On July 27, 1974, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon, saying that he had "prevented, obstructed, and impeded the administration of justice." Nixon resigned before the full House could vote on his impeachment. Twenty-five years later, after an investigation that had begun more than five years before, the United States Senate voted on articles of impeachment for President Bill Clinton, which used the same language, that he had "prevented, obstructed, and impeded the administration of justice."
Of the 55 Republicans then in the Senate, 50 voted to convict Clinton on this charge; among them were ten who are still in office today. Six Republicans who were then in the House and voted for impeachment are now in the Senate. Also voting for impeachment on the charges including obstruction was then-Senator Jeff Sessions, who is now attorney general.
I remind you of this history because over the weekend, The New York Times published a letter from President Trump's lawyers to special counsel Robert Mueller, which includes this stunning passage:
It remains our position that the President's actions here, by virtue of his position as the chief law enforcement officer, could neither constitutionally nor legally constitute obstruction because that would amount to him obstructing himself, and that he could, if he wished, terminate the inquiry, or even exercise his power to pardon if he so desired.
To clarify, they're asserting that no matter what the president does, by definition he cannot be guilty of obstruction of justice, because he's the president.
This is already being referred to as "Nixonian," because Richard Nixon said much the same thing in 1977 in an interview with David Frost: "When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal." The reaction to that statement from legal scholars, historians, and pretty much everyone else was one of horror, because if the most powerful office on earth is held by a megalomaniac who believes that he is beyond the reach of the law, then the republic is truly in peril.
And that's exactly where we are now.
That wasn't all that was shocking in the letter from Trump's lawyers. You recall the June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower that Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort held with a group of Russians who, they were told, had dirt on Hillary Clinton that came from the Russian government? This new letter admits that when the story of that meeting was about to be published in 2017, "the President dictated a short but accurate response to the New York Times article on behalf of his son, Donald Trump, Jr." That's significant because it directly contradicts what Trump's lawyers have been saying on his behalf for almost a year, since The Washington Post broke the story of Trump dictating Don Jr.'s response. His lawyers have said "That wasn't written by the president," "The president didn't sign off on anything," and "The president was not involved." Those statements have now been revealed, by Trump's lawyers' own admission, to have been lies.
The statement that Trump dictated, furthermore, was not "accurate"—it claimed that the Trump Tower meeting was just about adoption of Russian children and had nothing to do with the campaign. The president personally directed an attempt to fool the public. Incredibly, the letter says, "This subject is a private matter with the New York Times. The President is not required to answer to the Office of the Special Counsel, or anyone else, for his private affairs with his children." Lying to the public in order to cover up collusion with Russia? Just a private affair with his children, so butt out.
If there's a single legal or constitutional scholar anywhere—or even a lawyer not in Donald Trump's direct employ—who takes the position that the president can't be guilty of obstruction of justice because he's the president, I'd be shocked. And the fact that we're even arguing about whether Trump has in fact obstructed justice is faintly ridiculous. Not only has he taken multiple actions intended to impede the investigation, he hasn't even tried to hide his intent to do so.
Consider the anger Trump has repeatedly expressed at Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation (which, it should be noted, Sessions absolutely had to do given that he was a high-ranking official on the 2016 campaign and himself misled Congress about his contacts with the Russian ambassador). What displeases Trump about this recusal? Is it that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has been arriving to work late and Trump would like someone more punctual overseeing the probe? No. The reason is that Trump wants Sessions in place so that Sessions can protect him from the investigation. In other words, he would like to have Sessions there obstructing justice on his behalf.
If you doubt this, try to articulate a legitimate, non-obstruction reason why Trump is so livid that Sessions isn't overseeing the investigation. You can't, can you?
That's just one corner of this whole lurid scandal, one that doesn't even reach questions about Trump's businesses—where, I promise you, if the proper examination is undertaken there will so much criminality revealed that we'll barely be able to grasp it all.
That's one of the biggest problems in confronting the Russia scandal: There's so much involved, and so many people doing so many things that are so obviously wrong, that it can be difficult not to be overwhelmed. Which is why we have to speak honestly about what is happening. When people say about Trump "This is not normal," they aren't wrong, but they're not going nearly far enough. This isn't just not normal, it's an abomination, a threat to the foundations of the American democratic system.
But no one can act surprised that this is what we have come to. The entire last year and a half has been leading to the point at which Donald Trump proclaims that he is above the law, and dares us to do anything about it.