Donald Trump
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The president just committed another impeachable crime today.

President Donald Trump on Friday refused to say whether Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman who’s been wrapped up in the special counsel’s Russia investigation, could count on a pardon from the White House.

Responding to a shouted question of whether or not he would pardon Manafort, Trump wouldn’t answer either way, saying that “I don’t talk about that.”

“I think the whole Manafort trial is very sad,” Trump told reporters on the White House lawn, as jurors deliberate charges of tax and bank fraud against his former campaign chairman in nearby Alexandria, Virginia.

“When you look at what is going on, I think it’s a very sad day for our country. He worked for me for a very short period of time, but you know what? He happens to be a very good person. And I think it’s very sad what they’ve done to Paul Manafort,” he said.

To reiterate the context here:

President Trump is under investigation for colluding with Russia to subvert American democracy–and for obstructing justice vis-a-vis the investigation into said alleged conspiracy. Several have already pleaded guilty to serious crimes in connection with the probe, and many others have been indicted.

Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, is on trial for criminal tax evasion related to his work on behalf of Russian oligarchs and Ukrainian politicians under Vladimir Putin’s sway. The government’s evidence against Manafort is overwhelming, and there will be three times as much evidence when the Justice Department brings its next case against him, even if Judge Ellis’ gross misconduct helps secure Manafort an acquittal in the current case.

There was no reason for Trump to hire Manafort, who had a long reputation for sleaze. He also had not managed a significant domestic campaign in quite some time, with the exception being his connections with the Russian mafia/oligarchy. Manafort is in a position to know what may have transpired between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, but he isn’t talking. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Trump’s presidency (as well as Manafort’s own life) may depend on Manafort keeping his mouth shut.

If Manafort is convicted in either trial he will likely spend the rest of his life in federal prison. That, in turn, will force Trump to either pardon him–a counterproductive move that would remove his protections against self-incrimination and expose him to subpoenas in the investigation of Trump–or run the risk of Manafort realizing that protecting Trump isn’t worth dying behind bars.

If Manafort is acquitted of the current charges, Trump will be able to use the prosecution’s failure as a talking point for ending the probe altogether. So Trump stands to gain a great deal from derailing the case.

The jury was still deliberating as of this writing. It was deliberating as Trump delivered his remarks this morning, when he called Manafort a “very good person” and derided the case against him–a case being brought by the U.S. government and his own justice department.

Of course, jurors are instructed to ignore all outside information about the case they are deliberating. But it’s going to be very difficult for jurors not to hear commentary on it by the President of the United States. Ideally, the jurors would have been carefully screened for excess partisan sentiment, but that would be extraordinarily difficult given that Judge Ellis’ so-called “rocket docket” only spent less than a day to impanel the entire jury. All it would take is one partisan juror attempting to do the president’s bidding, and Trump would know that.

There can be no doubt that the president’s comments were intentionally stated with the hope of influencing the jury, which could determine the president’s own future in the Oval Office, and even his own personal liberty.

That is a crime. It’s called jury tampering. The president has a legal obligation to refrain from commentary in an ongoing trial that directly impacts him, particularly from denouncing his own government’s case against the accused.

It is among the crimes that a future Democratic Congress, should it materialize in the next election, should examine in considering impeachment proceedings. And it is one that Robert Mueller himself may wish to include in his final report–no matter what the Manafort jury decides in the coming days.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.