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 on the street | Opinion | dailyitem.com - Sunbury Daily Item - June 30th, 2020
- Taking a cellphone video of police? Theres a First Amendment for that - Seattle Times - June 30th, 2020
- First Amendment Bars California from Requiring a Proposition 65 Glyphosate Warning - JD Supra - June 30th, 2020
- Read the First Amendment | Letters To The Editor - The Central Virginian - June 30th, 2020
- First Amendment right to protest is in jeopardy in Jacksonville - The Florida Times-Union - June 30th, 2020
- Pence says First Amendment is why Trump campaign held Tulsa rally despite local health officials' warnings - Yahoo News - June 30th, 2020
- Supreme Court hands win to religious schools | TheHill - The Hill - June 30th, 2020
- Letter to the Editor: Remember and Defend the First Amendment - Dana Point Times - June 20th, 2020
- Another look at the First Amendment | Opinion - Franklin News Post - June 20th, 2020
- Death threats protected by First Amendment, attorney says - Alpena News - June 20th, 2020
- Really Pathetic: First Amendment Expert Torches DOJ Efforts to Stop John Bolton Book - Law & Crime - June 20th, 2020
- The First Amendment protects attorneys from compelled speech | TheHill - The Hill - June 17th, 2020
- Protesters are protected by the First Amendment and will not be cited any violations if they remain peaceful - WATN - Local 24 - June 17th, 2020
- Dear Journal: That's some amendment, that First Amendment; let's use it - The Daily World - June 17th, 2020
- Barr Threatens Suit To Stop Boltons Book Because The First Amendment Is, Like, More Of A Suggestion Really - Above the Law - June 17th, 2020
- NASCAR tossed out First Amendment and more letters to the editors - Chattanooga Times Free Press - June 17th, 2020
- Snap's decision to restrict Trump is within its First Amendment rights, CEO says - CNBC - June 17th, 2020
- First Amendment rights? Only for the Left - Must Read Alaska - June 17th, 2020
- "Vocational Training Is Speech Protected by the First Amendment" - Reason - June 17th, 2020
- A North Carolina professor who sparked outrage with his tweets still has his job. Why? It's called the First Amendment. - USA TODAY - June 17th, 2020
- Opinion: 1st Amendment rights apparently only apply to the left - Juneau Empire - June 17th, 2020
- If you're planning to take part in protests, know your rights. Read this. - CNN - June 17th, 2020
- Opinion: Trump's Antifa crackdown treads on First Amendment - The Detroit News - June 17th, 2020
- First Amendment Rights and Twitter, Encryption Backdoors - Security Boulevard - June 1st, 2020
- Arrest of CNN Crew in Minneapolis a 'Violation of First Amendment' - Voice of America - June 1st, 2020
- Trump, Twitter and the First Amendment - The New York Times - June 1st, 2020
- First Amendment Group Opposes Webinars On Toll Roads - WUSF News - June 1st, 2020
- ACLU issues warning to police to protect First Amendment rights of protesters - KATC Lafayette News - June 1st, 2020
- Federal, California and Local Law Enforcement's Statement on the Death of George Floyd and Riots Says They Will Continue to Work Together to Protect... - June 1st, 2020
- First Amendment Legal Expert Floyd Abrams on Trump's Chilling Executive Order Designed to Kill Free Speech - Showbiz411 - June 1st, 2020
- DC mayor institutes curfew and urges calm after weekend of unrest - KEYT - June 1st, 2020
- Open season on the free press: Journalists targeted in attacks as U.S. protests rage - Reuters - June 1st, 2020
- RCFP condemns attacks against journalists covering protests - Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press - June 1st, 2020
- Day 3 of protests in Portland, Oregon over death of George Floyd - KGW.com - June 1st, 2020
- As Waves of Protest Surge Across America - The New York Times - June 1st, 2020
- Trump Executive Order Violates the First Amendment - SF Bay Area Indymedia - June 1st, 2020
- DC mayor urges calm after protests nearby the White House occur for second consecutive night - CNN International - June 1st, 2020
- Man with bow is expected to be charged; Salt Lake City chief decries officer who knocked down elderly man with a cane - Salt Lake Tribune - June 1st, 2020
- Trump Executive Order Misreads Key Law Promoting Free Expression Online and Violates the First Amendment - EFF - May 29th, 2020
- Content Moderation, Section 230, and The First Amendment - AAF - American Action Forum - May 29th, 2020
- Times Union takes First Amendment and Journalist of the Year, 11 other awards in statewide contest - Times Union - May 29th, 2020
- First Amendment May Protect Use of Trademarks As Artistic Expression - JD Supra - May 29th, 2020
- Strictly Legal: Is Fox News entitled to First Amendment protection? - The Cincinnati Enquirer - May 29th, 2020
- Facebook Keeps Touting The First Amendment To Justify Its Content Policies - AdExchanger - May 29th, 2020
- Trump vs. Twitter | Editorials | gjsentinel.com - The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel - May 29th, 2020
- Churches respond to COVID-19, First Amendment ruling - Morganton News Herald - May 29th, 2020
- 'The First Amendment is very clear': Sheriff's Office won't break up religious services for 'NY on PAUSE' violations - The Livingston County News - May 29th, 2020
- RCFP statement on Trump's social media executive order - Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press - May 29th, 2020
- WashU Expert: Trump attacks on Twitter betray free speech principles - Washington University in St. Louis Newsroom - May 29th, 2020
- Reexamining the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act | Morgan Lewis - Tech & Sourcing - JD Supra - May 29th, 2020
- Going to the dogs: the Ninth Circuit's erosion of trademark rights exclusive guest post - World Trademark Review - May 29th, 2020
- First Amendment Lawyer Dismisses Trumps Claim That Twitter Is Stifling Free Speech: He Doesnt Want Critics to Have a Chance to Respond - Mediaite - May 29th, 2020
- Liberals Have Rediscovered the 10th Amendment's Value During the Coronavirus Pandemic - Reason - May 29th, 2020
- Former DNC chair Donna Brazile claims 'theres no First Amendment right to lie. Her co-hosts on The Five erupt in mockery. - TheBlaze - May 29th, 2020
- Supreme Court: Clarence Thomas calls for shrinking the First Amendment - Vox.com - May 14th, 2020
- What words make up a true threat? Well, that depends - The Mercury - May 14th, 2020
- Onslow Sheriffs department will not interfere with indoor church services - Jacksonville Daily News - May 14th, 2020
- Religious freedom is under threat in the courtroom - UPI.com - May 14th, 2020
- Neuberger Demands That Carney Lift Restrictions On Worshipping Now - First State Update - May 14th, 2020
- The First Amendment To the Constitution of The United States of America - The Suburban Times - May 11th, 2020
- Exposing Russian information operations does not violate the First Amendment | TheHill - The Hill - May 11th, 2020
- The Supreme Court Could Use the First Amendment to Unleash a Robocall Nightmare - The Atlantic - May 11th, 2020
- Divorcing couples have First Amendment right to disparage each other on social media, SJC rules - The Boston Globe - May 11th, 2020
- The Price of the First Amendment "Is That We Must Put Up With a Good Deal of Rubbish" - Reason - May 11th, 2020
- Societe Generale: Availability of the first amendment to the 2020 Universal Registration Document - GlobeNewswire - May 11th, 2020
- Governors Can't Suspend the First Amendment - Daily Signal - May 11th, 2020
- Houston strip club allowed to open, but without dancers - KHOU.com - May 11th, 2020
- Lawsuit filed against Marco Island alleges first amendment violation - Marco News - May 4th, 2020
- First amendment rights should not be suppressed, even during pandemic The News Journal - The News Journal - May 4th, 2020
- Urgent Care Doctor Silenced By Youtube Says His First Amendment Rights Have Been Attacked - Sara A. Carter - May 4th, 2020
- 'ReOpen NC' Founder Has COVID-19, Says It Is Her First Amendment Right To Infect Others - Wonkette - May 4th, 2020
- A tale of two universities and one First Amendment - OneNewsNow - May 4th, 2020
- The Trump campaign's frivolous lawsuits are next-level threats to the First Amendment - Business Insider - Business Insider - April 18th, 2020
- New podcast: Who-da thunk it? Drive-in churches are First Amendment battlegrounds - GetReligion - April 18th, 2020
- Students Don't "Shed Their Freedom of Speech at the Schoolhouse Gate" - Reason - April 18th, 2020
- Teenager Who Shared Coronavirus Infection on Instagram Threatened With Arrest By Police, Lawsuit Says - Newsweek - April 18th, 2020
- Tea Party president says he was threatened with arrest for planning protest on Newton Green - New Jersey Herald - April 18th, 2020
- Legal expert: Trumps liberate Tweets incite insurrection and thats illegal - AlterNet - April 18th, 2020
- Lawmakers say Walz order is a violation of The First Amendment - KWLM (Willmar Radio) - April 18th, 2020
- With the public's need to know greater than ever, the D&C fights for info on outbreak - Democrat & Chronicle - April 18th, 2020