-by Jeanne Keller, PJC member
Obstruction of Justice: an act that “corruptly or by threats or force, or by any threatening letter or communication, influences, obstructs, or impedes, or endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice.”
(18 U.S.C. § 1503)
Perhaps you heard about the Nobody Is Above the Law protests that happened across Vermont and the US in November. Maybe the back story and/or the purpose of the protests is unclear to you. Below is how things unfolded and what will happen now.
In July 2016, prior to the Democratic party’s convention, WikiLeaks released more than 20,000 emails from the Democratic National Committee, creating controversy and confusion in the DNC and the party at a time when unity would be critical to victory in the November election. The FBI launched an investigation to determine who was responsible for the hacking and leaking. Early on, the FBI learned that George Papadopolous, a foreign policy advisor to the campaign of Republican candidate Donald Trump, had told a British diplomat that the Trump campaign had access to thousands of DNC and Clinton emails that were in the possession of persons connected to the Russian government. As a result, the hacking investigation became an FBI counter-intelligence investigation.
By the time Trump had won the election and his transition team was preparing to occupy the White House, the full complement of US intelligence agencies had determined, with high confidence, that the Russian government was responsible for the hacking of the DNC computers, and also for a wide-ranging interference and disinformation campaign to discredit Hillary Clinton and promote Trump in the election. The investigation also uncovered contacts during the campaign and transition between high-level Trump campaign personnel and government-connected Russians. President-elect Trump was briefed by the FBI on these findings in early January, prior to his inauguration.
In late 2016 the Obama Administration had imposed sanctions on Russia in response to the election interference. The next day, through routine legal monitoring (aka, spying) on the Russian ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, investigators heard a phone call between Kislyak and Trump’s chief national security advisor, Michael Flynn. In that call, Flynn asks Kislyak that the Kremlin “refrain from escalating the situation” in reaction to the sanctions, and that the soon-to-be Trump administration would be easier on Russia. Kislyak informs Flynn within days that in response to his request, Russian would “moderate its response.”
Two days after the inauguration, January 22, 2017, Flynn, now National Security Council head, is interviewed by the FBI about the call with Kislyak, but lies, claiming sanctions were never discussed. Two days later, the acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, visits the White House to inform Chief Counsel Don McGann that Flynn lied to the FBI about the Kislyak call, and that this created a situation where Flynn could be blackmailed by the Kremlin, as they certainly knew that sanctions were discussed. Trump is made aware of these problems, but Flynn stays on for 17 more days before being let go by Trump. Very soon after that, recognizing the legal trouble Flynn is in, Trump asks FBI Director James Comey for “loyalty,” and at another meeting, to “take it easy” on Flynn.
In the meantime, Sally Yates is fired (ostensibly for refusing to implement what she considered an illegal Executive Order on immigration, the “Muslim ban”) and the new Attorney General, Jeff Sessions recuses himself from the FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ) investigations due to his very high-level involvement in the Trump campaign.
Trump begins a public quarrel with Sessions, denying any connection between his campaign and Russian interference, and chafes at limitations on his authority to direct the DOJ and the FBI to stop the investigations. On May 9, 2017, Trump fires Comey, and two days later in a televised interview on NBC tells American, “This Trump and Russia thing” factored into the firing. Eight days later, the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who was overseeing the investigations due to Sessions’ recusal, appoints former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to lead the investigation into possible ties or coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, as well as other matters that “may arise directly from the investigation.” The “other matters” include Obstruction of Justice, at a minimum, for the firing of Comey.
People throughout America, alarmed by Trump’s attacks on the FBI and DOJ, begin to organize to defend the Mueller investigation and the principle that nobody, not even the President, is above the law. Trump’s attacks were clearly attempts to interfere with the investigation, to place himself outside of accountability, and above the law. National advocacy groups such as MoveOn, Common Cause, Public Citizen, and dozens of others, endorsed an effort to prepare for a nationwide mobilization of local demonstrations should Trump move to interfere with the investigation. The demonstrations would be triggered by Trump taking action to cross any of three “red lines” agreed to nationally:
- Firing special counsel Robert Mueller
- Pardons of key witnesses (compromising the investigation)
- Actions that would prevent the investigation from being conducted freely, such as replacing Mueller’s current supervisor, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, or repealing the regulations establishing the office.
The national mobilization was envisioned as a “rapid response,” and the local organizing teams, as well as those RSVPing to attend their local event, were prepared to launch their demonstration within one day of the national call.
On November 7, 2018, a day after the midterm elections, Trump demands that Sessions resign, and replaces him with Matthew Whitaker, putting him in place to oversee the Mueller probe. The appointment was concerning because Whitaker previously had publicly criticized the Mueller investigation as overly broad, had not been approved by the US Senate, and the appointment sidestepped the normal process of elevating the Deputy AG (in this case Rosenstein) to Acting AG.
This triggered the national mobilization. By this time, hundreds of thousands of people had RSVPd their willingness to immediately respond to the call and demonstrations were planned in over 900 US cities. Coordinating teams had prepared to respond in twelve towns in Vermont with varying amounts of support from the PJC. Advance preparations including march and rally logistics, identification and training of event marshals, social media outreach and publicity, notifications of city and public safety personnel, getting commitments for rally speakers, and preparation of dozens of placards for marchers. A GoFundMe effort raised funds to prepare 8-foot banners to use in the march and at the rally. When the national mobilization was called for the following day, we were ready for a rapid response: an estimated 600 citizens showed up for the Burlington even one day after the Sessions firing, joining 300,000 nationwide. Speakers included representatives from the three VT Congressional members, giving very strong statements in support of the Mueller investigation. National and local press coverage of the events was extensive.
We are still witnessing the aftermath of the Nobody is Above the Law rapid response events. Trump has named a permanent replacement for Whitaker as AG who will undergo extensive Senate questioning about his attitude toward the Mueller investigation. Meanwhile, Whitaker has, at least publicly, taken no action to interfere with Mueller’s work. More members of Congress, including GOP members, have endorsed legislation to protect the investigation. Mueller’s team continues to find connections between the campaign and Russia, and indictments and plea agreements continue to roll out. Virtually all of the initial rapid response organizing teams, including the Burlington group, have vowed to continue to be prepared for a rapid response should red lines be violated, and a new red line has been added to the list: “the Mueller investigation releases findings showing significant wrongdoing by Donald Trump. Or Congress or the administration blocks the public from seeing Mueller’s findings.”
In assessing why these rapid responses were successful, we’ve made these observations:
- The principle behind the mobilization was singular and clearly defined: to defend the Mueller investigation and the rule of law: Nobody is Above the Law.
- The timeline for the rapid response was established from the start: the day of, or day following Trump crossing the red line.
- The ask or demand for all the demonstrations was likewise singular and clearly defined: Congress must protect the Mueller investigation from interference by Trump.
- The project was started as soon as Trump’s attacks began, giving local teams months and months to prepare, and national groups provided plenty of organizing support to local groups.
- The demonstrations were throughout the nation, in every Congressional district, not focused on just a few large cities. From groups of 30 to 3 thousand, the people were heard in their own home towns.
If you want to be notified in the event of the next rapid response, sign up at www.nobodyisabovethelaw.org.
An excellent timeline of all publicly known events connecting the Trump campaign and Russian interference is maintained and updated daily at on Politifact.com.