There is a pile of evidence stacked into the stratosphere suggesting that Donald Trump has undertaken a course of conduct intended to obstruct justice. For a third time, I remind readers of the elements of obstruction:
You will sometimes hear a legal talking head on TV saying that Trump hasn’t committed a crime yet because he hasn’t lied under oath, or because it’s not illegal to lie to the press or the American people, or because he hasn’t yet succeeded in altering the course of Special Counsel Bob Mueller’s investigation.
You will note, however (as Mueller surely has), that the elements of obstruction outlined above say nothing about being under oath or succeeding in altering the course of an investigation (and yes, Mueller’s investigation is a proceeding for purposes of the obstruction statute). And there is no exception to the “endeavor[s] to influence” element for a perpetrator who uses the press — or lies to the American public — as his vehicle for doing it.
The question is whether, by whatever means, Trump corruptly endeavored to influence an investigation that he knew was pending.
The Seth Rich Story
Allegations are just allegations, but we must often ask whether allegations, if they are true, constitute some kind of actionable misconduct — maybe even a crime. Since we have to ask those questions here, let’s accept as true (for argument’s sake) the allegations contained in a lawsuit filed today involving the tragic death of a young man named Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee (DNC) staffer.
An investigator and Fox News contributor named Rod Wheeler alleges that Fox News reporter Malia Zimmerman and Republican operative Ed Butowsky made him an unwitting stooge in a joint White House-Fox News project to get Donald Trump and his campaign off the hook in the Russia collusion story.
Rich was killed during a likely botched robbery, but right-wing outlets like Fox News used his unsolved murder to push the story that Rich was the person who leaked DNC emails to Wikileaks and Julian Assange. With this tale, Fox and others sought to discredit the US intelligence community’s consensus that Russians attacked American institutions in their effort to install Donald Trump as president. If Assange got DNC emails from Rich, then he didn’t get the emails from Russia; the Russians weren’t the ones who hacked the DNC email server; there was no Russian attack on American democracy; and there was no collusion because there were no Russians to collude with.
And to make the conspiracy even juicier — irresistibly juicy — right-wingers threw in yet another alleged Hillary-Clinton-masterminded hit job: Seth Rich was murdered to cover up the non-existence of Trump’s collusion with Russia.
Wheeler claims that Zimmerman (the Fox reporter) and Butowsky (the Republican operative) invented quotes from Wheeler to include in a bogus story (published despite Wheeler’s protestations of fraud) to be run on Fox News — the story of how Rich was murdered because it was he, and not Russians, who did in Hillary’s campaign with ill-gotten emails that just happened to benefit Donald Trump.
Trump must have found this whole load of slop delicious. And according to Wheeler’s legal complaint, Trump did.
Here is an excerpt from pages 1 and 2 of the complaint:
Why This Might Be Obstruction
The evidence here points to participation by Donald Trump himself in an effort to fabricate a story designed to absolve himself and his campaign of criminal wrongdoing; his intent here, if these allegations are true, was to drop chaff to peel Bob Mueller and Mueller’s squadron of deadly serious lawyers off Trump’s trail.
And again, Trump needn’t have done such a thing under oath or succeeded in doing it to render his conduct improper and possibly criminal. If Trump used Fox News as his tool to dispense with Mueller, then both Trump and Fox personnel conspired to obstruct justice.
And instead of deflecting Mueller from Mueller’s beeline to his target, Trump and his team merely gave Mueller a new target to lock onto.
UPDATE (Monday night, 8-1-17): Mueller locks on. According to Reuters, the Special Counsel hired another high-powered lawyer today — this one an expert in foreign bribery. Ahem.