Yesterday was not a good day for Donald Trump. The president's former personal attorney and "fixer" pleaded guilty in a federal courtroom, admitting that he lied to Congress about Trump's efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. It marked the first time the president's private business dealings in Moscow were directly implicated in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the broader Russia scandal.
If the president's Republican allies were going to defend him from developments like these, they'd need to get creative. Evidently, they came up with a new thing at which to scoff: "process crimes."
Some Republicans, like Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, said Cohen's admission doesn't prove collusion between Russia and the president. [...]Graham, who has emerged as one of Trump's fiercest defenders, said he had "no idea what that's all about" when asked his reaction to Cohen's guilty plea, adding that it "seems to be a process crime."
Soon after, Rush Limbaugh complained, "Every one of Mueller's indictments is a process crime."
As TPM reported, Michael Anton, former spokesman for Trump's National Security Council, also lashed out at Mueller's team for pursuing a "process" crime.
Putting aside the amazing coincidence of these Republicans coming up with the same rhetorical line on the same afternoon, it's worth pausing to understand what in the world these guys are talking about.
There are legal experts who can speak to this with far more authority than I can, but as I understand it, a "process crime" refers to wrongdoing related to an investigation into a crime, rather than the crime itself.
For example, let's say you were suspected of robbing a bank. During the police investigation, you lied about your whereabouts during the robbery, encouraged others to give false testimony, and destroyed relevant evidence. As a result, you were then charged with perjury and obstruction of justice.
Those would be "process crimes," unrelated to possible charges about the bank robbery itself.
For Trump's followers, this has apparently become a life-preserver worth clinging to. Trump's lawyer lied to Congress under oath about the proposed Trump Tower Moscow project, but to hear Lindsey Graham and his cohorts tell it, that's not worth making a fuss about.
We'd all be better off waiting, the argument goes, to see if Mueller brings collusion-related charges -- which he hasn't done.
There are, of course, a few problems with such a posture. The first is, when a president's partisan followers are reduced to scoffing at the significance of felonies, they're not standing on firm ground.
Second, I seem to recall Lindsey Graham serving as an impeachment manager 20 years ago against a sitting president accused of perjury. It suggests the Republican lawmaker's indifference toward "process crimes" is fairly new.
And third, there's no reason to assume the special counsel and his team are done. Criminal charges related to the "process" today may very well lead to an entirely different set of criminal charges tomorrow.
Postscript: Steve at No More Mister Nice Blog joked yesterday, "Your right-wing uncle, who'd never encountered the phrase 'process crime' until today, will be tossing it around by the weekend as if he's been talking about process crimes all his adult life."