Sen. James Risch, a Republican from Idaho, used his time during Thursday’s Intelligence Committee hearing to probe whether President Donald Trump had explicitly “ordered” or “directed” former FBI Director James Comey to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser who was fired just 24 days into the new administration.
Comey said that he took it as an order, but that Trump used the words “I hope.”
“Do you know of any case where a person has been charged for obstruction of justice or, for that matter, any other criminal offense where they said or thought they hoped for an outcome?” Risch asked.
Comey said he wasn’t sure, but, “I took it as a direction. I mean, this is the president of the United States, with me alone, saying, I hope this. I took it as: This is what he wants me to do.”
Risch seemed satisfied he’d scored his point. “He said, ‘I hope.’ You don’t know of anyone who’s ever been charged for hoping something. Is that a fair statement?”
Comey shrugged, “I don’t as I sit here.”
The exchange raises the question, then, of whether an explicit order is necessary for the definition of obstruction of justice. Here’s the relevant section of the federal legal code (our emphasis):
(a) Whoever corruptly, or by threats or force, or by any threatening letter or communication, endeavors to influence, intimidate, or impede any grand or petit juror, or officer in or of any court of the United States, or officer who may be serving at any examination or other proceeding before any United States magistrate judge or other committing magistrate, in the discharge of his duty, or injures any such grand or petit juror in his person or property on account of any verdict or indictment assented to by him, or on account of his being or having been such juror, or injures any such officer, magistrate judge, or other committing magistrate in his person or property on account of the performance of his official duties, or 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, shall be punished as provided in subsection (b).
That definition does not require that there be a direct order that would quash or affect the investigation. “The key question here is whether the president acted with corrupt intent,” Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor, told CNN.