WASHINGTON — Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris said Wednesday that if she wins the White House, her Justice Department “would have no choice” but to pursue an obstruction of justice case against President Donald Trump after he leaves office.
The California senator and some other Democrats in the 2020 race are pushing their party to initiate the impeachment process after special counsel Robert Mueller ‘s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Mueller has said he was unable to exonerate Trump of obstruction but couldn’t pursue potential charges because of a Justice Department policy that bars the indictment of a sitting president — a policy Harris has said she would ask her Justice Department to re-examine.
“Everyone should be held accountable,” Harris told NPR in an interview broadcast Wednesday. “And the president is not above the law.”
Harris, a former California attorney general who also was San Francisco’s district attorney, later said she would not dictate the outcome of any prospective efforts to charge Trump. “The facts and the evidence will take the process where it leads,” she said.
Suggesting that Trump face prosecution after he leaves office is a fine line for any Democrat after the party has excoriated him for politicizing the Justice Department, as when he threatened during the 2016 campaign to prosecute his rival, Hillary Clinton, once becoming president.
Impeachment remains popular with Democrats’ base voters, but the party’s congressional leaders are more cautious because the Republican-controlled Senate probably doesn’t have the votes to remove Trump from office.
Harris is not alone among 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls in criticizing the Justice Department policy that Mueller cited in declining to look at obstruction charges in his nearly two-year investigation of Trump. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the first candidate to fully endorse the start of impeachment proceedings after Mueller’s report, pledged last month to end that policy if she’s elected president.
Nearly half of the more than 20 Democratic primary candidates are calling for the start of an impeachment inquiry, Harris and Warren among them. Few contenders, though, are making that stance a centerpiece of their campaigns.
But Harris, who is running in part on the strength of her legal and law enforcement experience, appears to have taken a step farther than her opponents in affirming that a Justice Department in her administration “should” look at charging Trump with obstruction once he no longer is president.
“I do believe that we should believe Bob Mueller when he tells us, essentially, that the only reason an indictment was not returned” was because of the current policy that bars indictment of a president while in office, Harris told NPR. “But I’ve seen prosecution of cases on much less evidence.”
Mueller examined nearly a dozen acts by the president for potential obstruction of justice, including his firing of FBI Director James Comey, his request of Comey that he end an FBI investigation into ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn and his involvement in the drafting of a misleading and incomplete statement about his oldest son’s meeting to receive dirt on political opponent Hillary Clinton.
Another Democratic presidential hopeful, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, said in New Hampshire on Wednesday that the Justice Department has a responsibility to look into whether Trump should be charged but that process “should not be under the control of the president.”
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who’s also in the race, recently said his Justice Department would ensure “accountability and justice” but he did not commit his administration to pursuing a case against Trump.
Eric Columbus, who served as a Justice Department and Homeland Security Department attorney during the Obama administration, suggested recently on Twitter that any Democratic candidate asked about seeking charges against Trump should answer by promising, “unlike the current president,” not to interfere with the impartial administration of justice.
The statute of limitation for seeking obstruction charges, as in most federal criminal cases, is five years from the time an alleged crime is committed. The time limit for charges in conspiracy cases begins at the time of the last act in an alleged conspiracy.
Associated Press writer Mark Sherman contributed to this report.