Ryan Goodman of the New York Times lays things out in such a way that it’s easy to see the outlines of a fairly slam-dunk case of obstruction of justice in the Russia probe. In addition to the already verified false statements made by Michael Flynn and George Papadapoulos, for which they have both been indicted, he identifies false statements that were made to Congress or on government forms by Jeff Sessions, Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr., and K.T. McFarland. This is in addition to a long list of false statements that were made to the public, including by the president, insisting that there had been absolutely no contact between members of the campaign and Russians. For Goodman, these public lies are so intertwined with their overall defense that it’s impossible to believe that they were honest in private when speaking to federal investigators.
The original conspiracy to hide Russian contacts has unraveled. We now know that Flynn, Papadapolos, and Sam Clovis are cooperating with the Mueller investigation, while there is reason to believe that Rick Gates may soon join them. Many others have given testimony, either to the grand jury or to the special counsel’s investigators. Some, like Hope Hicks and the president’s White House lawyer Don McGahn are still in Trump’s employ, but others like Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer, and Steve Bannon (who is scheduled to testify soon) are not. Only the most guilty have any interest in lying to the feds, so it’s safe to say that Mueller has decimated the original unity of Trump’s team and is now getting to the bottom of how these lies were coordinated. And maybe that’s why it appears that he’ll spend his time talking to the president by focusing on issues related to obstruction of justice rather than the underlying crime.
Trump may have signaled yesterday that he’s knows he’s in trouble on obstruction. He’s been denying he colluded with the Russians but on Wednesday he added a denial that he’s obstructed the investigation, too.
President Trump defended his attacks on investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election, denying that it amounts to obstruction and saying he was merely “fight[ing] back.”
“There’s been no collusion whatsoever,” Trump told reporters in an impromptu press conference on Wednesday. “There’s no obstruction whatsoever. And I’m looking forward to it.”
Trump also mocked critics who have accused him of obstructing the Russia probe by attacking the investigations and referring to them as a “witch hunt.”
“You fight back, oh, it’s obstruction,” Trump mockingly told reporters.
So, that’s a defense. If collusion of some sort isn’t demonstrated, Trump will say that he’s been persecuted for fighting back against a witch hunt investigation. It’s not a real defense for lying, but remember that people didn’t support the removal of Bill Clinton for lying under oath because the underlying charges about Whitewater and everything else were never proven. Trump will have to admit to a lot more than lying about a sexual relationship with one intern, but he probably believes he can survive if the case is restricted to obstruction charges.
However, a really strong obstruction case will be a very powerful component of an impeachment proceeding if Mueller brings evidence of previously undisclosed cooperation between the Russians and the Trump campaign, especially in the late phases of the campaign where advertising and propaganda was being targeted to the electorate in a sophisticated manner. To get enough Republicans in a position where they’re willing and able to help remove this president from office, Mueller is going to need both elements. He’ll need to demonstrate not only that the Trump team lied egregiously to his investigators and to the American people, but that there was a reason that they did so.