As I write this, the jury in Paul Manafort’s criminal trial has not yet returned a verdict. But regardless of the outcome of the jury’s deliberations, we have seen conduct that should give rise to another criminal charge. The charge of jury tampering should be brought against the president.
Jury tampering is a crime at both the federal and state levels. It is the intentional effort to influence the outcome of a juror’s opinion, vote or decision by unlawfully communicating with the juror in either a direct or indirect manner, outside the scope of legally permitted courtroom procedure. Last week, the president blatantly attempted to influence members of the Manafort jury by indirectly communicating with them from the White House lawn.
Shouting at a gaggle of reporters, Trump sought to both undermine the prosecution and serve as an unsworn character witness for his former campaign chairman. He bellowed: “I think the whole Manafort trial is very sad. I think it's a very sad day for our country. . . . He happens to be a very good person, and I think it's very sad what they've done to Paul Manafort."
Trying to have it both ways, Trump vouched for Mr. Manafort’s fine character while simultaneously claiming he barely knew the man. And who better to proclaim that Manafort is a “very good person,” than a trash-talking narcissist who lies as easily as he breaths, worships the golden calf, is a serial adulterer, repeatedly bears false witness against others, and whose every public policy reflects an utter indifference to human suffering?
Still, Trump is president of the United States, commander in chief of the most powerful nation in the world. If even one juror felt the slightest bit compelled to heed Trump’s words, the result could be a hung jury. But whether or not Trump actually influenced a single juror’s vote, he made a blatant attempt to do so.
Throughout the trial, the presiding judge T.S. Ellis admonished jurors not to take note of outside information, to only consider the evidence before them. But where, as here, the jury was not sequestered – kept isolated to decrease the chances of being exposed to outside information – and Trump commands wall-to-wall coverage for his every utterance, it is absurd to think that one or more of the jurors wouldn’t hear the message.
Judge Ellis dropped the ball big time in failing to sequester the jury. After closing arguments, he reportedly expressed surprise that the trial received such extensive publicity. That comment reflects astonishing naivete. Even the most casual court observer could have predicted as much. I will have more to say about the conduct of the presiding judge in a future column, but for now let me return to Mr. Trump.
It is not a stretch to think that, in crafting his remarks, Mr. Trump worked hand in glove with the Manafort defense lawyers who, in their closing argument, were hell-bent on discrediting the prosecution’s motives in bringing the case against Manafort. The judge had explicitly forbidden the defense from doing so, but they ignored his directive. The judge told the jury to disregard this part of the defense argument, but our common experience tells us that, once heard, it’s awfully hard to “un-ring the bell.”
There is but one reasonable inference to be drawn from Trump’s self-serving remarks condemning the prosecution and touting Manafort’s virtues – he hoped to communicate with – and thereby influence – Manafort’s jury, and he did so outside the scope of legally permitted courtroom procedures. That is the very definition of jury tampering.
It was jaw-dropping to watch the president’s brazen performance, the bravado with which he committed a crime in plain sight. To use his words: “It was a very sad day for our country.”