Special counsel Robert Mueller is tasked with trying to find out whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia — and he's made a lot of progress, fast.
He's secured guilty pleas from former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, indicted former campaign manager Paul Manafort, and subpoenaed huge numbers of documents. There are indications that he is preparing to haul in the president for an interview.There remains, however, a crucial hole in the case for collusion — at least, the part of it known to the public. We have not seen or heard any evidence that President Trump personally participated in some kind of illegal election hacking scheme in coordination with Russian agents.
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But there's another kind of case against the president — the argument that his various attempts to undermine the Russia investigation, like firing FBI Director James Comey, constitute criminal obstruction of justice. If Mueller feels he has enough evidence, then he could seek permission to indict and prosecute Trump. It's not clear that charges can actually be brought against a sitting president, but Mueller's findings could nevertheless be turned over to Congress — and serve as the centerpiece of any impeachment proceedings against Trump.
That means it's obstruction, not collusion, that poses the biggest legal and political threat to President Trump.
"If Trump exercises his power — even his lawful power — with a corrupt motive of interfering with an investigation, that's obstruction," says Lisa Kern Griffin, an expert on criminal law at Duke University. "The attempt is sufficient, and it seems to be a matter of public record already."
There are basically two reasons Griffin and other legal observers believe Mueller has such a good case obstruction case. First, the evidence of obstruction is, from what we know publicly, far stronger than the evidence that Trump himself was involved in with Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election. Second, the crime of obstruction is legally straightforward, whereas it's not obvious which laws Trump would have violated by accepting Russian assistance during the election.
The public, obviously, doesn't know everything Mueller does. It could be that the collusion case is a lot clearer, or the obstruction case a lot murkier, than it appears from the outside.
But what we do know suggests that Mueller is taking the obstruction charge seriously, and that his chances of making his case are quite good — unless Trump decides to fire him or his boss.