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.
- ZACHARY: First Amendment advocates warn of media oversight - Tifton Gazette - January 27th, 2020
- Letters mis-stating the First Amendment and Trump flags - Villages-News - January 27th, 2020
- Witness to the PERSECUTION | Columns | Journal Gazette - Fort Wayne Journal Gazette - January 27th, 2020
- Other voices: Money, speech and truth - St. Paul Pioneer Press - January 27th, 2020
- Over the line in comedy | My View - Santa Fe New Mexican - January 27th, 2020
- Social Studies in the real world: Raceland teacher takes his class on field trip to fiscal court - The Independent - January 27th, 2020
- Reporters Face New Threats From the Governments They Cover - The New York Times - January 27th, 2020
- The First Amendment and Supreme Court | Opinion | dailyitem.com - Sunbury Daily Item - January 25th, 2020
- President Trump Restores the Original Intent of the First Amendment - CNSNews.com - January 25th, 2020
- Letter to the Editor: Supporting the We the People Amendment - Wicked Local - January 25th, 2020
- Gazette opinion: Senate restrictions are an insult to First Amendment - KPVI News 6 - January 25th, 2020
- Could Trump Muzzle John Bolton? The Limits of Executive Privilege, Explained - The New York Times - January 25th, 2020
- Throwback Thursday: The First Amendment's Freedom of Assembly in Action in Nutley NJ - TAPinto.net - January 24th, 2020
- It Violates the First Amendment to Criminalize Immigration Advocacy or Giving Advice to Illegal Immigrants - Cato Institute - January 24th, 2020
- Shattering the First Amendment - The Riverdale Press - January 24th, 2020
- The Unacknowledged Clash Between the Supreme Courts Interpretation of the Religion Clauses and the - Justia Verdict - January 24th, 2020
- Guest column: First Amendment on the docket at the Supreme Court - The Mercury - January 24th, 2020
- City of Scottsdale and The Satanic Temple take the stands in First Amendment-based case - FOX 10 News Phoenix - January 24th, 2020
- Hearing Wednesday: EFF Urges Court To Rule That Blogger's Opinion of Open Source Licensing Agreement is Protected by the First Amendment - EFF - January 24th, 2020
- Choice in education could have impact on 2020 vote - Boston Herald - January 24th, 2020
- GOP candidates outline platforms in their first 14th District debate - Northwest Herald - January 24th, 2020
- HB 2093 Introduced to Nullify Any Violation of 2nd Amendment Laws - Prescott eNews - January 24th, 2020
- Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan and Over 160 More Call for Babson Adjunct Professor to Be Reinstated - Boston magazine - January 24th, 2020
- AG Ferguson leads multistate lawsuit over new Trump Administration effort to allow release of 3D-printed guns - Access Washington - January 24th, 2020
- Lobby Day attracts 2A advocates from the NRV and beyond - Southwest Times - January 24th, 2020
- Op-ed: Did the University forget about the first amendment? - The Michigan Daily - January 18th, 2020
- Facebooks Soleimani Ban Flies in Face of First Amendment - Common Dreams - January 18th, 2020
- Trump Takes Steps to Protect the Right to Pray in Schools - CNSNews.com - January 18th, 2020
- Breaking down the first amendment lawsuit against Florida State Representative Spencer Roach - Fox 4 - January 18th, 2020
- 10 years later, Americans stand opposed to Citizens United | TheHill - The Hill - January 18th, 2020
- Letter: It's the First Amendment that needs sanctuary protection - Verde Independent - January 18th, 2020
- Merrill, St. Germain take different approaches on 2nd Amendment Sanctuary status - WJFW-TV - January 18th, 2020
- David L. Hudson Jr. | The 'bedrock principle' of the First Amendment - TribDem.com - January 7th, 2020
- Executive Order on Anti-Semitism Could Suppress First-Amendment-Protected Criticism of Israel - Reason - January 7th, 2020
- Pro/Con: Can elected officials block you on social media? Yes, the Constitution can't be applied to private tweets - Duluth News Tribune - January 7th, 2020
- How Fascism Works with Jason Stanley; Plus: How the Supreme Court is Weaponizing the First Amendment - KPFA - 94.1FM - January 7th, 2020
- Five Years Later, We Still Havent Learned from the Charlie Hebdo Massacre - National Review - January 7th, 2020
- Accountability For Constitutional Violations Likely Has To Start With The Trivial - Above the Law - January 7th, 2020
- A Stunning Vote Reversal in a Controversial First Amendment Case - The Atlantic - December 18th, 2019
- Attorney John Borger, 68, longtime legal champion of the media, dies at 68 - Minneapolis Star Tribune - December 18th, 2019
- Did Schiff Poke a Hole in the First Amendment? - The New York Times - December 18th, 2019
- New Leader Of First Amendment Foundation Ready To Tackle Public Records And Fake News - WFSU - December 18th, 2019
- Supreme Court to hear Native American criminal procedure case and First Amendment question for foreign entities - JURIST - December 18th, 2019
- EFF Report Shows FBI Is Failing to Address First Amendment Harms Caused By National Security Letters - EFF - December 18th, 2019
- A Judge Temporarily Protects the NRA's First Amendment Rights - America's 1st Freedom - December 18th, 2019
- 5th Circuit judge has 'judicial change of heart' in case that could chill protests - ABA Journal - December 18th, 2019
- Attacker Causes Epileptic Seizure over the Internet - Security Boulevard - December 18th, 2019
- Trump antisemitism executive order sets up First Amendment battle - The Jerusalem Post - December 11th, 2019
- Religion news, the First Amendment and BBQ: GetReligion will soon have a new home base - GetReligion - December 11th, 2019
- W&M professor's new book examines the First Amendment in the Trump era - WYDaily - December 11th, 2019
- Nelson County board joins dozens of others to become a 2nd Amendment sanctuary - WHSV - December 11th, 2019
- Violent Protests and Free Speech: Whos to Blame for an Officers Injuries? - The New York Times - December 11th, 2019
- Mississippi Public Universities receive recognition for protecting free speech | The University of Southern Mississippi - Southern Miss Now - December 11th, 2019
- If There Are No Obama Judges or Trump Judges, Does the Constitution Permit Delaware to - Justia Verdict - December 11th, 2019
- 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
- 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