In an early morning tweet today US President Donald Trump appeared to confirm earlier reports that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is now investigating his handling of former FBI Director Comey to see whether there might be grounds for a charge of obstruction of justice.
I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 16, 2017
A word of caution is in order. Trump’s tweet appears to suggest that he was given the news he was under investigation by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who published a report calling for Comey to be removed from his position as Director of the FBI because of his mishandling of the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s misuse of a private server for her emails.
However Rosenstein has issued his own completely different statement today, warning Americans against believing news stories originating with anonymous officials
Americans should exercise caution before accepting as true any stories attributed to anonymous ‘officials,’ particularly when they do not identify the country – let alone the branch or agency of government – with which the alleged sources supposedly are affiliated. Americans should be skeptical about anonymous allegations. The Department of Justice has a long-established policy to neither confirm nor deny such allegations.
Coming the day after the Washington Post story that the President is under investigation, this statement appears to warn Americans against believing this story, and moreover does so in a way that hints quite that the ‘officials’ who leaked that story are not even Americans. Indeed the statement opens up the possibility that many of the leaks which have so destabilised the Trump administration since before the inauguration have their origins outside the US, which has huge implications if it turns out to be true.
Rosenstein’s statement leaves open the possibility that President Trump’s tweet this morning originates not from any briefing by Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein but from the Washington Post story itself, with the President assuming that this story is true before he has been properly briefed on it.
Putting these speculations to one side, and assuming that the President is indeed being investigated as he appears to believe, what can be said about this?
Firstly, it is necessary to reiterate the simple and essential point that simply because someone is being investigated for something doesn’t mean he is guilty of anything. I have already made clear that I believe the claims that the President obstructed justice whether in connection to the Russiagate inquiry or to the Flynn investigation don’t stack up, and the overwhelming consensus of legal opinion seems to be in agreement with this.
To see how this is so consider this bizarre commentary from CNN, which has taken a militantly anti-Trump line throughout the Russiagate scandal, and which appears to concede that the President has not obstructed justice but can supposedly be impeached on the non-existent charge of ‘abuse of power’ instead.
Secondly, it is clear that the President is being investigated over his interactions with Comey and not in connection with the central charge of the Russiagate investigation itself, which is the one of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. No one has unearthed any evidence that such collusion ever took place, and no one so far has formally accused the President himself of engaging in it.
Thirdly, the fact must be faced even by the President’s defenders that his interactions with Comey were extremely unwise, and have created an appearance of impropriety even if nothing actually wrong or illegal took place. Indeed the more I hear about these interactions the more foolish they appear to have been, with the President failing to have witnesses present to support his account of what happened, and failing to make contemporaneous notes of what he said to Comey so as to either confirm or refute what Comey says.
Given this appearance of impropriety it is neither surprising nor sinister that Special Counsel Mueller might feel that he has to look into this issue, if only to put it to rest. Here is what I said about this only yesterday
If Special Counsel Mueller really is investigating the President for obstruction of justice then the President ultimately has no one to blame but himself. His meetings with Comey were as I have repeatedly said extraordinarily unwise, and though there is no legal case for obstruction of justice on the known facts (which I am sure are all the facts there are) there is at least an appearance of impropriety which Mueller may feel he has no choice but to look into.
Having said this, in the absence of any actual legal case for obstruction of justice I cannot imagine that Mueller’s investigation will in the end do the President any real harm. Ultimately it may even be in the President’s interests to have Mueller look into this issue. If Mueller exonerates the President fully of this charge – as on the facts he is bound to do – then it is impossible to see how any impeachment based on this charge can get off the ground.
As for the allegation that the President asked Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and head of the NSA Mike Rogers to help him get out a statement that he was not under an investigation for colluding with Russia, I am unable to see how that would amount to an obstruction of justice given that the information the President wanted Coats and Rogers to publicise was true.
The President is quite right when he says that he has been treated appallingly by his political enemies and by the media over the Russiagate affair. However if he is honest with himself he would have to admit that he has repeatedly played into his enemies’ hands, and that he has been all too often his own worst enemy. Though some of the charges which have been made against him – such as the one that he shared secret intelligence with the Russians – are totally absurd, he was wrong to sack Flynn when he did, and his handling of Comey has been nothing short of disastrous.
What the President now needs to do is to let events take their course, and to let Rosenstein and Mueller do their jobs. Since he has done nothing that remotely merits impeachment, and since it is becoming increasingly clear that none of his campaign team did anything wrong either, if he sits tight and leaves the handling of this affair to his lawyers it will in time blow over. Already there is a sense of this affair going round in circles, with what look initially like big stories – such as Kushner’s and Flynn’s idea for a backchannel to Russia – evaporating under scrutiny like mist.
The very worst thing the President could do would be to take precipitate action, for example by sacking Rosenstein and Mueller, which would merely inflame the situation, when on the basis of everything that is known about them, all that they are doing is their jobs.