A New York Times report about an early draft letter that Donald Trump and aide Stephen Miller allegedly wrote to justify the firing of former FBI Director James Comey could have legal consequences for Vice President Mike Pence, some legal experts say.
The Times reported on Friday that special counsel Robert Mueller III has obtained the draft letter as part of his ongoing probe of Trump and Russian interference in last year’s presidential elections. Mueller is investigating Trump’s firing of Comey and the administration’s contradictory public statements to justify it, the newspaper reported.
If that investigation discovers evidence of wrongdoing in the drafting and circulation of the letter, which was shared with top advisers and the vice president, the dragnet of conspiracy and obstruction of justice accusations could sweep Pence up along with Trump, Fordham University law professor Jed Shugerman argued.
The Times wrote:
The letter, drafted in May, was met with opposition from Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, who believed that its angry, meandering tone was problematic, according to interviews with a dozen administration officials and others briefed on the matter. Among Mr. McGahn’s concerns were references to private conversations the president had with Mr. Comey, including times when the F.B.I. director told Mr. Trump he was not under investigation in the F.B.I.’s continuing Russia inquiry.
Ultimately, the letter was scrapped and replaced with a toned-down version written by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Trump fired Comey on May 9. Then, White House officials, including Pence, began speaking publicly about the firing with information that not only appeared contradictory at the time, but also now seems to have been untrue.
The night of the firing, Sean Spicer, who was White House press secretary at the time, said the decision to fire Comey was led by the Justice Department. Asked who was behind the decision, Spicer said, “No one from the White House,” according to The Washington Post.
The next day, Pence told reporters at Capitol Hill that Trump had acted on the recommendations of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein. If the New York Times and Washington Post reports are accurate, then Pence could have knowingly misled the public about what he knew about Comey’s firing. And that’s where the legal hot water begins to boil for the vice president, Shugerman argues.
Of course, Donald Trump contradicted Pence’s statements not even 48 hours later, when he admitted to NBC’s Lester Holt on national television that he “was going to fire [Comey] regardless of recommendation,” and that he did it because of “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia.”
Now, in addition to possible obstruction of justice, Shugerman says Pence may have committed something called misprision of felony, which carries a prison sentence of up to three years for “whoever, having knowledge of the actual commission of a felony” fails to disclose the crime to authorities.
“There are lots of people we suspected before of participating in obstruction of justice. The biggest name tonight is Vice President Pence,” Shugerman said on MSNBC on Friday.
After this letter is edited, Mike Pence then tells the media the Comey firing was not connected to the Russian probe, and he said it was due to Rod Rosenstein’s recommendation…Those statements are untrue and it implicates Mike Pence now in a combination of conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice, aiding and abetting of obstruction of justice, and also a relatively less–known felony, called misprision of a felony…