Earlier this summer, President Trump asked his lawyers about pardoning his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort. Giuliani told the president such a maneuver would be inadvisable and could expose Trump to a possible obstruction of justice charge. “We sat [Trump] down and said you’re not considering these other pardons with anybody involved in the investigation. He said yes, absolutely, I understand,” Giuliani told the Washington Post, “The real concern is whether [Robert] Mueller would turn any pardon into an obstruction charge.”
Yesterday, Trump went ahead and dangled a pardon for Manafort anyway. “It was never discussed,” he told the New York Post, falsely, before continuing, “but I wouldn’t take it off the table. Why would I take it off the table?”
Dangling a pardon like this is an extremely serious offense. It was one of the very crimes for which Nixon was going to be impeached. This naturally raises the question of why Trump would obstruct justice so blatantly.
Trump’s explanation is that he feels badly for Manafort, who he believes is being treated unfairly by the Department of Justice. So, by this account, Trump is putting himself at risk of an obstruction charge just so he can defend his former campaign manager (who he has dismissed as someone who “came into the campaign very late and was with us for a short period of time.” That doesn’t sound like something Trump would do.
Yet Trump has taken this risk over and over. From the moment he learned about the Russia investigation, he asked the FBI director to go easy on its principal subject, Michael Flynn. He hasn’t stopped obstructing justice since. He fired Comey for failing to show loyalty, fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions for the same reason — and admitted in public he hired Sessions only because he expected loyalty — and replaced him with a hack who had already indicated agreement with his views of the case.
Trump’s lawyers have formed joint defense agreements with Jerome Corsi, who Mueller appears to have dead to rights on both perjury and attempts to collude with Wikileaks. More recently, Trump’s legal team got Manafort to brief them on his interactions with Robert Mueller, a violation that could also expose Trump to obstruction of justice charges, reports NBC. This is an extremely risky legal strategy that, as lawyers such as Harry Litman and Ken White have observed, may allow Mueller “to delve into the Trump lawyers’ conversations with Mr. Manafort’s lawyers.”
A common theory of the Russia scandal is that it consists of nothing more than some low-level shenanigans. Perhaps some cheap grifters attached themselves to Trump and took some inappropriate meetings, but Trump’s campaign did not collude with Putin, and Trump himself has nothing to fear. Trump’s evident rage at the investigation, by this theory, is simply his indignation at the notion that his great victory has been tainted as a cheat with Russian help.
But how could this theory explain the extremely risky moves Trump keeps taking? The endless obstruction of justice, while binding his legal fate ever more tightly to the low-level crooks who supposedly can’t be tied to him — the latter of which requires the assent of Trump’s lawyers — all make no sense. Unless Trump is, in fact, guilty.