President Donald Trump pauses before signing an executive order about regulatory reform in the Oval Office of the White House February 24, 2017 in Washington, DC.
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Trump’s latest Twitter tantrum raises awkward legal questions

Updated

When Donald Trump throws a tantrum, it’s often helpful to review it in hindsight when it’s easier to contextualize. Last week, for example, the president published a series of enraged missives attacking Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, lashing out at investigators, and condemning the probe as “illegal.”

What we didn’t know at the time was that Trump had been briefed on Michael Cohen’s latest plea deal with the special counsel’s office. This tidbit of information cast the presidential tantrum in a whole new light: Trump was publishing furious messages to Twitter because he, unlike the rest of us, knew about a major development that was poised to unfold, which would make things worse for him.

It’s against this backdrop that the president had another very busy morning on his favorite social-media platform.

“ ‘Michael Cohen asks judge for no Prison Time.’ You mean he can do all of the TERRIBLE, unrelated to Trump, things having to do with fraud, big loans, Taxis, etc., and not serve a long prison term? He makes up stories to get a GREAT & ALREADY reduced deal for himself, and get his wife and father-in-law (who has the money?) off Scott Free. He lied for this outcome and should, in my opinion, serve a full and complete sentence.

“ ‘I will never testify against Trump.’ This statement was recently made by Roger Stone, essentially stating that he will not be forced by a rogue and out of control prosecutor to make up lies and stories about ‘President Trump.’ Nice to know that some people still have ‘guts!’

“Bob Mueller (who is a much different man than people think) and his out of control band of Angry Democrats, don’t want the truth, they only want lies. The truth is very bad for their mission!”

My first thought after seeing tweets like these was that the president may have seen something that upset him on “Fox & Friends,” but Media Matters’ Matthew Gertz noted, “You can tell these aren’t tweets about Fox & Friends because Fox & Friends did not mention Michael Cohen today.”

All of which suggests Trump launched this tirade for some other reason.

Putting aside the president’s odd grammatical errors – maybe someday, he’ll learn how quotation marks work – there are some substantive issues to consider in the wake of his little rant.

First, it’s worth appreciating the degree to which Trump sounds less like a president and more like Tony Saprano. Last week, Trump argued that those who cooperate with federal investigators (Michael Cohen) are “weak,” while those who don’t (Paul Manafort) may be deserving of a pardon. Today’s tantrum dovetails nicely with this same mob-boss posture.

Second, though Trump often forgets, he is the nation’s chief law-enforcement official – a president is responsible under the Constitution for executing the nation’s laws – and inserting himself in Cohen’s legal proceedings, while they’re ongoing, is a very bad idea.

Third, the idea that Cohen’s misdeeds were “unrelated to Trump” is hilariously wrong. Indeed, when Cohen acknowledged making illegal payoffs to Stormy Daniels, Donald Trump was an unindicted co-conspirator in Cohen’s guilty plea. Unless the president is unclear on the meaning of “unrelated,” he must realize how brazenly he’s lying.

But even if we put all of that aside, there’s the larger question of whether Trump’s Twitter tantrum is itself legally dubious – because it fits into a larger pattern in which the president sends not-so-subtle signals to possible witnesses that those who stand by him are worthy of praise, while those who betray him should “serve a full and complete sentence.”

This is of particular interest this morning with relation to Roger Stone, who appears to be an important figure in the special counsel’s investigation, and whom Trump appears to be encouraging to show “guts” in the face of Mueller’s questions.

George Conway implied this morning that the president’s tweets constitute witness tampering. Neal Katyal, a former acting solicitor general, agreed.

Donald Trump and Scandals

Trump's latest Twitter tantrum raises awkward legal questions

Updated