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Obstruction allegations against Trump come into sharper focus

In the Trump-Russia scandal, it's important for Special Counsel Robert Mueller to substantiate James Comey's claims about Trump pressure. That's now happened.
The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)
The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. 

One of the key elements of the Trump-Russia scandal is the question of whether the president is personally liable for potentially obstructing the investigation. And to that end, Donald Trump's alleged pressure of then-FBI Director James Comey, who's claimed the president tried to get him to back off of specific lines of inquiry, is critical to understanding whether the president is criminally liable.

It's therefore necessary for Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team to, if possible, substantiate Comey's claims. As Rachel noted at the top of last night's show, the New York Times  reports that Mueller has done exactly that.

Mr. Mueller has ... substantiated claims that Mr. Comey made in a series of memos describing troubling interactions with the president before he was fired in May.The special counsel has received handwritten notes from Mr. Trump's former chief of staff, Reince Priebus, showing that Mr. Trump talked to Mr. Priebus about how he had called Mr. Comey to urge him to say publicly that he was not under investigation.

The fact that Priebus took handwritten notes, which are now in the hands of the special counsel's office, is a striking new detail.

And while that's an important detail, it's not the only reason to care about the new front-page Times piece.

The same article reported that Trump instructed White House Counsel Don McGahn to "stop the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, from recusing himself in the Justice Department's investigation" of the Russia scandal. McGahn followed the instructions; Sessions ignored the lobbying; and the president "erupted in anger in front of numerous White House officials, saying he needed his attorney general to protect him."

In the United States, it's not the attorney general's job to "protect" the president.

Perhaps my favorite element of the reporting focused on the fact that White House lawyers were so concerned about the consequences of Trump firing the FBI director that one attorney in the White House counsel's office decided to "mislead the president about his authority" to fire Comey.

The article added, "The lawyer, Uttam Dhillon, was convinced that if Mr. Comey was fired, the Trump presidency could be imperiled, because it would force the Justice Department to open an investigation into whether Mr. Trump was trying to derail the Russia investigation." The attorney later nailed down the factual details, but "withheld the conclusions of his research."

In other words, according to the reporting, the White House lawyer deliberately left the president with the wrong impression in the hopes of preventing Trump from making a costly mistake.

Dhillon, we now know, was right to be concerned -- Comey's firing led to the appointment of a special counsel, whose investigation has put Trump's presidency in jeopardy -- but Trump nevertheless learned the truth about his authority and fired the FBI director anyway.