Stephen Gottlieb: Problems Proving Obstruction And Conspiracy

Apr 2, 2019

Two statutes add to the many issues that complicate the status of Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

One defines obstruction of justice as “imped[ing] the due administration of justice."[1] It has been treated as necessary that one have specifically intended to obstruct a proceeding. One can prove that someone like Trump intended to impede justice either by statements of intent or actions that make it obvious. Obstruction is about such things as Trump’s dismissal of Comey and urging an end to the investigation. It would have been cleaner if Trump had recused himself from the investigation. But he didn’t dismiss Rosenstein or Mueller or order either Comey or Sessions to end the investigation, only encourage them to. Was that enough? It probably would be if you told a police officer to get lost. But, even though Congress is not limited by the same rules of evidence, Supreme Court decisions about evidence of intent will complicate things. Let me come back to that in a moment.

A second statute makes “[A]ny conspiracy for the purpose of impairing, obstructing or defeating the lawful function of any department of government . . .” a violation of federal law.[2] Participants must agree, intend, and do something to further the conspiracy. Once again, intent might be proven by explicit statements, or by actions that make it obvious. 

The Supreme Court, however, is not a friend of the obvious. It ratcheted back the law of conspiracy in an antitrust case saying that it is not enough to show that two people or companies acted as if they were acting in concert. The Court wants something closer to an explicit statement or admission.[3]

The Court doesn’t like to infer intent from behavior, except for infering intent to favor African-American efforts to equalize their opportunities with those of whites. The Court decided that many electoral district lines were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders in favor of African-Americans based on the shapes of the lines, even where the more obvious purpose was political gerrymandering which, to this day, they refuse to condemn.[4] But the Court resists finding that white officials disadvantaging minorities did so intentionally.[5] In one case they would not even get to the evidence, writing that such discrimination by high public officials was “implausible.”[6]

Intelligent attorneys would stop short of explicit statements or admissions. Politicians and criminal conspirators often make agreements based on unstated understandings. Trump came much closer to the brink than an intelligent lawyer would have. But notice the absence of any explicit quid pro quo. There’s no “release the recordings, Mr. Putin, and we’ll deliver the EU.” There’s no “let us help you violate our laws to get information on the Democratic National Committee or candidate Clinton.” It wasn’t even in the form of requests that they do some illegal things in the U.S. Instead the evidence we know about was all encouragement – saying that would be great, we hope Putin does it, or we predict he will. Trump’s statements are not explicit. Lawyers recognize that circumstantial evidence is often the most reliable but this Court thinks big shots and major corporations should be protected from it. Here, the evidence we know about is ambiguous – does it indicate a joint endeavor or simply knowledge of Putin’s actions?

The strength of the evidence will depend in part on whether Congress is willing to ignore the Court. In other words, the U.S. Supreme Court had its favorites and its scapegoats even before Trump’s appointments made it worse. None of that makes Trump blameless but it does mean that there will be battles over the evidence.

[1] 18 U.S.C. § 1503, 1505 and https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/obstruction_of_justice.

[2] Hass v. Henkel, 216 U.S. 462, 479-480 (1910).

[3] Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007).

[4] See, e.g., Bush v. Vera, 517 U.S. 952 (1996); Shaw v. Hunt, 517 U.S. 899 (1996).

[5] See Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio, 490 U.S. 642 (1989); and see also League of United Latin American Citizens [LULAC] v. Perry, 548 U.S. 399, 517 (2006) (Scalia, J., concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part).

[6] Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009).

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

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