Trump Obstruction of Justice – Who Decides?

So far as my research has revealed, one aspect of the James Comey hearing has not been directly discussed. I concede I may be overreacting or over-parsing what was merely a generic statement from Richard Burr (Rep. NC), the Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. But if I’m not guilty of those errors, this is a point worth talking about.

When Burr opened the hearing yesterday, he said:

We will establish the facts, separate from rampant speculation, and lay them out for the American people to make their own judgment. Only then will we as a nation be able to move forward and to put this episode to rest.

That, I suggest, is fundamentally wrong. It makes a nice high-minded statement of democratic philosophy, but in the present context, it may reflect an intention to abdicate the true role of the Select Committee.

Certainly, that role includes uncovering, the truth about the connections between the Trump campaign, and possibly Trump himself, and operatives of the Russian Federation and the effects that had on the 2016 election. It also includes discovering whether the President attempted to undermine the investigation of those relationships by making inappropriate and/or unlawful demands on the then-Director of the FBI and, failing to get what he wanted, firing the Director.

The issue raised here is: what happens when the investigation and hearings are concluded? Burr’s statement implies that some vague plebiscite will then occur in which the American people will “make their own judgment” and that will end the entire affair. Of, perhaps, he means the Committee will make a report, which likely will not reveal all the classified information, and then leave it up to the next election to resolve the culpability of the President. If that is what the Chairman thinks, he has seriously misunderstood his Committee’s role.

In fact, there will be no plebiscite on the question whether Trump is guilty of obstruction of justice. While there will be on-going elections beginning this year, continuing through the 2018 mid-terms and on to the presidential election of 2020, none of those will directly judge in isolation whether the President tried to interfere with the investigation into the Russia connection and thereby committed the offense of obstruction of justice. The evaluation of that question belongs in the first instance to the Congress under its authority to impeach and convict the President for “Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors.” U.S. Constitution, Art. II, sec. 4.

Burr’s Committee would play a central role in the impeachment process, as will the corresponding committee in the House of Representatives where impeachment proceedings must begin. U.S. Constitution, Art. I, sec. 2. The actual trial of any impeachment is a matter for the Senate. U.S. Constitution, Art. II, sec. 3. The requirements for impeachment and conviction are high, as they should be, and the penalties for the President are limited because the Founding Fathers were concerned that political maneuvering could be used to interfere with the President’s execution of his duties. It is also true, however, that the President, while given wide latitude in the conduct of the Executive Branch powers, may not commit crimes and assert “I am the President and no one can hold me to account.”

We must remain aggressively attentive to any effort by Congress, in any form, to sidestep its constitutional obligations to address the issues raised about the President’s conduct. If the investigations, including most importantly the independent investigation by Special Prosecutor Mueller, do not uncover wrongdoing, so be it. The President will then be judged at the ballot box on his overall performance. But if the President has committed, as the facts so far strongly suggest, obstruction of justice, that offense against the country must be taken up by the Congress and moved swiftly to conclusion. If the Republicans in Congress are going to look the other way on the President’s transgressions, they too will face the ultimate test in the elections to come.

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