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Let's Define All Those Terms You See In Headlines About Russia


If you've had trouble keeping up with the latest news on potential contact between Donald Trump's presidential campaign and Russia, you are not alone. Developments have been relentless. Just Friday night, The Washington Post reported that White House adviser Jared Kushner may have tried to set up a secret line of communication between the Trump transition team and the Russian government. But it's not just the constant stream of news. It's also the concepts themselves that are opaque. We've invited Jonathan Turley to the studio to help us clarify. He's a law professor at George Washington University. Thanks so much for being here today.

JONATHAN TURLEY: Thank you very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. Jared Kushner has gone from a "person of interest," quote, unquote, to a focus in the investigation but not confirmed as a, quote, "target."

TURLEY: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you tell us what those distinctions mean, please?

TURLEY: Well, this is not the type of graduation you want. You want to be at the low end of that lexicon, which is a witness. A witness is simply someone that can share information. It's not someone that you suspect necessarily of criminality. From there, you can move up to a person of interest. And we actually first heard that term in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic bombing. So it's not an actual traditional term, and it's not part of any criminal code. It was just a way for the FBI to say that there's someone that we have an interest in who may turn out to be the next stage, which is a target. A target is where you definitely do not want to be because there the FBI is saying we want you, and we're looking for you, and we want to indict you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's move on to the firing of FBI Director James Comey. One of the things that is being bandied about, one of the terms is obstruction of justice. What is that, and is it hard to prove?

TURLEY: Obstruction of justice, even on its most basic level, is the interference with the due administration of justice. That usually means that you're trying to interfere, or what's referred to as corruptly influence, a proceeding of some type. Usually, it's a grand jury proceeding or it's a congressional investigation. The problem with the Trump controversy is that most of these actions were taken at an early stage. The Congress was doing some early investigation, but it was fairly amorphous. It wasn't necessarily focused. The FBI had been doing investigations, but they were somewhat more afield from what the president was talking about.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because he was talking about, apparently, Michael Flynn. That was the implication that we understand, that he might have said something to James Comey about not investigating Michael Flynn as vigorously.

TURLEY: That's right. I mean, the thing is many people are uneasy with what former Director Comey recounted as the president's words. But whether it constitutes obstruction is a more difficult issue. There were plenty of reasons to fire James Comey. Now, the president may have had any number of reasons in mind. But you're looking for something far more concrete in most criminal prosecutions. You're looking for a clear intent to try to stop an investigation.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. This is another word that we hear all the time - collusion, which is what started the Russia investigation, the idea that somehow members of the Trump administration colluded with Russia to influence the U.S. election. What is collusion? Does it have any legal meaning? And what would the charge actually be if it were proven?

TURLEY: Well, that's another problem of getting ahead of our skis a bit. People have been referring to collusion like there is a crime of collusion in this context. There is no such crime. So what you're really looking for are collateral crimes. You know, the White House is allowed to speak to the Russians. The White House is even allowed to do remarkably dumb things with the Russians. The president is allowed to reveal classified information to the Russians. None of that is legal. That becomes a political question of holding someone accountable for things you don't like them doing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But if a member of the Trump team before the election or after the election was talking to the Russians and saying, all right, we are - want to help you throw the election in our favor, is that illegal? I mean, that's what the implication is here essentially.

TURLEY: Actually, Russians telling Trump officials that they want to help in any way to throw the election would not necessarily be illegal. Now, what you look for then are whether the steps taken to fulfill that purpose are criminal. The crimes that get people in trouble in Washington are generally what happens after an event. You know, this is a city filled with A personality types. They tend to try to take control, and God knows, President Trump is the poster boy for that. That's where you get into trouble is when people make false statements to federal investigators or they obstruct an actual proceeding. But in terms of alleging collusion like it's a standalone crime, I am afraid that dog won't hunt.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Jonathan Turley. He's a law professor at George Washington University. Thanks so much.

TURLEY: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.