Senate impeachment trial: Weigh Trump's repeated obstruction offenses to protect himself

Senate impeachment trial: Weigh Trump\
Senate impeachment trial: Weigh Trump\'s repeated obstruction offenses to protect himself  

Senators soon will be asked to consider the overwhelming evidence that President Donald Trump impermissibly obstructed Congress' Ukraine investigation. They would do well to remember that on obstruction of investigations, the president is a repeat offender.

The focus of the impeachment article charging Trump with obstruction of Congress is his conduct in the investigation of his abuse of power in pressuring Ukraine for personal political favors. The continuing emergence of important new information - most recently the explosive revelations in documents from and interviews of Lev Parnas, an indicted associate of the president's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani - makes clear the need to fully understand what happened and underscores the seriousness of the president's efforts to block the evidence.

The obstruction article also notes, however, that Trump's actions impeding Congress were "consistent with" his "previous efforts to undermine United States government investigations into foreign interference in United States elections."

This clause rightly invites consideration of crucial context for Trump's Senate trial: his disturbing and recurring pattern of holding himself beyond the reach of government scrutiny that applies to everyone else

A pattern of impeding investigations

Indeed, a review of the public record highlights the many times Trump has tried to impede both congressional and Department of Justice investigations of Russian attacks on our election system. Special counsel Robert Mueller laid out a litany of now well-known examples in his final report. Among the more troubling incidents:

Trump twice demanded that then-White House counsel Donald McGahn fire Mueller, and then asked McGahn to deny Trump had given this order.

►Trump also pressed then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reverse his decision to recuse himself from the Russian investigations and to limit the Mueller inquiry scope to future, not past, election interference.

►Trump fired FBI Director James Comey after Comey refused to comply with Trump's request to clear him publicly.

The president's attempts to undermine government inquiries go well beyond his conduct in the special counsel investigation. Indeed, as with the impeachment inquiry, Trump has also categorically resisted congressional investigations of Russian election interference.

Central to this conduct has been the president's command that administration officials - including those identified in the Mueller report as witnesses to key events in the Russian interference storyline in the 2016 election - refuse congressional requests for testimony. One of these officials is McGahn, the first administration witness the House Judiciary Committee called for public testimony at the conclusion of the Mueller inquiry. McGahn refused to comply, spurring litigation between the House and the administration that has resulted in lower court rulings in favor of the House.

Other administration officials with firsthand knowledge - including former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks, former senior White House adviser Rick Dearborn and former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter - have also resisted congressional questions.

Trump even went so far as to instruct an individual who never had served in his administration, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, to defy Congress. In one of the more bizarre obstruction incidents described by the special counsel, Trump reportedly asked then-private citizen Lewandowski - who had no position in the chain of command - to press Sessions to limit the scope of the Mueller inquiry. Lewandowski refused to respond to congressional questions relating to his interactions with Trump during the president's tenure.

Extreme and unprecedented argument

The sweeping Trump noncooperation directive is grounded in an extreme legal argument that presidential aides have "absolute immunity" from congressional testimony in order to protect autonomy and independence in presidential deliberations. This theory was rejected by the one federal district court that considered it prior to the Trump administration.

It again met with rejection in a November ruling by a federal district court in the McGahn litigation. Until Trump, no administration ever attempted to assert this argument with respect to private parties such as Lewandowski.

The president has taken additional extraordinary positions that undercut congressional investigation of Russian attacks on our elections. Under Trump, the DOJ refused to provide the House Judiciary Committee with a complete version of the Mueller report and supporting evidence, claiming the committee was not entitled to information protected by grand jury secrecy rules.

This argument, too, landed with a thud in federal district court, with the judge writing: "The reality is that DOJ and the White House have been openly stonewalling the House's efforts to get information by subpoena and by agreement, and the White House has flatly stated that the administration will not cooperate with congressional requests for information "

This decision, like the decision favoring the House in the McGahn litigation, is on appeal. In the meantime, however, Trump's unprecedented pattern of noncooperation and obstruction regarding investigations of Russian interference should be front and center for senators as they weigh the significance of his efforts to prevent Congress from reviewing his demand for political favors from Ukraine.

Noah Bookbinder, a former trial attorney for the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, is the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Follow him on Twitter: @NoahBookbinder. Kristin Amerling, an attorney and consultant, was chief counsel to several House committees and director of oversight for the Senate Commerce Committee.

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump impeachment trial: Consider obstruction offenses beyond Ukraine


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