The Trump-Russia scandal gets more complicated by the day, so don't feel bad if you can't keep up or have 593,385 questions (we all do). As news continues to break about the FBI's investigation into potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, the latest question on everyone's mind is whether or not President Trump obstructed justice.
On Tuesday, the New York Times reported Trump asked former FBI Director James Comey to stop the investigation into former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, back in February. The commander-in-chief fired Comey May 9. The reasoning behind the decision remains unclear, as President Trump has contradicted statements from White House staff on the issue. This has led to the media and Democrats in Congress asking how much of the decision to oust Comey was tied to the agency's investigation into the president's people.
According to a memo Comey wrote after meeting with Trump in February, the president told him, "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go." The White House denied that President Trump asked Comey to end the Russia investigation.
So, let's dive in, starting with the basics.
What qualifies as obstruction of justice?
Obstruction of justice is legally defined as "whoever ... corruptly or by threats or force, or by any threatening letter or communication, influences, obstructs, or impedes, or endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice, shall be (guilty of an offense)." While one section of United States Code Title 18 applies only to federal court proceedings, another specifies that obstruction of justice also applies to pending proceeding in Congress or a federal agency, including informal investigations.
Why do people think Trump obstructed justice?
If the president of the United States did fire the FBI director in order to stop the agency from looking into his advisers' possible ties to Russia, it could be considered obstructing an ongoing investigation. Trump had the authority to fire Comey, but his reasons for doing so matter.
Although President Trump claims he didn't ask Comey to end the Russia investigation or fire him because of said investigation, some view Comey's memo as proof otherwise.
Is there proof outside of Comey's memo?
After firing Comey, President Trump said in a tweet, "James Comey better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!" Members of Congress from both parties urged Trump to hand over any tapes, though White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer refuses to confirm or deny whether they exist.
The Senate Intelligence Committee asked Comey to testify about why he was fired, but the former FBI director declined. According to The New York Times, Comey will only agree to testify before Congress in a public hearing — not behind closed doors — signaling that he wants the process to be transparent and available for all Americans to monitor.
Could Trump be punished?
Convicting someone for obstruction of justice requires proving they tried to corrupt a judicial, congressional, or agency proceeding, so there would have to be clear evidence that Trump fired Comey in order to interfere with the FBI investigation. Proving what someone was thinking at any given time is always challenging, and this would be no different, but FBI agents' notes are considered credible evidence of conversations.
It's not likely the current Justice Department will charge the president for obstruction of justice, but Congress could call for the president to be impeached if there's proof he had the Russia investigation in mind when firing Comey. Multiple members of Congress have already alleged that he obstructed justice and needs to be impeached, from Democrats Bernie Sanders and Al Green, to Republican Justin Amash.