WASHINGTON President Trump on Friday attacked Marie L. Yovanovitch, the former United States ambassador to Ukraine he summarily removed this year, even as she testified in the impeachment inquiry about how she felt threatened by Mr. Trump.
Did his behavior amount to witness tampering?
If the question is what could be charged in court, the answer is probably not. But impeachment is not limited to ordinary crimes. As House Democrats weigh bringing articles of impeachment against Mr. Trump including one potentially based on his obstruction of congressional investigations the presidents Twitter onslaught may well have handed them more fodder.
As Ms. Yovanovitch was telling the House Intelligence Committee about the devastation and fear she felt this year when she was targeted first by Mr. Trumps allies and later by the president himself during a phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, Mr. Trump fired off a tweet denigrating her anew.
Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia, how did that go? Mr. Trump wrote, assailing her on Twitter to his 66 million followers.
Early in her career, Ms. Yovanovitch was a low-level diplomatic officer stationed in Somalia as that country was starting to slide toward the civil war that would leave it a failed state.
A few minutes after the presidents tweet, Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, interrupted Ms. Yovanovitchs testimony to read it and ask her what the effect the presidents attack on her would have on other witnesses willingness to come forward and expose wrongdoing.
She appeared momentarily uncertain how to respond.
Its very intimidating, she said. She then paused, searching for words. I cant speak to what the president is trying to do, but the effect is to be intimidating.
Mr. Schiff responded in a stern tone: Some of us here take witness intimidation very, very seriously.
In a statement, Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, denied that Mr. Trumps denigration of Ms. Yovanovitch rose to that level.
The tweet was not witness intimidation, Ms. Grisham said. It was simply the presidents opinion, which he is entitled to. This is not a trial, it is a partisan political process or to put it more accurately, a totally illegitimate, charade stacked against the president.
Mr. Trump has a history of using his platform to excoriate people who are in a position to serve as witnesses to his own potential wrongdoing, using Twitter and statements at his political rallies to criticize less well-known people by name, in humiliating and sometimes threatening ways.
The targets of his verbal assaults have included Michael D. Cohen, his former personal lawyer and fixer, who testified that Mr. Trump violated campaign-finance laws and fraudulently manipulated the value of his assets in financial forms; Donald F. McGahn II, his former White House lawyer, a key witness to several obstruction episodes in the special counsels report; and James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, who testified that Mr. Trump privately pushed him to shut down a criminal investigation into his former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn.
The tactic functions not just as an attempt to discredit his critics, but as a warning to deter others from coming forward.
At a minimum, it can unleash a cascade of abuse online and harassing messages from Mr. Trumps supporters, which can be especially unsettling for people who are not accustomed to being in the public eye.
But it can also raise fears that some unhinged person may go further: This year, a fervent Trump supporter, Cesar A. Sayoc Jr., was sentenced to 20 years in prison for mailing bombs to people and organizations that Mr. Trump had criticized, including prominent Democrats and journalists.
Federal witness tampering law, which is part of a broader obstruction of justice statute, makes it a felony, under some circumstances, to try to dissuade or hinder witnesses from attending or testifying in an official proceeding.
The presidents tweet on Friday did not threaten Ms. Yovanovitch. But the law covers not just threats and intimidation, which are punishable by 20 years in prison, but mere harassment as well, a lesser but still serious offense punishable by three years in prison.
Still, even viewed as mere harassment, Mr. Trumps attacks on Ms. Yovanovitch on Friday would be challenging to prosecute under the witness tampering statute. Prosecutors would be hard pressed to convince a jury that he was trying to dissuade her, at least, from attending the hearing and testifying because he waited to lash out until after she was already in the hearing room and in the midst of testifying.
A hypothetical prosecution under that law would face severe constitutional challenges, as well. The Justice Department has taken the view that the Constitution makes sitting presidents temporarily immune from prosecution, and Mr. Trumps lawyers could argue that he had a First Amendment right to criticize her.
In fact, the president himself raised the issue at the White House on Friday afternoon when asked if he was guilty of witness intimidation, denying the charge and saying, I want freedom of speech.
To the extent that Mr. Trumps targeting of Ms. Yovanovitch was less about shutting her up and more about making other government officials watching what she is going through think twice about defying the White Houses direction not to cooperate with Congress, the witness tampering statute was not clearly written to cover that situation.
But when deciding what amounts to an impeachable offense, Congress is not limited to violations of ordinary criminal statutes. Lawmakers may also impeach a president for actions that are lawful, yet still constitute abuses of power.
House Democrats are already considering articles of impeachment focused on obstruction of Congress, including for Mr. Trumps efforts to push witnesses to defy subpoenas, and obstruction of justice, including for attempting to tamper with witnesses in the Russia investigation led by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III.
For example, Mr. Muellers report recounted how Mr. Trump bullied Mr. McGahn in an attempt to get him to write a memo falsely denying that Mr. Trump had earlier sought to have Mr. Mueller fired. Mr. McGahn had already given a deposition about that earlier episode, so writing such a memo which he refused to do would have contradicted his account an and discredited him as a witness.
The Mueller report also recounted how Mr. Trump and his proxies had dangled the prospect of pardons in front of several potential witnesses in the special counsel investigation, while urging them not to flip on him and cooperate with prosecutors.
Against that backdrop, Representative Jim Himes, Democrat of Connecticut and a member of the Intelligence Committee, said that Mr. Trumps attacks on Ms. Yovanovitch amounted to clear witness tampering that could be cited in a forthcoming article of impeachment.
The president chose to respond to a patriotic and superb public servant with lies and intimidation. Vintage Donald Trump, Mr. Himes said in a text. Her boss disparaged and intimidated her not after, but during her testimony.
Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting.
- First Amendment rights in the 2010s - UConn Daily Campus - December 8th, 2019
- State argues there is no First Amendment issue in Michelle Carter case - The Sun Chronicle - December 8th, 2019
- Zick's new book examines the First Amendment in the Trump era - William & Mary News - December 8th, 2019
- First Amendment Loses as Pipeline Industry Scores Another Win in Wisconsin - In These Times - December 8th, 2019
- Mike Huckabee, Florida beaches, the First Amendment and Twitter: The former presidential hopeful tries to sile - Sun Sentinel - December 8th, 2019
- A Phone-Sex Memoir Tests the Limits of Free Speech Rights - Bloomberg - December 8th, 2019
- Texas wants teacher Georgia Clark reinstated after firing over tweets - The Texas Tribune - December 8th, 2019
- Gun Rights Case Is First Before The Supreme Court In A Decade - NPR - December 8th, 2019
- Curt Levey: Trump impeachment drives Democrats' love of Constitution here's how they really feel - Fox News - December 8th, 2019
- The First Amendment is the First Line of Defense - AmmoLand Shooting Sports News - November 30th, 2019
- Want to protect First Amendment? Then maintain Second Amendment - theday.com - November 30th, 2019
- Inmate video visitation and the First Amendment: 3 landmines to avoid - CorrectionsOne - November 30th, 2019
- The Supreme Court is about to hear its biggest gun-control case in a decade - CNBC - November 30th, 2019
- Free-speech controversies not exclusive to the UI - Champaign/Urbana News-Gazette - November 30th, 2019
- The Race 2020 How terrorism started and how it's evolved Scripps National 9:55 AM, Nov - 10News - November 30th, 2019
- The holiday season is a lot bigger than you think - Herald Palladium - November 30th, 2019
- Ava DuVernay and Netflix Formally Respond to When They See Us Lawsuit, Claim Dialogue Is Protected Under First Amendment - The Root - November 30th, 2019
- Yes, Mr. Pokoski, there really is a Santa Claus(e.) - Seacoastonline.com - November 30th, 2019
- Does the First Amendment Hold at the Border? - The Atlantic - November 25th, 2019
- Nonwhites are the only high school students whose support for First Amendment has fallen: survey - The College Fix - November 25th, 2019
- Artful Teachers Teach First Amendment Thinking - Forbes - November 25th, 2019
- The First Amendment and Government Property: Free Speech Rules (Episode 8) - Reason - November 25th, 2019
- Activists say new harassment law tramples on the first amendment' - WXXI News - November 25th, 2019
- Government Tries to Regulate Drug Prices by Violating the First Amendment - Cato Institute - November 25th, 2019
- Judicial appointment a foe of the First Amendment - Daily American Online - November 25th, 2019
- 'No Safe Spaces' Documentary Warns of Dangers Facing First Amendment Rights in America - Accuracy in Academia - November 25th, 2019
- Indian Constitution: First amendment, and the last - Deccan Herald - November 25th, 2019
- Nobel laureate Smith to speak on boycotts and First Amendment - Columbia Daily Tribune - November 25th, 2019
- Florida Man Friday Saves the First Amendment | VodkaPundit - PJ Media - November 25th, 2019
- BU protesters were exercising their First Amendment rights - Binghamton University Pipe Dream - November 25th, 2019
- Happenings on the Hill - Preston Hollow People - November 25th, 2019
- Governor of Alaska: My state will be the first to comply with SCOTUS' new union ruling. - USA TODAY - November 25th, 2019
- Overington recognizes Edgars with First Amendment Recognition Award - Martinsburg Journal - November 25th, 2019
- Smith County School System sued over first amendment violations, promotion of religion - WBIR.com - November 25th, 2019
- Mary Beth Tinker to high school journalists: It's your job to speak up on behalf of others - Student Press Law Center - November 25th, 2019
- Florida education news: First Amendment rights, flu shots and another superintendents struggles - Tampa Bay Times - November 16th, 2019
- First Amendment rights are not a one-way street - The Bozeman Daily Chronicle - November 16th, 2019
- First Amendment conference explored diminishing local news as a 'crisis of democracy' - The Daily Tar Heel - November 16th, 2019
- The 'Evil' First Amendment - The American Conservative - November 16th, 2019
- First Amendment website launching by end of November - University Star - November 16th, 2019
- LTTE: We all have business exercising our First Amendment rights - Rocky Mountain Collegian - November 16th, 2019
- "The Case Against Free Speech: The First Amendment, Fascism, And The Future Of Dissent" - WAMC - November 16th, 2019
- Facebook has a political fake news problem. Can we fix it without eroding the First Amendment? - NBC News - October 27th, 2019
- The Panhandling Problem: When public safety clashes with the 1st Amendment - WCJB - October 27th, 2019
- Can a black high school guard be fired for quoting the n-word? | TheHill - The Hill - October 27th, 2019
- The Case Against Free Speech: The First Amendment, Fascism, and the Future of Dissent - The Humanist - October 27th, 2019
- Liz Cheney Calls Out Dems' New House Bill Intended to 'Circumvent the First Amendment' - Townhall - October 27th, 2019
- Mitch McConnell slams election-security bill as 'transparent attack on the First Amendment' - The Washington TImes - October 27th, 2019
- Are Corporate Employees Protected by the First Amendment? - IPWatchdog.com - August 25th, 2017
- NAACP asks for meeting with Goodell over Colin Kaepernick's First Amendment rights - CBSSports.com - August 25th, 2017
- The ACLU was practicing a core First Amendment duty - Washington Post - August 25th, 2017
- Letter: The right has hijacked the First Amendment to preach hate ... - INFORUM - August 25th, 2017
- Lawyer who objected to mandatory bar's PAC contribution loses First Amendment appeal - ABA Journal - August 25th, 2017
- LA Times: Restrict the Second Amendment at First Amendment rallies - Hot Air - August 25th, 2017
- Is advocating suicide a crime under the First Amendment? - OUPblog (blog) - August 22nd, 2017
- Letter First Amendment is a fundamental building block of our society - Petoskey News-Review - August 22nd, 2017
- How far do the First Amendment's protections go when it comes to hate speech? - The San Diego Union-Tribune - August 20th, 2017
- First Amendment in Peril? - City Journal - August 20th, 2017
- Letter: Peculiar First Amendment interpretation - MetroWest Daily News - August 20th, 2017
- Police must act fast to protect First Amendment rights: Robert Shibley - USA TODAY - August 18th, 2017
- Podcast: Trump, Twitter and the First Amendment - Constitution Daily (blog) - August 18th, 2017
- How groups use 'First Amendment' permits for protests at National Parks - ABC10 - August 18th, 2017
- Last weekend's violent protests prompt First Amendment conversation - WBKO - August 18th, 2017
- Equality, Justice and the First Amendment - ACLU (blog) - August 18th, 2017
- Between the lines: Cops caught in the First Amendment war zone - Police News - August 18th, 2017
- Theres no hate speech exception to the First Amendment - The ... - August 16th, 2017
- First Amendment banned from DC Metro literally! - Washington Post - August 16th, 2017
- There's No 'Nazi' Exception to the First Amendment - National Review - August 16th, 2017
- FIRST AMENDMENT: How far does it go? - Evening News and Tribune - August 15th, 2017
- Why the First Amendment won't protect Charlottesville white supremacists from being fired - MarketWatch - August 15th, 2017
- The First Amendment on the Grounds in Charlottesville - Lawfare (blog) - August 15th, 2017
- Can a Court Arbitrarily Conclude That 'Security' Overrules the First Amendment? - Reason (blog) - August 15th, 2017
- March on Google: Self-proclaimed 'First Amendment supporters' to ... - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - August 15th, 2017
- Militiamen came to Charlottesville as neutral First Amendment protectors, commander says - Washington Post - August 14th, 2017
- Editorial, 8/13: Court strikes right balance on Westboro ruling - Lincoln Journal Star - August 14th, 2017
- Beyond the First Amendment - Washington Times - August 14th, 2017
- Liberals need to stop messing with the First Amendment - Washington Examiner - August 13th, 2017
- Jeffrey Lord: 'CNN caved on the First Amendment' when it fired him - Fox News - August 13th, 2017
- First Amendment lawsuits pile up against governors who block ... - WJLA - August 13th, 2017
- DC's transit agency rejected ads touting the First Amendment (really) - Ars Technica - August 11th, 2017