The Washington Post report that White House staffers were involved in President Trump’s alleged effort to shut down the FBI’s investigation into ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn increases the legal and political peril for the administration as Robert Mueller’s inquiry moves forward.
On Monday, the Post reported that Trump had asked Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Director Mike Rogers to push back on the testimony of the March then-FBI Director Jim Comey that Trump campaign associates were being scrutinized as a part of the investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 election. Both officials reportedly refused.
“This is very close to what Nixon tried to do in drawing in the CIA to short circuit the FBI investigation during Watergate,” said a former high-ranking Justice Department official. “His advisers could be very much at risk if they played a role in the alleged interference.” The Post did not mention whether Trump-appointed CIA Director Mike Pompeo received a similar request.
Trump was already facing accusations from Democrats that he engaged in obstruction of justice for firing Comey after asking him to shut down the investigation into Flynn, lying about the reasons why Comey was pushed out, and then acknowledging that the Russia inquiry had been a factor. The New York Timesreported last week that Trump told Russian officials during an Oval Office visit that firing Comey had “taken off” pressure caused by the Russia investigation.
Legal experts are divided over whether a sitting president can face obstruction charges; it’s possible that impeachment would be the only remedy for a president still in office committing a crime. Obstruction and related charges are also difficult to prove, because they necessarily turn on an individual’s state of mind.
Monday’s report indicates that Trump attempted to enlist other administration officials in efforts to both shut down the Flynn investigation and to contain the fallout from Comey’s testimony that Trump associates were being investigated. During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday, Coats said that he wouldn’t comment on the Post’s specific allegation, but added that “any political shaping of that presentation or intelligence would not be appropriate,” and that “I have made my position clear on that to this administration, and I intend to maintain that position.”
Clint Watts, a former FBI agent who is now a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said that the report suggested that top intelligence officials “have had the same reaction as Comey, covering their backs against inappropriate presidential influence and potentially obstruction of justice.” The allegation that Trump pressured Comey to shut down the Flynn investigation was reportedly documented in contemporaneous notes taken by Comey, who said no to the request.