In the legal debate over whether President Trump could be charged with obstruction of justice for firing FBI Director James Comey, the rub appears to be about "corrupt intent." Trump's lawyer John Dowd, Harvard's Alan Dershowitz, and others argue that the president has the constitutional prerogative to fire an employee of the executive branch of government — full stop.
The counterargument is that the president is criminally liable for doing his job if he does so for nefarious reasons: "I have the right to shred my personal files, but if I destroy them because they've been subpoenaed by the grand jury it becomes obstruction," notes Randall D. Eliason of George Washington University Law School.
Most seem to agree that even if Trump is immune from criminal prosecution for firing Comey, the act is potentially impeachable, because impeachment is a political rather than strictly legal process. David Rivkin Jr. and Lee Casey, a duo of Republican lawyers who seem oddly hellbent on defining Trump's legal and financial boundaries as indulgently as possible, concede in The Wall Street Journal: "The ultimate check on presidential power is impeachment. Even though Mr. Trump cannot have violated criminal law in dismissing Mr. Comey, if a majority of representatives believe he acted improperly or corruptly, they are free to impeach him."
Fine. So let's talk about Trump's moral culpability in the Comey firing if it's ultimately proven conclusively that he dismissed Comey to conceal prior wrongdoing. More specifically, let's talk about it in the context of a story I first learned in Sunday School.
The book of 2 Samuel, part of the Old Testament's narrative history of the nation of Israel as well as the "court history" of King David, tells the dramatic and steamy story of the monarch's affair with Bathsheba: "It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king's house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful." The king sent for her and subsequently impregnated her. To cover up the affair and his paternity, David extracted Bathsheba's husband, Uriah the Hittite, from the field of battle, in the expectation that he would sleep with his wife. But Uriah would not succumb to the temptation of a pleasurable night in his own home while his comrades "are camping in the open field." He was like Gary Sinise's Ken Mattingly in the movie Apollo 13: "You need a break, Ken?" "If they don't get one, I don't get one."
His scheme thus thwarted, David sent Uriah to the "forefront of the hardest fighting" and essentially ordered Joab, the commander of his army, to abandon Uriah, who died in battle. Later, the prophet Nathan is sent by God to rebuke David for his actions: "You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites."
Notice the chain of culpability in Nathan's language: David might as well have slain Uriah with his own hand. In the eyes of God, he has blood on his hands. Stern stuff!
To be sure, there is talmudic hairsplitting akin to today's pro-Trump apologists that David was technically in the clear: He awarded quickie divorces to all soldiers in case they went missing in action, thus freeing their wives to remarry. Therefore David didn't commit adultery! And since Uriah refused an order from the king to go home, he was guilty of rebellion — a crime punishable by death!
The plain meaning of the text, however — at least as it's been taught for centuries to Christians — is that the eventually repentant David was guilty of the murder of an innocent and upstanding man. The king of Israel could not morally hide behind the prerogatives of his office.
And neither can the president of the United States.