of Section 371 conspiracies to defraud the U.S.,  fraud has a different and broader meaning. In 1924 in Hammerschmidt v. United States  the Supreme Court held that conspiracy to defraud the U.S. includes schemes “to interfere with or obstruct one of its lawful government functions by deceit, craft, or trickery, or at least by means that are dishonest.” A conspiracy to defraud the U.S. under 371 does not need to result in a loss of money or property by the federal government.

This theory is often used to charge schemes that involve disguising transactions to evade some government regulatory program, or hiding assets to thwart the IRS. Individuals can be guilty of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. even if their underlying conduct, standing alone, would not be illegal. They can also be found guilty even if prosecutors can’t prove that the government lost money as a result.

Running a free and fair Presidential election is a core lawful function of the federal government. Any agreement to secretly and dishonestly attempt to interfere with a federal election would fall squarely within section 371’s prohibition on conspiracies to defraud the United States.

This theory has been used in election fraud cases in the past. For example, in the 1990’s there was a scandal involving China’s attempts to promote its interests within the U.S. government and potentially influence the 1996 presidential election. Charlie Trie, a Chinese-American with ties to the Clintons, was convicted for violating various campaign finance rules by exceeding legal contribution amounts and concealing the true identity of donors. Among the charges in his indictment: conspiracy to defraud the U.S. under Section 371 by impairing and impeding the legitimate functions of the Federal Election Commission.

Conspiracy to Commit an Offense Against the United States 

Section 371 also prohibits conspiracies to commit any offense against the United States. This applies to conspiracies to violate any criminal statute. The United States government does not need to be the victim of the intended crime.

Russian interference with the election reportedly involved hacking the Democratic National Committee computers and possibly other computer systems (including those run by state election officials). Breaking into computer systems without authorization violates 18 U.S.C. § 1030, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The CFAA criminalizes a wide range of activities involving hacking or other unauthorized access to and theft of information from private and government computers. Any conspiracy to engage in such hacking could be charged as a conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States.

Suppose, for example, Trump campaign officials agreed to somehow assist Russian hackers who were gaining unauthorized access to the DNC and other computers. That agreement could constitute a conspiracy to violate the CFAA, and could be prosecuted under Section 371. Because the crime is the conspiracy, Trump campaign officials could be charged even if the Russians did all of the actual hacking. The Russians also could be charged with violating the CFAA itself, but both the Russians and the Trump campaign officials who assisted them could be charged with conspiracy.

Conspiracy to impede the FEC could violate 18 USC 371

Conspiracy to Violate Election Laws

Another possible conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States would be conspiracy to violate federal election laws. I’m no authority on election law so I’m not going to venture very far here. But if there is a potential criminal violation of election laws, then campaign officials could conspire with Russian individuals to violate that law.

Election law experts have suggested these facts could violate prohibitions on foreign contributions to our elections. For example,  52 U.S.C.§ 30121 outlaws election contributions and donations by foreign nationals. It may be that activities by Russian individuals, such as stealing and then releasing emails damaging to the Clinton campaign, could be characterized as contributing something of value to the Trump campaign.

If Russians violated the law against foreign contributions and Trump campaign officials conspired to help them do so, the campaign officials could be guilty of a conspiracy to violate that election law. Again, this is true even though they were not foreign nationals and so could not violate that law directly.

Aiding and Abetting

Title 18, § 2 of the U.S. Code provides that anyone who “aids, abets, counsels, command, induces or procures” the commission of a crime can be found guilty of committing the crime themselves. This criminal law theory of aiding and abetting is also potentially relevant to the Russian collusion allegations.

The theory would be quite similar to the conspiracy charge, but with less focus on proving the criminal agreement. If the evidence revealed that Trump or his campaign officials asked or encouraged the Russians to interfere with the election or assisted them in any way, they potentially could be charged as aiders and abettors. Potential charges could include aiding and abetting a violation of the CFAA or of federal election law.

Accessory After the Fact and Misprision

Suppose Trump campaign officials got involved with Russian hackers only after the hacking was already completed, and worked with them on things like timing the release of certain emails. Conspiracy to violate the CFAA might not be a viable charged, because you can’t conspire to commit a crime that is already completed.

At that point a couple of other options would come into play. Accessory after the Fact, 18 U.S.C. § 3, punishes anyone who knows a crime against the U.S. has been committed and then “receives, relieves, comforts or assists the offender in order to hinder or prevent his apprehension, trial or punishment.” Anyone who worked with Russian hackers to help them conceal their activities and avoid detection or apprehension could be considered an accessory.

A related charge, Misprision of a Felony, 18 U.S.C. § 4, punishes anyone who has actual knowledge of a felony that has been committed against the U.S. and “does not as soon as possible make known the same to some judge or other person in civil or military authority.” Again, if Trump campaign officials got involved with Russian hackers after the hacking was completed and cooperated with them rather than reporting the hacking, misprision would be a potential charge.

Yes, Collusion Can Be Criminal

Once again, for the record: I’m not saying any of these crimes took place. I’m not suggesting that anyone will be charged, or should be charged. As with any criminal case, everything is going to depend on the facts and what evidence the government can present. But it’s simply nonsense to claim there is no basis here for a criminal investigation.

Some have suggested this idea is being floated as a trial balloon by the Trump administration to gauge the public reaction. It’s akin to the argument that the president couldn’t obstruct justice because, well, he’s the president. The apparent implication is that no matter what went on with the Russians or any attempts to thwart the FBI investigation, the investigations are just a political “witch hunt.” Nothing criminal to see here, folks, move along now.

We don’t know what the investigation will ultimately reveal. But we should dispense with the idea that colluding with Russian individuals to influence the outcome of our Presidential election would not be a crime. If the evidence is there, federal prosecutors have plenty of tools with which to build a case.

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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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Michael Flynn Took the Fifth – So What Happens Now?

Yesterday former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn informed the Senate Intelligence Committee he will not comply with its subpoena. The subpoena sought any documents in Flynn’s possession relating to any communications or dealings with Russian officials. Through his attorneys, Flynn claimed that turning over the documents would violate his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.

Now that Flynn has taken the Fifth, what happens next? Basically there are three alternatives: 1) the Senate challenges the claim of privilege; 2) the Senate grants Flynn immunity; or 3) the Senate decides to accept Flynn’s assertion of privilege and move on with its investigation.

But the Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee has reportedly expressed surprise that Flynn could take the Fifth in connection with a subpoena for documents. So the first question is:

Can He Do That?

No one has a right simply to refuse to comply with a subpoena. Flynn can’t just say, “No, thanks” and refuse to turn over the documents. He has to have a valid legal excuse. In this case, he claims that excuse is his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.

Flynn had already asserted the Fifth in connection with any possible testimony before Congress. Weeks ago he indicated he would cooperate and testify only if he was granted immunity. So far Congress has not taken him up on that offer.

But when it comes to producing documents, rather than testifying, the rules are more complicated. The Fifth Amendment generally does not protect the contents of documents that were voluntarily created. Suppose I write in my diary, “I shot the Sheriff, but I did not shoot the deputy.” Then I lose the diary and someone turns it in to the authorities, or investigators seize the diary while executing a search warrant.

The contents of the diary certainly incriminate me. But I can’t claim a Fifth Amendment right not to have it used against me. The government did not compel me to write in my diary. The Fifth Amendment limits only government compulsion of testimony and so does not apply.

Act of Production Privilege

When it comes to producing documents, the Fifth Amendment protection is not based on the contents of those documents. It’s based on something called “act of production privilege.” Act of production privilege recognizes there may be testimonial aspects involved in producing documents that are subpoenaed.

If I turn over subpoenaed documents I am admitting the documents exist, that I have them, and that I believe they are responsive to the subpoena. Forcing me to respond to the subpoena may be akin to putting me on the stand and requiring me to make those admissions. In that situation I may be able to refuse to comply, because to comply would be to incriminate myself.

Act of production privilege does not automatically apply to any document subpoena. If the government can establish that the existence of the records is a foregone conclusion – in other words, anyone in my position would be expected to have the types of records called for – it can argue there is nothing testimonial about turning them over. In addition, sometimes the government can show with some specificity that it already knows the documents exist and that I have them. In that case, the act of producing them adds nothing to the government’s knowledge and would not be privileged.

But sometimes the government knows little or nothing about the nature of potential documents or whether they even exist and is just fishing to see what’s out there. In such a case, responding to the subpoena by identifying and turning over documents may be a testimonial act.

Congress is investigating Flynn over possible contacts with Russian officials and for allegedly lying about those contacts. Documents reflecting any such contacts are therefore potentially incriminating. His attorneys argue the Senate has failed to demonstrate that the existence of the subpoenaed documents is a foregone conclusion or that the Senate already knows the documents exist. Accordingly, they say, to turn over any such documents would be a privileged testimonial act.

So now that Flynn has taken the Fifth and refused to turn over the documents, where does the investigation go from here?

Michael Flynn has invoked the Fifth Amendment

Former Nat’l Security Advisor Michael Flynn

Option One: Fighting the Privilege Claim

Congress is not required to accept Flynn’s assertion of privilege at face value. If the Senate believes the privilege claim is unfounded, if can seek to enforce the subpoena. The Senate Committee leaders have reportedly said they will “vigorously pursue” the production of the documents. There are different ways the Senate could do this.

One alternative is for the Senate to file a civil lawsuit against Flynn seeking to enforce the subpoena. In the lawsuit Flynn would assert his Fifth Amendment claim as a defense, and a judge would rule on whether that claim was valid. If Flynn lost, he could appeal. If he lost again, he could ask the Supreme Court to hear the case. In the end, if the courts found there was no privilege, a judge would order Flynn to comply with the subpoena. If he still refused, he could be punished for contempt of court.

A second alternative is for the Senate to refer the matter to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia and ask him to prosecute Flynn for criminal contempt of Congress. After receiving the referral, the U.S. Attorney would decide whether to pursue the contempt case. If the U.S. Attorney chose to indict Flynn for contempt of Congress, Flynn’s defense would be that the Fifth Amendment justified his refusal to comply. Once again, the courts would ultimately rule on that claim.

The U.S. Attorney could also decide that Flynn’s Fifth Amendment claim is valid and prosecution for contempt would not be appropriate. This happened recently in the case of Lois Lerner, a former IRS official. When she took the Fifth and refused to testify before a Congressional committee about claims the IRS had improperly targeted certain political groups, Congress referred the matter to the U.S. Attorney for a contempt prosecution. The U.S. Attorney, however, decided that Lerner’s privilege claim was justified and declined to bring a case. (You can find my post with more detail about contempt of Congress and the Lerner case here.)

A referral to the U.S. Attorney turns control of the contempt decision over to the Executive Branch. But a third option is for Congress to charge Flynn itself, using its own inherent contempt power. Although this inherent contempt power is well established, Congress hasn’t used it since the 1930s.

If the Senate chose to go this route there would be a hearing before Congress, similar to a trial. Flynn would appear, be represented by counsel, and would assert his Fifth Amendment privilege as his justification for not honoring the subpoena.

If Congress rejected Flynn’s privilege claim and found him in contempt, it could have Flynn jailed until he complied with the subpoena. If that happened, of course, Flynn’s lawyers would immediately go to court seeking to have his Fifth Amendment rights vindicated and to have Flynn released. So once again we would ultimately end up with a court ruling on whether the privilege claim is valid.

These three options for enforcing the subpoena have one thing in common: none of them are quick. With court hearings and appeals it could easily take many months to resolve the privilege claims. If the Senate’s primary goal is to get the information quickly, it could instead pursue option two: granting Flynn immunity.

Option Two: Immunizing Flynn

Rather than fighting the privilege claim, the Senate could choose to grant Flynn immunity for his production of the documents. The immunity order would provide that the testimonial aspects of Flynn turning over the documents could not be used against him. In other words, the government could not introduce into evidence the fact that Flynn had possessed the documents or that he turned them over in response to a subpoena.

This more limited type of immunity is called, reasonably enough, act of production immunity. As with immunity generally, Congress has the power to grant act of production immunity even if the Department of Justice objects. Two-thirds of the members of the Senate Intelligence Committee would need to approve.

If granted act of production immunity Flynn would no longer have a basis to withhold the documents. If he continued to refuse to comply with the subpoena he would face contempt charges and could be jailed until he complied.

Immunizing Flynn would mean Congress would get the documents quickly, but there is a risk. The grant of immunity could end up torpedoing a future criminal prosecution of Flynn if a court found that the prosecution relied on information gathered from the documents produced. This happened in a case involving Webb Hubbell, President Bill Clinton’s former Associate Attorney General. Hubbell’s prosecution resulted in the leading Supreme Court decision on act of production immunity.

The Supreme Court ruled on act of production immunity in Webb Hubbell's case.

Former Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell

United States v. Hubbell

Hubbell was subpoenaed by the Whitewater Independent Counsel to produce a large number of documents to the grand jury. He asserted his Fifth Amendment act of production privilege and refused to produce the requested documents or even admit they existed. The prosecutors granted him immunity for the act of production, and Hubbell turned over more than 13,000 pages of responsive documents.

Based on information contained in the documents, the Independent Counsel later indicted Hubbell for tax crimes and fraud. But the Supreme Court threw out the indictment, saying it violated Hubbell’s Fifth Amendment rights.

The government did not seek to use evidence that Hubbell had possessed or produced the documents – that direct evidence would have violated the immunity order. But the contents of the documents had provided information that led to Hubbell’s indictment.

The Supreme Court held that by compelling Hubbell to assemble and produce documents responsive to the subpoena the government had made use of the “contents of his mind.” The government had only learned of the information in the documents as a result of that compulsion. Therefore using the contents of the documents to prosecute Hubbell was a prohibited “derivative use” of Hubbell’s immunized act of producing them.

The law on act of production immunity is not completely clear. And this case would be different from Hubbell’s in at least one important respect. In Hubbell the documents were subpoenaed by the same grand jury that later indicted him. In Flynn’s case Congress has issued the subpoena. That would make it easier for prosecutors to argue that their own investigation was not influenced by the documents. However, given how easily information spreads through the Internet (and how easily it leaks from Capitol Hill), it might be a challenge for prosecutors to prove their case was not tainted.

Congress could decide it is willing to take that risk in order to get the information quickly. They have done it before, most famously in the case of Oliver North during the Iran-Contra investigation, where Congress’s grant of immunity ultimately resulted in North’s criminal convictions being reversed. But by granting immunity Congress could end up begin accused of sabotaging any potential future criminal case against Flynn. For now, at least, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee has reportedly said that immunity is “off the table.”

Option Three: Just Move Along

The third option for Congress at this point is simply to accept Flynn’s assertion of privilege and move on. There is a great deal of investigating still to be done. Congress may be able to get much of the same information from other sources.

In addition to the investigations on Capitol Hill, the Special Counsel investigation will be moving forward. Criminal prosecutors may be able to build a case against Flynn without the subpoenaed documents. If Flynn were to end up facing charges, prosecutors could potentially negotiate a plea deal. As part of that deal Flynn could agree to turn over the documents and otherwise cooperate in the investigation of others.

Although there is public pressure to get to the bottom of what happened, the investigation is still in its infancy. Granting immunity could end up being a mistake if Flynn turns out to be one of the principal bad actors. Congress and the Special Counsel have plenty of time to pursue other avenues.

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Did President Trump Obstruct Justice? A Prosecution Analysis

Did President Trump obstruct justice? On May 9, 2017, the President fired FBI Director James Comey. This unexpected move immediately raised questions about the President’s motives. Critics charged that Trump was seeking to derail the FBI investigation into possible Russian ties to the Trump campaign.

Then, a week after Comey was sacked, substantial fuel was added to the obstruction fire. The New York Times reported that in a private meeting in February President Trump asked Comey to drop the investigation of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Comey apparently prepared a memo memorializing this meeting. Comey wrote that Trump told him Flynn was a “good guy” who didn’t do anything wrong, and said , “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” Comey himself confirmed this account of the meeting during his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Jun 8.

There are additional facts as well. On May 19 the New York Times reported that in a meeting in the Oval Office with Russian officials the President told them, “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job.” Trump also reportedly told the Russian officials, “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

Then on May 22, the Washington Post reported that Trump had asked the director of national intelligence and the director of the National Security Agency to publicly deny there was any evidence of collusion between Russian officials and the Trump campaign. Both refused to do so because they felt the request was inappropriate. Later in the same story, the Post reported that senior White House officials also had approached top intelligence officials to ask whether it was possible to ask Comey to shut down the FBI investigation.

“Obstruction of justice” is a term that gets tossed around fairly loosely. The op-ed pages and Twitter have been pronouncing Trump guilty for days. But the crime of obstruction of justice has specific requirements that can be difficult to prove. A federal prosecutor analyzing this as a criminal case would face some hurdles, although the case grows stronger with each new revelation. But in the end, political remedies — including potential impeachment — are more likely than criminal ones.

The Criminal Obstruction Statutes

Several different criminal statutes prohibit obstruction of justice. There are other options, but if I were considering this case I would focus on 18 U.S.C. § 1512(c)(2). This catch-all provision applies to anyone who “corruptly obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding, or attempts to do so.” The maximum penalty is twenty years in prison.

Obstruction is a crime independent of the merits of any underlying case. Even if an investigation doesn’t result in criminal charges, you can get in trouble for obstructing that investigation – just ask Scooter Libby or Martha Stewart. As the old saying goes, sometimes the cover-up is worse than the crime.

The statute applies to attempts to obstruct a proceeding even if they are unsuccessful. If the investigation into Russian ties continued unimpeded, that would not be a defense to any attempted obstruction.

What Is the Relevant Proceeding?

In any obstruction case, the first task is to identify the proceeding the defendant was allegedly trying to obstruct. There is no such thing as “obstruction in the air.” The government must prove the defendant had a particular proceeding in mind, even if that proceeding had not yet begun. (The prosecution’s failure to prove the link to a specific proceeding is what led the judge in the Bob and Maureen McDonnell case to throw out her obstruction conviction.)

Under § 1512 a proceeding may be a matter before any of the three branches of the federal government. A trial or other court proceeding, a Congressional investigation, or a proceeding before a federal agency all may qualify.

Doe an FBI investigation alone qualify as an “official proceeding” that may be obstructed? The courts and legal authorities are divided, but the better answer appears to be no. A different obstruction statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1519, could apply if Trump destroyed documents or records (or Oval Office tape recordings?) to impede the FBI investigation. But firing Comey or urging him to drop the case would not fall within that prohibition.

Even if an FBI investigation is not a “proceeding,” that does not mean Trump is necessarily off the hook. Removing the FBI director might have some tangential effect on the ongoing Congressional investigations, which do qualify as proceedings. But the most likely theory would be that Trump, by urging Comey to drop the investigation and then firing him when that didn’t happen, was attempting to impede the pending grand jury investigation into possible Russian connections to his campaign.

There were recent news reports that a federal grand jury has issued subpoenas for records related to Michael Flynn. There appears to be an active grand jury investigation, and there is probably little doubt the President was aware of it. A grand jury investigation is a “proceeding” for purposes of 1512.

This is a link made in many obstruction cases. The FBI investigates, but it can’t file charges and prosecute on its own. In a criminal case the FBI typically is working with federal prosecutors conducting a grand jury investigation. Often when people speak of obstructing an FBI investigation, what they really mean is obstructing the underlying grand jury proceeding in which the FBI is involved.

Prosecutors could charge that Trump sought to impede the grand jury investigation by persuading Comey to drop the case and, when that failed, by firing him. The government would bear the burden of proving Trump  had the grand jury investigation in mind when he took those actions.

Did President Trump obstruct justice by firing Comey?

Former FBI Director James Comey

Did President Trump Obstruct Justice?

As in so many white collar cases, the critical issue would be proving intent. Corrupt intent is the key to obstruction of justice. It means the defendant acted with the deliberate and dishonest purpose of interfering with the proceeding. In other words, wrongfully obstructing the proceeding is what he set out to do. It isn’t enough if the proceeding is affected as a collateral or unintended consequence of the defendant’s actions.

How would a prosecutor prove the President’s intent? One remarkable aspect of this case is the significance of the President’s own statements. During his recent interview with Lester Holt of NBC news, the President admitted he was thinking about the “Russia thing,” which he called a “made up story,” when he decided to fire Comey. This admission could get prosecutors over what is sometimes a significant hurdle: proving the defendant at least had the relevant proceeding in mind.

The day after firing Comey, the President reportedly told Russian officials that he had faced “pressure” over Russia and that firing Comey had removed that pressure. The defense would dispute exactly what the President meant by this, but at a minimum it is further evidence that Comey’s firing was linked in the President’s mind to the Russia investigation.

Building a Circumstantial Case

Prosecutors often prove corrupt intent by circumstantial evidence. In this case, there is no shortage of it. First, the timing of Comey’s firing is suspicious. Most of the misdeeds for which he allegedly was fired have been known for months. But the President chose to remove him only when the Russia investigation was reportedly heating up.

Reasons for the firing also seem suspect. The White House claims Comey was fired over his handling of  the Hillary Clinton email scandal. But as many have noted, the President previously praised Comey for those same actions, often while his crowds chanted, “Lock her up!” The claim the President fired Comey now for actions he took six months ago is perhaps implausible. But the notion that this President fired Comey because Comey was unfair to Hillary Clinton is laughable.

The White House also claimed the firing was necessary because Comey had lost the support and confidence of the rank and file members of the FBI. This was flatly contradicted by the now-acting director and Comey’s former chief deputy, Andrew McCabe, in testimony before the Senate Intelligence committee.

Then there is the shifting narrative about how the decision was made. The White House originally claimed the President acted based on a recommendation from newly-appointed Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. When Rosenstein apparently objected (and perhaps threatened to resign), the President began saying he had decided to fire Comey on his own, prior to any recommendation.

Conflicting, shifting, and apparently untrue explanations for the President’s actions could provide compelling circumstantial evidence of corrupt intent. Often such evidence suggests the truth is something more sinister that the defendant wants to conceal.

The news that Trump asked Comey to drop the investigation provides significant additional circumstantial evidence of corrupt intent. The narrative then becomes that Trump first urged Comey to back off, and when that failed, he fired him. Reports that Trump asked others to leave the meeting before he spoke to Comey further suggest he knew he was doing something improper.

This theory is bolstered by the reports that senior White House officials had asked intelligence officials about intervening with Comey to see if they could ask him to shut down the Russia investigation. If those reports could be substantiated they would provide further evidence that the purpose of firing Comey was not to remove an ineffective leader or help the FBI but to thwart the Russia investigation.

The Defense: Lack of Corrupt Intent

Despite all of the above, this would not be a slam-dunk prosecution. When I first wrote this post after Comey was fired, I thought a potential criminal case would be very challenging. The news that has come out since then — including the Holt interview, the Oval Office meeting with the Russians, and the White House inquiries about possibly asking Comey to shut down the investigation — has made the case considerably stronger.

Proving to a unanimous jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the President acted with corrupt intent would still be challenging. If the information in all the press reports could be verified and translated into admissible evidence, I think a prosecutor could build a pretty decent case. But the defense would have a lot to work with as well.

First there’s the fact that the President clearly has the right to fire the FBI director. Comey himself, in his letter to FBI personnel following his dismissal, noted his belief that the President could fire him at any time and for any reason. That’s not an ironclad defense, of course. If something you have the right to do is done for a corrupt purpose it can still be obstruction. But unlike a case where a defendant threatened a witness or fabricated evidence, prosecutors could not raise an inference of corrupt intent based solely on the nature of the President’s actions.

In addition, as the President has already pointed out, many people, both Democrats and Republicans, believed there were good grounds to fire Comey based on his actions over the past year. This would help raise a reasonable doubt about corrupt intent.

The President’s defense also would claim that his actions were too remote from the Russia investigation to constitute obstruction. The Supreme Court has held that acts are not obstruction unless they would have the “natural and probable effect” of influencing the proceeding if successful. In an institution as large as the FBI, removing the director may be unlikely to derail any one investigation. Indeed, acting director McCabe assured Congress this was the case and that the investigation will proceed unimpeded.

The Significance of Trump’s Own Statements

Some commentators have claimed the President basically admitted to obstruction by telling Lester Holt the “Russia thing”  was on his mind when he fired Comey. This is an overreach. Saying the President was thinking in part about the Russia investigation is not at all the same as saying he acted with the corrupt intent to obstruct that investigation.

This is a fine distinction, but a critical one. The President could fire Comey because he was mad about Comey’s handling of the Russia investigation and still not intend to obstruct that investigation. If the President believed (probably correctly) the investigation would continue unimpeded without Comey, he would lack the requisite intent to obstruct. Even if he was just mad at Comey and didn’t think at all about the effect on the investigation, that too would mean he lacked corrupt intent.

Later in the same NBC interview Trump also said he wanted the investigation to be done properly. Trump could argue that because Comey had become ineffective as a leader, firing him actually made it more likely the investigation would be successful.

Trump’s statements to the Russian officials about relieving “pressure” by firing Comey are also open to more than one interpretation. Based on the White House statements following the story, it appears Trump would argue that Comey’s mishandling of the investigation was disrupting the President’s attempts to forge better diplomatic relations with the Russians. When he referred to relieving pressure, the defense would argue, the President was referring to this interference with his diplomacy, not to the criminal investigation.

Some of these alternative explanations may seem implausible. I can see eyes rolling from here. But remember the President would not need to prove he acted without corrupt intent. The burden of proof always rests with the government. The defense would only need to raise a reasonable doubt about the President’s intent.

Every prosecutor has had the experience of having what seemed like a stone cold admission by a defendant be completely undermined by a plausible alternative explanation. I’m not trying to bend over backwards to provide excuses for the President’s statements. I’m simply acknowledging the difficulties that prosecutors can face when trying to prove guilt based on statements and circumstances that may be open to different interpretations.

Trump’s Alleged Request to Drop the Investigation

The evidence that President Trump asked Comey to drop the Flynn investigation provide significant additional evidence of possible obstruction of justice. But there are still some unresolved questions. First, the White House has denied Comey’s claims. Unless the rumored Oval Office tapes show up, the details of the meeting would be contested. Comey’s contemporaneous notes would carry significant weight, but disputes about the details and precisely what Trump said and how he said it could be important.

The President is the head of the Executive Branch and was Comey’s boss. This would make proving corrupt intent even more challenging. On some level the President does have the right to tell the FBI director what to do, just as he has the right to fire him.

There are long-standing norms and traditions about Justice Department independence and the White House not interfering in DOJ investigations. Trump’s alleged conversation with Comey seems to have trampled all over those norms. But whether breaching those norms amounts to a crime is a different question.

Trump’s private meeting with Comey is the incident that so far sounds the most like true obstruction. But it may depend on further information about Trump’s own involvement in any underlying misconduct. If it turns out Trump wanted the Flynn case dropped because he feared it would lead to him, that sounds like corrupt intent. But if Trump was not implicated and was simply genuinely concerned that his friend was being treated unfairly, that could suggest the conversation was perhaps improper and unwise but not criminal.

In response to reports about the meeting with Comey, the White House responded by saying essentially “this is just the way the President talks.” In other words, it was an offhand remark expressing his concern about Flynn, not a calculated effort to influence Comey. This is a version of a defense of lack of corrupt intent, and it may be perfectly plausible. The President simply may not have appreciated the impact such an offhand statement could have when it comes from the leader of the free world and the FBI director’s boss.

In situations such as the Comey meeting a great deal also depends on things like nuance, tone, and body language. Was the statement made in a menacing way or in an offhand way? How did Comey interpret it? Information like that does not come across in a memo to the file. During his Senate testimony Comey said he interpreted the President’s statement as a directive to him to drop the case. That would certainly be a significant fact in any obstruction case.

There’s Obstruction, and Then There’s Obstruction

In a criminal investigation of possible obstruction a grand jury could subpoena additional witnesses and documents. Perhaps prosecutors could develop stronger evidence of corrupt intent. The case would depend not on any one incident in isolation but on the pattern of the President’s actions. The circumstantial evidence is mounting, but a lot would need to be done to shore up that evidence. Prosecutors would need to establish that some of the things reported in the press actually took place and could be proven at trial.

The reality is that a criminal prosecution of President Trump is unlikely. Although it’s never been officially settled, most authorities – including the DOJ — believe the Constitution prohibits the prosecution of a sitting President. The scene where Trump is handcuffed and perp-walked out of the Oval Office is not going to happen.

But I think when most people accuse Trump of “obstructing justice,” they are not focused on the elements of a specific criminal statute. Through a series of actions (including the events discussed above, a request that Comey pledge his loyalty, asking Comey whether he was under investigation, and his subsequent Tweet about Comey that many interpreted as a threat) Trump appears to have violated fundamental constitutional and political norms concerning the rule of law and limitations on executive power. Trump’s actions may obstruct justice in this broader, structural sense even if not in a strictly legal one.

As with violations of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, the primary remedy for this obstruction would be political. Political remedies include elections, where the voters have a chance to register their disapproval. They also include impeachment, which is available for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” This is generally interpreted to mean misconduct related to public office, not necessarily precise criminal violations. Charges of obstruction of justice were central to the articles of impeachment of both Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.

Impeachment is primarily a political proceeding rather than a legal one. Congress does not need to establish proof beyond a reasonable doubt of all elements of a crime the way a prosecutor does. Disregard of basic constitutional and political norms could fall short of a criminal offense and still justify impeachment. It’s up to the Members of Congress to decide whether misconduct rises to a level that would justify removing the President. For now, a great deal of additional investigation is needed before Congress could make those decisions.

As was true with alleged perjury by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, critics have been quick to accuse the President of a crime. But as I’m always telling my students, there is a lot of sleazy, unethical, and improper conduct that isn’t criminal. Trump’s potential interference with an ongoing investigation raises grave concerns. But the likely remedy lies with the political process, not a criminal prosecution.

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