(CN) – President Trump “likely obstructed justice” and could possibly face impeachment for firing FBI Director James Comey if special counsel Robert Mueller reaches the same conclusion, the Brookings Institution said Tuesday.
In a 108-page report, the nonpartisan think tank said that Trump had authority to fire the FBI chief, but not if his motives for doing so centered around hindering the ongoing Russia probe.
“Attempts to stop an investigation represent a common form of obstruction,” the report says. “Demanding the loyalty of an individual involved in an investigation, requesting that individual’s help to end the investigation, and then ultimately firing that person to accomplish that goal are the type of acts that have frequently resulted in obstruction convictions.”
Brookings’ researchers said the fact Trump had the lawful authority to fire Comey does not immunize him if his intent was “obstructing a proceeding for an improper purpose.”
“The president will certainly argue that he did not have the requisite criminal intent to obstruct justice because he had valid reasons to exercise his authority to direct law enforcement resources or fire the FBI head,” Brookings said. “While we acknowledge that the precise motivation for President Trump’s actions remains unclear and must be the subject of further fact-finding, there is already evidence that his acts may have been done with an improper intent to prevent the investigation from uncovering damaging information about Trump, his campaign, his family, or his top aides.”
The report notes that Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Trump campaign collusion with Russian operatives during the 2016 presidential campaign, has several options he could pursue once his inquiry is complete.
“He could refer the case to Congress, most likely by asking the grand jury and the court supervising it to transmit a report to the House Judiciary Committee. That is how the Watergate Special Prosecutor coordinated with Congress after the grand jury returned an indictment against President Nixon’s co-conspirators,” Brookings says.
Mueller could also obtain an indictment of President Trump and proceed with a prosecution.
“While the matter is not free from doubt, it is our view that neither the Constitution nor any other federal law grants the president immunity from prosecution,” the report says. “The structure of the Constitution, the fundamental democratic principle that no person is above the law, and past Supreme Court precedent holding that the president is amenable to other forms of legal process all weigh heavily in favor of that conclusion.
“While there can be debate as to whether a sitting president can be indicted, there is no doubt that a president can face indictment once he is no longer in office. Reserving prosecution for that time, using a sealed indictment or otherwise, is another option for the special counsel,” it continues.
Congress also has actions that it can take, among them, continuing or expanding its own investigations or referring matters for criminal or other proceedings to the Justice Department or other executive branch agencies.
“In addition, there is the matter of impeachment.,” Brookings says. “We describe the articles of impeachment drafted against Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, as well as those drafted against Judges Harry Claiborne and Samuel Kent to show that obstruction, conspiracy, and conviction of a federal crime have previously been considered by Congress to be valid reasons to remove a duly elected president from office. Nevertheless, the subject of impeachment on obstruction grounds remains premature pending the outcome of the special counsel’s investigation.”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report.