Can a President Be Charged With Obstructing Justice?

Courts have ruled that otherwise lawful acts can constitute obstruction of justice if done with corrupt intentions. Some analysts say that a president cannot be charged with obstruction in a criminal case and the only remedy for such an offense is impeachment.

President Trump’s assertion that he fired former national security adviser Michael  Flynn in part because he knew that Flynn had lied to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador — for which Mr. Flynn pleaded guilty on Friday — has intensified accusations that the president committed obstruction of justice, the New York Times reports. Trump critics portray the statement as a confession that he knew Flynn had committed a crime when he pressured then-FBI director James Comey to drop the investigation into Flynn. Trump later fired Comey.

Trump has denied that he pressured Comey to drop the investigation. John Dowd, a Trump lawyer, contends that the president, as a matter of constitutional law, cannot violate obstruction of justice statutes anyway. Trump does have authority to supervise law enforcement decisions and fire subordinates, but courts have ruled that otherwise lawful acts can constitute obstruction of justice if done with corrupt intentions. Julie O’Sullivan, a former federal prosecutor who teaches white-collar criminal law at Georgetown University, said the power relationship between a president and the FBI director could elevate a request to shut down a case into an act that amounts to impeding an official investigation. Still, there is no precedent for prosecuting a current or former president in criminal court for obstruction. Some analysts contend that the judicial branch should not be in the position of second-guessing whether a president has properly exercised his constitutional authority, so the only remedy for abuse of power is impeachment and removal by Congress. Harvard law Prof. Alan Dershowitz says that if Congress were to charge Trump with obstruction “for exercising his constitutional authority under Article II, we’d have a constitutional crisis.”