Donald Trump’s personal lawyer argued Monday that, as the nominal head of federal law enforcement, the president is legally unable to obstruct justice. But the exact opposite view was once argued by another senior Trump lawyer: Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
In 1999, Sessions – then an Alabama senator – laid out an impassioned case for President Bill Clinton to be removed from office based on the argument that Clinton obstructed justice amid the investigation into his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
“The facts are disturbing and compelling on the President’s intent to obstruct justice,” he said, according to remarks in the congressional record.
Sessions isn’t alone. More than 40 current GOP members of Congress voted for the impeachment or removal of Clinton from office for obstruction of justice. They include Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – who mounted his own passionate appeal to remove Clinton from office for obstruction of justice – Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, who was a House member at the time.
In all, 17 sitting senators supported the obstruction of justice charge against Clinton in 1998 and 1999.
“The chief law officer of the land, whose oath of office calls on him to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, crossed the line and failed to defend the law, and, in fact, attacked the law and the rights of a fellow citizen,” Sessions said during Clinton’s trial in the Senate, two months after he was impeached by the House. “Under our Constitution, equal justice requires that he forfeit his office.”
Trump’s personal lawyer John Dowd argued in an interview with Axios on Monday that the “president cannot obstruct justice because he is the chief law enforcement officer under [the Constitution’s Article II] and has every right to express his view of any case.”
Where Sessions argued in Clinton’s case that the president had the responsibility to “defend the law,” Dowd argued that the president’s oversight of law enforcement makes it impossible for anyone in the office to obstruct it in the first place.
The interview followed Trump’s tweet—which Dowd says he wrote—that he knew Flynn had lied to the FBI when he was fired in February.
Trump has come under scrutiny for his decision to fire former FBI Director James Comey amid an intensifying investigation of Trump associates’ connections to Russia and whether any aided the Russian effort to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Comey has since testified that Trump pressured him to pull back on an investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty last week to a count of lying to federal investigators about his contacts with Russian officials during the presidential transition.
Congressional Democrats have argued that Trump’s firing of Comey, now part of the special counsel investigation overseen by Robert Mueller, amounts to obstruction.
In the Senate trial that could have removed Clinton from office, Sessions delivered a 450-word analysis of the obstruction charges against Clinton.
Sessions’ argument for finding presidential obstruction concerned Clinton’s attempts to defeat a civil action against him. “Since the truth would be damaging, he took steps to see that the truth concerning his relationship with Monica Lewinsky would never come out,” Sessions argued at the time. That obstruction began, he said, when Clinton lied to the courts under oath and worked to influence witnesses, including Lewinsky.
“The president coached his personal secretary twice to ensure that if she were called as a witness in the civil case she would not contradict his testimony given the day before. The president intentionally lied to aides in an effort to have them mislead the public and the grand jury,” Sessions went on. “This is to me a clear pattern of obstruction of justice.”
Grassley and McConnell at the time laid out legal arguments for obstruction that included accusing Clinton of coaching a longtime assistant who was slated to give testimony in the matter. “Then the president—in violation of the federal obstruction of justice law—fired off a string of fundamentally declarative statements to his secretary,” McConnell said.
McConnell also laid out the legal case that obstruction of justice is a “high crime” that would warrant removal from office.
“I am completely and utterly perplexed by those who argue that perjury and obstruction of justice are not high crimes and misdemeanors,” he said. A McConnell spokesman declined to comment.
Burr, however, told reporters Monday that he did not agree with Dowd’s view that presidents are legally disqualified from obstructing justice.
Grassley demurred when asked to weigh in, telling reporters Monday that “that’s a theory you’d better let the legal profession work out.”
In the House, where impeachment proceedings originate, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) – today the chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee – similarly described a “pattern of obstruction” by Clinton. Like some of his colleagues, he invoked the president’s role as “chief law enforcement officer.”
“As the chief law enforcement officer of the Nation, it is incumbent upon the President to uphold the laws and remain faithful to the Constitution,” he said. Goodlatte aides declined to comment.
Yet it was Sessions, in a section of his speech titled “personal observations,” who laid out the emotional and philosophical case for removing Clinton from office on charges that included obstruction of justice.
“Of course, none of us are perfect and we often fail in our personal affairs, but when it comes to going to court, and it comes to our justice system, a great nation must insist on honesty and lawfulness,” he said. “Our country must insist upon that for every citizen.”
Elana Schor contributed to this report.
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