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Obstruction of justice: What Bill Barr meant by "non-corrupt motives"

In this image, Trump smiles next to a heavy blue curtain next to the presidential seal.
Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

At his press conference on the release of special counsel Robert Mueller's report Thursday, Attorney General Bill Barr shed some light on why he decided the evidence Mueller set out was "not sufficient to establish" that President Trump obstructed justice.

What he's saying: "Apart from whether the acts were obstructive, this evidence of non-corrupt motives weighs heavily against any allegation that the President had a corrupt intent to obstruct the investigation," Barr said on Thursday morning.

The big picture: Any case for "obstruction of justice" has to demonstrate that said obstruction was driven by corrupt motives. Barr said on Thursday that Mueller's special counsel found 10 episodes of the president potentially obstructing justice, but that it's important to "bear in mind the context."

"President Trump faced an unprecedented situation.  As he entered into office, and sought to perform his responsibilities as President, federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct before and after taking office, and the conduct of some of his associates.  At the same time, there was relentless speculation in the news media about the President’s personal culpability.  Yet, as he said from the beginning, there was in fact no collusion.  And as the Special Counsel’s report acknowledges, there is substantial evidence to show that the President was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks.
Nonetheless, the White House fully cooperated with the Special Counsel’s investigation, providing unfettered access to campaign and White House documents, directing senior aides to testify freely, and asserting no privilege claims.  And at the same time, the President took no act that in fact deprived the Special Counsel of the documents and witnesses necessary to complete his investigation. Apart from whether the acts were obstructive, this evidence of non-corrupt motives weighs heavily against any allegation that the President had a corrupt intent to obstruct the investigation."

Why it matters: Barr and Rosenstein's decision isn't surprising, since the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel determined in 1973 and 2000 that a president cannot be prosecuted as it limits the White House's ability to function. But applying this federal code to POTUS is still mostly "new ground," according to Politifact.

Background: Obstructing justice is when someone intentionally interferes or attempts to interfere with an ongoing investigation with corrupt intent, according to U.S. Code Chapter 73. Punishments can range from fines or imprisonment up to 20 years (or both). The federal code has 21 statutes laying out the different ways to obstruct justice, including:

  • Tampering with, retaliating against or intimidating a witness, victim, or informant
  • Influencing or injuring an officer of the U.S. or a juror
  • Falsifying or stealing records
  • Someone who "obstructs, influences, or impedes any official proceeding" — or even if they attempt to do so

Go deeper: Mueller report lists 10 episodes of potential Trump obstruction