Trump is ‘right on the edge of witness tampering’ after Mueller probe comments, former US prosecutor says

Clark Mindock
Mr Trump has championed individuals who say they won't cooperate with the federal investigation: REUTERS

A former federal prosecutor says that President Donald Trump is coming dangerously close to possible witness tampering with his public comments praising individuals being investigated as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe.

Elie Honig, a former assistant US attorney for the Southern District of New York, said during an appearance on CNN that Mr Trump’s varying tweets regarding his former associates — criticism of individuals cooperating with Mr Mueller’s probe and praise for those who refuse to talk — could be a violation of federal law.

“He’s pretty closet the line. The president has had this very consistent message throughout this process which is anyone who cooperates or testifies for law enforcement is weak, gutless, and inherently a liar. And, the flip side of that is anyone who stays silent — Roger Stone — is heroic, and has guts, to use his terms,” Mr Honig said.

The former prosecutor was responding to Mr Trump’s recent tweets praising Mr Stone for saying on ABC “This Week” over the weekend that he would never testify against the president. Mr Stone is of interest to the Mueller probe for possible contacts with WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign before the group released thousands of hacked Democrat emails. Mr Stone has denied the allegations.

“He is right on the edge of witness tampering,” Mr Honig said of Mr Trump. “Federal law makes it a crime to do anything to dissuade or try to postpone or delay someone’s testimony. And, if you look at the president’s tweets from this morning, if I was a prosecutor and we had a wire tap on someone’s phone and they said those exact things that the president tweeted, I would say, ‘wow, we just got him on obstruction’”.

Mr Honig is not the only attorney to suggest that the president’s public comments on Twitter regarding his former associates amounts to something close to obstruction.

George Conway, the husband of White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway, also weighed in after Mr Trump’s comments on Mr Stone.

“File under 18 U.S.C. §§ 1503, 1512”, Mr Conway tweeted in response to the president, the sections of US code that deal with obstruction of justice and witness tampering.

In response to Mr Conway’s tweet, former acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal — who served under the Obama administration — wrote that he was “right”.

“This is genuinely looking like witness tampering,” Mr Katyal wrote in a tweet. “DOJ... prosecutes cases like these all the time. The fact it's done out in the open is no defence. Trump is genuinely melting down, and no good lawyer can represent him under these [circumstances]”.

Others said they were not a sure that the president’s tweet could be prosecuted.

“Yes, Trump is a walking, breathing, tweeting violation of 18 USC 1512 obstruction,” Jed Shugerman, a Fordham University law professor, tweeted. “But: Taking this tweet *on its own*, how can it be felony witness tampering to publicly agree with a witness account even if you know he's lying? Too broad an application”.

Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor, also took issue with the classification of the tweet as obstruction, saying it would be very difficult for federal prosecutors to actually prove obstruction from the president’s tweet.

Mr Conway and Mr Katyal “and other highly respected attorneys quickly noted that Trump’s tweet looks a lot like witness tampering. They’re right—it does. But proving beyond a reasonable doubt that it’s witness tampering is more challenging than it might seem at first glance”, he wrote.