Based on what we know so far, Trump and his top aides could be implicated in four different types of federal crimes.
Allegations of wrongdoing are flying around — a record of a July 25 phone call between President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reads more like a mafia shakedown than a conversation between two world leaders.
Trump asks Zelensky to do him a “favor,” i.e. dig up dirt on his political rival Joe Biden. Trump then suggested that Zelensky take this offline and talk with Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and US Attorney William Barr about it. In the background, Trump had frozen American aid to Ukraine, a strong-arm move that some on the internet pointed out would make Tony Soprano proud.
A day later, a whistleblower’s report was declassified and made available to the public. Among other things, the anonymous author said he feared that White House officials tried to conceal Trump’s conversation with Zelensky by placing the transcript of the call on a “separate electronic system that is otherwise used to store and handle classified information of an especially sensitive nature.”
All of this was just in time for acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire to spend much of his day Thursday being grilled by members of the House Intelligence Committee about whether he helped cover up this report.
It’s worth noting that the House, which has the sole power to impeach a president, can do so without a finding of criminal wrongdoing by the president. In other words, a president who hasn’t violated the law can still be impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” a term that includes many actual federal crimes but that also includes what Alexander Hamilton described as “abuse or violation of some public trust.”
That said, it’s nonetheless important to know if the president and his associates broke the law. I spoke with four legal experts about the developments in the whistleblower scandal so far. Based on those conversations and other analysis that’s been published so far, four areas of federal criminal law could be troublesome for Trump, Barr, and Giuliani based on what we know: statutes dealing with campaign finance, bribery, extortion, and obstruction of justice.
Did Trump or his associates violate campaign finance law?
Does Trump’s act constitute bribery?
Did he commit extortion?
Did he obstruct justice?
A long way to go
The criminal case against Trump and his closest associates, in other words, remains uncertain. Again, the DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel has held that a sitting president cannot be prosecuted, so at least in Trump’s case, any criminal case would have to come when he’s out of office.
Whether Trump will ultimately face criminal charges when he’s no longer in office will turn on as yet unknown facts, on how courts resolve untested questions of law, and on whether prosecutors want to roll the dice on a conviction in the face of such uncertainty. It could also turn on whether the next administration wants to deal with the political circus that would arise from prosecuting a former president.
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The Burke Chair at CSIS is publishing a report by an affiliate of the organization. Dr. Zo…