U.S. President Donald Trump makes a statement from the Roosevelt Room next to the empty chairs of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (L), D-New York, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (R), D-California, after they cancelled their meeting at the White House in Washington, DC, on November 28, 2017.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Trump stumbles into new questions about obstruction of justice

The Rachel Maddow Show, 12/1/17, 9:03 PM ET

Why did Trump ignore repeated warnings Flynn was compromised?

Rachel Maddow looks at the warnings Donald Trump received about Mike Flynn and the inexplicable way Trump held Flynn in favor even after he left office.
Donald Trump’s official line has been that he fired his first White House National Security Advisor, retired Gen. Michael Flynn, because Flynn lied to Mike Pence about his communications with Russia. There are, as Rachel noted on Friday’s show, plenty of questions surrounding the reliability of this official line, but that was the president’s story and he stuck to it.

Over the weekend, however, Trump published a tweet that pointed to an important change in the president’s posture.

“I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!”

It was the kind of message that generated all kinds of questions – why would Flynn lie if there was “nothing to hide”? – but the key phrase that stood out in the tweet was “and the FBI.”

Taken at face value, Trump’s tweet made it sound as if he knew Flynn lied to the FBI, which is why he “had to fire” Flynn from his important White House post. To put it mildly, that raised the possibility of an important legal problem for the president: it suggested Trump fired Flynn on Feb. 13 for lying to the FBI, and then asked James Comey, the then-FBI director, to go easy on Flynn literally one day later, on Feb. 14.

Matt Miller, a former Justice Department spokesperson and an MSNBC analyst, wrote after seeing the president’s tweet, “Oh my god, he just admitted to obstruction of justice. If Trump knew Flynn lied to the FBI when he asked Comey to let it go, then there is your case.”

Susan Hennessey, Lawfare’s executive editor, added, in reference to Trump’s message, “This is a pretty substantial confession to essential knowledge elements of an obstruction of justice charge.”

Walter Shaub, the former head of the Office of Government Ethics, went a little further, writing, “Before we slipped into an alternate universe of unabashed corruption, this tweet alone might have ended a Presidential administration.”

Allegations that the president may have obstructed justice are not new, but his tweet certainly appeared to make matters significantly worse. And so, the White House came up with a curious explanation.

President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer took responsibility Sunday for a tweet that Trump sent the previous day, in which the president said for the first time that he knew his former security adviser, Michael Flynn, had lied to the FBI before he fired Flynn in February.

The tweet caused an uproar in Washington because it implied Trump knew Flynn had committed a felony – lying to the FBI – when he told then-FBI director James Comey to go easy on Flynn the day after the firing.

Interfering in the FBI’s investigation could be construed as obstructing justice, potentially creating legal jeopardy for Trump. Within a few hours, Trump’s personal lawyer, John Dowd, stepped in to say that he wrote the tweet, not the president.

Dowd told NBC News that he drafted the tweet and then sent it to White House Social Media Director Dan Scavino to publish. When asked for the original email he sent to Scavino, Dowd said he dictated it orally.

It’s difficult to know whether Dowd’s claim is true. Apparently, we’re supposed to believe the president’s personal attorney got up early on a Saturday morning, called the White House’s social media director, and dictated a tweet that carefully captured Trump’s writing style and tone – complete with his fondness for exclamation points.

There’s also the possibility that Trump World quickly realized that the president’s tweet invited a legal nightmare, so Dowd took responsibility to shield his client.

But let’s say for the sake of conversation that Dowd’s telling the truth. Let’s say the president’s personal attorney wrote a tweet for Trump that made it sound as if the president was accidentally confessing (again) to obstruction of justice.

If that’s the case, perhaps it’s time for another conversation about the jaw-dropping ineptitude of Trump’s defense team? If your lawyer clumsily wrote a statement for you that suggested you’re guilty of a felony, how long would it take for you to fire him or her?

Donald Trump and Scandals

Trump stumbles into new questions about obstruction of justice