The first sign of trouble came in December 2017. As the investigation into the Russia scandal intensified, and credible allegations that Donald Trump obstructed justice came into focus, one of the president’s attorneys argued on the record that Trump “cannot obstruct justice.”
A day later, the same lawyer, John Dowd, added that because the president is the nation’s “chief law enforcement officer,” it’s simply not possible for him to “obstruct himself.”
As regular readers may recall, it was around this time that Trump’s lawyers sent a 20-page memo to the special counsel’s office, telling Robert Mueller and his team that the president has the authority to, “if he wished, terminate the inquiry, or even exercise his power to pardon.” It’s why, in their minds, it’s not even possible for the president to have obstructed justice.
In his interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, Donald Trump didn’t explicitly endorse the argument, but he came awfully close.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You talk about Article II. So your position is that you can hire or fire anybody, stop or start, in any investigation –
TRUMP: That is the position of a lot of great lawyers. That’s the position of some of the most talented lawyers. And you have to have a position like that because you’re the president. But without even bringing up Article II, which absolutely gives you every right –
STEPHANOPOULOS: So a president can’t obstruct justice?
TRUMP: A president can run the country. And that’s what happened, George. I run the country, and I run it well.
In 1977, three years after Americans saw their president resign in disgrace for the first time, Martin Frost sat down with Richard Nixon, who argued, “When the president does it, that means that is not illegal.”
It led the ABC News anchor to ask the relevant question, 42 years later: “When the president does it, it’s not illegal?”
Trump replied, “I’m just saying a president under Article II – it’s very strong. Read it. Do you have Article II? Read it.”
We have read it. There’s nothing there about a president having the legal authority to permit crimes and obstruct justice.
It raises an unsettling possibility: when Trump argues, nearly every day, that the Mueller report concluded that there was “no obstruction,” is that because the president believes it’s impossible for him to have committed such a crime?
Is that why he wouldn’t answer the question directly?