Below is my column in USA Today on the current status of the evidence against President Donald Trump for either indictment or impeachment. While I do not agree with the White House that former FBI Director James Comey
“completely vindicated” the President, I do not believe that the testimony materially altered the legal position of the President. I believe that Comey both helped and hurt himself. He did an excellent job in explaining why he only discussed the content of the memos with his staff, but he also admitted to being a leaker and showed repeated failures in ethical confrontations with superiors. There is reportedly a call for Comey to return. He may find the return appearance more challenging than the first.
The release of former FBI director James Comey’s testimony on Wednesday was received with the same breathless reactions that have long characterized coverage of the Russian investigation. CNN ran comments that the Comey testimony was nothing short of the Watergate tapes. The desire for some indictable or impeachable offense by President Trump has distorted the legal analysis to an alarming degree. Analysts seem far too thrilled by the possibility of a crime by Trump. The legal fact is that Comey’s testimony does not establish a prima facie — or even a strong — case for obstruction.
It is certainly true that if Trump made these comments, his conduct is wildly inappropriate. However, talking like Tony Soprano does not make you Tony Soprano. Trump is not the first president to express dissatisfaction with an investigation by the Justice Department. Former president Bill Clinton made clear his own dissatisfaction with the investigations of his administration under then-Attorney General Janet Reno. It is no surprise that Trump wanted to see these investigations end. Indeed, he had a virtual hashtag to that effect.
The crime of obstruction of justice has not been defined as broadly as suggested by commentators. While there are a couple of courts with more expansive interpretations, the crime is generally linked to obstructing a pending proceeding as opposed to an investigation. Most courts have rejected the application of obstruction provisions to mere investigations. The manual used by federal prosecutors makes that same distinction. Even if a prosecutor was able to extend the definition of obstruction, there would remain the need to show that Trump sought to “corruptly” influence the investigation. Trump telling Comey that Michael Flynn is “a good guy,” and that he hoped Comey would let the matter drop is hardly a “cancer,” let alone a crime, growing on the presidency.
Flynn had just resigned the day before Trump allegedly asked Comey whether he could now drop the investigation of Flynn. Trump had been told by Comey that he is not under investigation (three alleged confirmations by Comey that are equally inappropriate). Trump could say he felt Flynn had suffered enough. For a defense lawyer, a charge of obstruction on these facts would be a target-rich environment.
The mere fact that Trump asked to speak to Comey alone would not implicate the president in obstruction. Trump could argue that he sought to exclude Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others who were facing calls for recusal in the investigation. He could claim that he viewed this as a personal inquiry on behalf of a friend. He was, of course, wrong. Dead wrong in asking such a grossly improper question. However, to treat the desire of a private conversation as inescapable evidence of obstruction is to deny the obvious defenses in the case.
In the end, a prosecutor should never seek to indict a president absent a lead-pipe cinch of a case. This is no lead-pipe cinch. Of course, there is also the problem of actually indicting a sitting president if there was a crime and evidence to fit it. Many academics believe that a sitting president cannot be indicted. It remains an open question. After all, judges have faced indictment before impeachments. Yet, the president remains the head of the executive branch handling such prosecutions.
The proper course is for a president to be impeached and removed before any prosecution. It is no gift to a president. Impeachments are not subject to the rules of evidence or even the criminal code. Presidents can face a much broader array of evidentiary demands with far less protection under due process rules. A president can also be impeached for acts that are not technically crimes. Abuse of office is a classic example. However, analogies to Watergate show little understanding of those articles of impeachment. The first article against President Nixon was an obstruction allegation, but it was expressly linked to actual and serious crimes, including the criminal break-in at the Watergate. The article specifically listed an array of personal actions taken by Nixon and his subordinates to procure false statements, obstruct investigators, and “to conceal the existence and scope of other unlawful covert activities.”
Ironically, those who want a criminal charge on this record are committing the very offense that they accuse Trump of committing: disregarding the law to achieve their desired goal. It would be a highly dangerous interpretation to allow obstruction charges at this stage. If prosecutors can charge people at the investigation stage of cases, a wide array of comments or conduct could be criminalized. It is quite common to have such issues arise early in criminal cases. Courts have limited the crime precisely to avoid this type of open-ended crime where prosecutors could threaten potential witnesses with charges unless they cooperated.
We do not indict or impeach people for being boorish or clueless … or simply being Donald Trump.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.