From firing FBI Director James Comey to his endless attempts to undermine federal law enforcement on Twitter, President Trump has obstructed justice in plan sight for most of his time in office. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that he’s also been doing this behavior behind the scenes. On Tuesday afternoon, the New York Times published an extensive report detailing the “intimidation, pressure and humiliation” the president has exerted in an effort to stymie the multiple investigations into his campaign and businesses. The report contains a number of damning allegations, beginning with the revelation that Trump asked former acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker to install a loyalist named Geoffrey S. Berman atop the investigation into the 2016 hush money payments that the Southern District of New York deemed violations of campaign finance law. When Whitaker said he couldn’t — Berman had already recused himself from the investigation — Trump allegedly turned on Whitaker.
Last week, Whitaker testified under oath in front of the House Judiciary Committee that Trump never pressured him to manipulate any of the federal investigations that concerned him. Shortly after the report was published, the Justice Department said in a statement that Whitaker stands by his testimony. “Under oath to the House Judiciary Committee, then Acting Attorney General Whitaker stated that ‘at no time has the White House asked for nor have I provided any promises or commitments concerning the special counsel’s investigation or any other investigation,'” wrote spokesperson Kerri Kupec. “Mr. Whitaker stands by his testimony.”
Whitaker on Feb. 8: "At no time has the W.H. asked for nor have I provided any promises or commitments concerning the special counsel investigation or any other investigation."
NYT reports Trump asked Whitaker about putting the recused USA in SDNY in charge of the Cohen probes. pic.twitter.com/46eEdR1vbW
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) February 19, 2019
JUST IN: DOJ says Acting Attorney General Whitaker will consult with senior ethics officials at DOJ about possible recusal in Special Counsel investigation. DOJ Spox Kerri Kupec says, pic.twitter.com/19ej569Ne2
— Paula Reid (@PaulaReidCBS) November 13, 2018
Trump replied to the allegation later on Tuesday. “I don’t know who gave you that,” the president said. “That’s more fake news. There’s a lot of fake news out there.”
Asked about NYT's report that he inquired with acting AG Whitaker about putting a loyalist in charge of SDNY's investigation of the Trump Organization, Trump pauses for a beat before denying it. pic.twitter.com/rBuL9H80fr
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 19, 2019
The Times also reported on Tuesday that White House lawyers wrote a confidential memo “expressing concern about the president’s staff peddling misleading information in public” regarding Michael Flynn, the national security adviser who resigned after it was revealed that he lied about his contact with a Russian official. According to the report, when Trump and his advisers were searching for a way to explain Flynn’s resignation, the president allegedly instructed then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer to tell the public that Trump asked for the resignation. When Spicer asked if that was true, Trump repeated the directive without elaborating. “That sounds better,” Trump said. When Spicer ultimately took the podium to address the press, White House lawyers included all of his misstatements in a memo. It was a day after Spicer’s press conference that Trump met with Comey to tell him to end the investigation into Flynn. “I hope you can let this go,” Trump said, as Comey noted in a memo he took of the meeting.
The fallout from Flynn’s resignation — which Trump believes would bring an end to “the Russia thing” — was only the beginning. The Times details the president’s prolonged campaign to humiliate and oust Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from overseeing Mueller’s investigation. Trump even asked former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to pressure Sessions into resigning. Last September, the Times reported that Mueller was considering Trump’s incessant public harassment and intimidation of Sessions as part of a possible obstruction of justice case.
Despite the president’s wishes, “the Russia thing” did not end with Flynn’s resignation, and in an effort to cultivate public skepticism of Mueller’s investigation, Trump reportedly had private conversations with Republicans to strategize about how to discredit the probe. The president encouraged lawmakers like Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) and Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), then the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, as they went on the offensive to defend the president. This included opening investigations into how the FBI handled investigations relating to Hillary Clinton, as well as “forcing into the open some of the government’s most sensitive investigative files” in order to muddy the waters and raise suspicion.
Georgetown University criminal law professor Julie O’Sullivan told the Times that she believes there is “ample public evidence” that Trump had the “corrupt intent” to try to thwart the Mueller investigation. “Corrupt intent,” as the Times notes, is what legally constitutes obstruction of justice.
How to handle the “ample public evidence” will be up to Special Counsel Mueller.