Well before the prosecutors investigating Donald J. Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election laid out for him three laws that could be the basis for an indictment, one of the statutes, covering obstruction of an official proceeding, had already been used against — and challenged by — scores of rioters who took part in the storming of the Capitol.
The legal questions around applying the obstruction law to the attack on Jan. 6, 2021, have spawned a pair of federal appeals court cases — and could even end up in front of the Supreme Court. But while it might seem risky for the special counsel, Jack Smith, to include the obstruction count in an indictment before the attacks against it are resolved, the way in which the law is written could make it almost uniquely suited to charging Mr. Trump.
The count — formally known in the penal code as 18 U.S.C. 1512(c)(2) — makes it a crime to “corruptly” obstruct, impede or interfere with any official government proceeding, and carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
In more than 300 Jan. 6 riot cases, prosecutors have used the law to describe the central event that day: the disruption of the Electoral College vote certification that was taking place inside the Capitol during a joint session of Congress.
In general, defendants have been charged with the obstruction count when prosecutors believe they have evidence that their actions on Jan. 6 played some role in stopping the certification process or in chasing lawmakers away from their duties. But as soon as the charge began to be used in Capitol riot cases, defense lawyers started arguing that the government was stretching the statute far beyond its intended scope.
By its plain text, the measure seemingly has nothing to do with mobs or riots. It was passed into law in 2002 as part of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which sought to clamp down on corporate malfeasance, and was initially meant to prohibit things like shredding documents or tampering with witnesses in congressional inquiries.
In April, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld the use of the obstruction count, even while acknowledging that it had never been applied in quite the way it had been in the Jan. 6 cases.
The decision by the three-judge panel — which included two Trump appointees — largely homed in on just one of the complaints against the statute. The panel said that any obstruction committed by rioters at the Capitol did not have to relate exclusively to the law’s original prohibitions against tampering with witnesses or destroying documents.
But the panel reserved judgment on a separate challenge to the law, one involving the definition of the word “corruptly.” That issue could relate more directly to Mr. Trump, should he be charged with the count.
In its arguments to the appeals court, the government said that acting corruptly should be broadly construed to include all sorts of unlawful behavior, such as destroying government property or assaulting police officers. The defense argued for a much narrower interpretation, seeking to define the term as acting illegally to procure something to directly benefit oneself.
This challenge is at the center of the second appeals court case in Washington and could be decided any day now. It could also affect how the law applies to Mr. Trump: Unlike many of the rioters on the ground who stood to gain little for themselves by stopping the certification process on Jan. 6, Mr. Trump stood to gain something of immense personal value that day: a victory in the election.
While it remains unknown how Mr. Smith might structure an obstruction charge, he could opt to use it to describe the pressure campaign that Mr. Trump and some of his allies mounted against Vice President Mike Pence. The president and lawyers close to him like John Eastman sought to strong-arm Mr. Pence into using his role in overseeing the election certification on Jan. 6 to unilaterally toss the race to Mr. Trump.
Last year, the House select committee investigating Jan. 6 urged that Mr. Trump be charged with obstruction of an official proceeding among other counts, including conspiracy to defraud the United States and incitement to insurrection. But long before those recommendations were made, judges and lawyers involved in Jan. 6 criminal cases were exploring whether Mr. Trump’s behavior — specifically his attempts to pressure Mr. Pence — violated the obstruction count.
In November 2021, for example, at an early hearing discussing the validity of the charge, James Pearce, a prosecutor who has handled many of the Justice Department’s thorniest Capitol riot legal issues, argued in court that if someone urged Mr. Pence to break the law on Jan. 6, it could qualify as a corrupt act of obstruction. While Mr. Pearce never mentioned Mr. Trump by name, it was clear he was discussing the former president’s attempts to get Mr. Pence to do his bidding that day.
“One of the definitions of ‘corruptly’ is trying to get someone to violate a legal duty,” Mr. Pearce said.
Mr. Smith’s election interference inquiry is not the first time prosecutors have used 1512(c)(2) as the basis for scrutinizing Mr. Trump. The provision was also instrumental in the investigation by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel who examined whether Mr. Trump obstructed efforts to look for ties between Russia and his 2016 presidential campaign.
In 2018, William P. Barr, before he got the job as Mr. Trump’s attorney general, wrote a memo to top officials in the Justice Department complaining that Mr. Mueller’s use of the obstruction count was “premised on a novel and legally insupportable reading of the law.”
Mr. Mueller, Mr. Barr wrote, was “proposing an unprecedented expansion of obstruction laws” in an effort to find a way to charge Mr. Trump for actions that he had the constitutional power to carry out. (Mr. Mueller never sought to charge Mr. Trump.)
Some legal experts have said that Mr. Trump could mount an attack against the obstruction charge, if it is brought by Mr. Smith, by arguing that he truly believed he had been robbed of victory by fraud in the election and, therefore, could not be accused of having acted corruptly.
But last week, a senior federal judge in Washington, Royce C. Lamberth, found a high-profile Jan. 6 rioter guilty of the obstruction count despite the defendant’s repeated claims that he believed the election had been stolen.
Judge Lamberth’s reasoning — which came in the case of Alan Hostetter, a former police chief turned yoga instructor from Southern California — made no mention of Mr. Trump’s potential criminal exposure, but it could set a legal basis for refuting any attempts by the former president to get around the law’s references to “corruptly.”
“Even if Mr. Hostetter genuinely believed the election was stolen and that public officials had committed treason, that does not change the fact that he acted corruptly with consciousness of wrongdoing,” Judge Lamberth wrote. “Belief that your actions are serving a greater good does not negate consciousness of wrongdoing.”