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Trump team seeks to control, block Mueller’s Russia investigation

By Carol D. Leonnig, Ashley Parker, Rosalind S. Helderman, Tom Hamburger

July 21, 2017 at 9:47 AM

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The Washington Post's Carol Leonnig explains how President Trump and his lawyers are attempting to deflect special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. (The Washington Post)

Some of President Trump’s lawyers are exploring ways to limit or undercut special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation, building a case against what they allege are his conflicts of interest and discussing the president’s authority to grant pardons, according to people familiar with the effort.

Trump has asked his advisers about his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the probe, according to one of those people. A second person said Trump’s lawyers have been discussing the president’s pardoning powers among themselves.

One adviser said the president has simply expressed a curiosity in understanding the reach of his pardoning authority, as well as the limits of Mueller’s investigation.

“This is not in the context of, ‘I can’t wait to pardon myself,’ ” a close adviser said.

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(Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

With the Russia investigation continuing to widen, Trump’s lawyers are working to corral the probe and question the propriety of the special counsel’s work. They are actively compiling a list of Mueller’s alleged potential conflicts of interest, which they say could serve as a way to stymie his work, according to several of Trump’s legal advisers.

A conflict of interest is one of the possible grounds that can be cited by an attorney general to remove a special counsel from office under Justice Department regulations that set rules for the job.

Responding to this story on Friday after it was published late Thursday, one of Trump’s attorneys, John Dowd, said it was “not true” and “nonsense.”

“The president’s lawyers are cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller on behalf of the president,” he said.

Other advisers said the president is also irritated by the notion that Mueller’s probe could reach into his and his family’s finances.

Trump has been fuming about the probe in recent weeks as he has been informed about the legal questions that he and his family could face. His primary frustration centers on why allegations that his campaign coordinated with Russia should spread into scrutinizing many years of Trump dealmaking. He has told aides he was especially disturbed after learning Mueller would be able to access several years of his tax returns.

Trump has repeatedly refused to make his tax returns public after first claiming he could not do so because he was under audit or after promising to release them after an IRS audit was completed. All presidents since Jimmy Carter have released their tax returns.

Trump signs an executive order for border security and immigration enforcement improvements at the Department of Homeland Security in Washington. (Chip Somodevilla/Pool photo via Bloomberg News)
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Trump, along with their wives and two others, attend dinner at Mar-a-Lago. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Trump hugs a supporter he invited onstage to speak during a Make America Great Again rally at Orlando Melbourne International Airport in Melbourne, Fla. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Trump speaks during his first address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber at the Capitol. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Trump hold a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump and first lady Melania Trump welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan, to Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla. (Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)
Members of the first family take part in an egg race during the Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
President Trump displays an executive order reviewing previous National Monument designations made under the Antiquities Act, during a signing ceremony at the Interior Department in Washington. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
President Trump speaks as he presents the Commander-in-Chiefs Trophy to Air Force Academys football team in the Rose Garden. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump meets with former secretary of state Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump welcomes Abu Dhabis crown prince, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, outside the West Wing of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump meets with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Oval Office. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, center, holds a sword and sways with traditional dancers during a welcome ceremony at Murabba Palace in Riyadh. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Christian Jacobs, 6, center, hugs Trump during a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Trump signs two bills at the White House: the American Law Enforcement Heroes Act of 2017 and Public Safety Officers Benefits Improvement Act. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
President Trump, center, greets Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), left, as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), right, takes his seat during a meeting with House and Senate leadership in the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
After arriving in Cincinnati, Trump greets a family whose insurance premiums rose under the Affordable Care Act. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson listen during a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump speaks on the White House South Lawn at a ceremony honoring Clemson Universitys NCAA champion football team. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump pumps his fist after signing the executive order on Cuba policy at the Manuel Artime Theater in Miami. (Evan Vucci/AP)
President Trump greets visitors outside the White House after returning from Miami. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump speaks during the technology roundtable. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump shakes hands with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump arrives onstage to speak at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Susan Walsh/AP)
George Mathew, right, chief executive of Kespry, shows Trump a drone during the event at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
President Trump speaks with first lady Melania Trump, Vice President Pence and his wife, Karen, during the Congressional Picnic. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
President Trump greets Michael Verardo during the bill-signing event for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Verardo lost his leg in Afghanistan in 2010 when he served as a sergeant in the 82nd Airborne Division. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, with Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin by his side, displays the written Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 after signing it at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Steven Mnuchin and Louise Linton, center, at their wedding with Melania Trump, Trump, Vice President Pence and second lady Karen Pence at Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington. (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for LS)
From left: White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Vice President Pence, Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis listen during a meeting with Modi. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hug while making their statements. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, flanked by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), left, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), speaks as he meets with Republican senators about health care at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump meets with immigration crime victims in the Cabinet Room. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump holds a Chicago Cubs jersey as he meets with members of the 2016 World Series champions in the Oval Office. Cubs player Kris Bryant is holding a 45 sign. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, flanked by Southern Ute Councilman Kevin R. Frost, center left, and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, center right, speaks with Environment Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt, left, during an energy roundtable with tribal, state and local leaders at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump and first lady Melania Trump look on as South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his wife, Kim Jeong-suk, arrive at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, center, delivers remarks as Vice President Pence, left, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry listen during the Unleashing American Energy event at the Energy Department in Washington. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool photo via European Pressphoto Agency)
Astronaut Dave Wolf, left, pretends to grab a pen as Trump hands it to former astronaut Buzz Aldrin after signing the order to reestablish the National Space Council, a White House-based office. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Trump shake hands during their joint statement in the Rose Garden. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump speaks from the Truman balcony of the White House as the first lady looks on. The president was hosting a picnic for military families for the Fourth of July holiday. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Trump talk during a meeting in the Hotel Atlantic Kempinski a day before the G-20 summit got underway. (Jens Schlueter/Pool photo via European Pressphoto Agency)
Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Trump and Macron at an official welcoming ceremony in the courtyard of Les Invalides. (Matthieu Alexandre/AP)
From left: President Trump, first lady Melania Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte Macron, tour Napoleon Bonapartes tomb. (Pool/Reuters)
From left: First lady Melania Trump, President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron watch the traditional Bastille Day military parade on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. (Michel Euler/AP)
Trump sports a cowboy hat during the Made in America product showcase. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
President Trump sits in a firetruck while Vice President Pence stands below on the South Lawn of the White House. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
President shows off a presidential proclamation for Made in America Day and Made in American Week during the Made in America product showcase on the South Lawn of the White House. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
President Trump speaks at a luncheon with Republican leadership about health care in the State Dining Room of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Photo Gallery: A look at President Trump’s first six months in office

Related: Analysis: Asking about a pardon for himself is a quintessentially Trumpian move

“If you’re looking at Russian collusion, the president’s tax returns would be outside that investigation,” said a close adviser to the president.

Further adding to the challenges facing Trump’s outside lawyers, the team’s spokesman, Mark Corallo, resigned on Thursday. Corallo confirmed Friday that he has resigned but declined to comment further.

Corallo’s departure is part of a larger restructuring of Trump’s team undertaken in recent days. Marc Kasowitz, Trump’s New York-based personal attorney who had been leading the effort, will take a reduced role, people familiar with the team said. Meanwhile, veteran Washington lawyer Dowd, hired last month, will take the lead in responding to the special counsel and congressional inquiries. Jay Sekulow, a lawyer who has been a familiar face in conservative media in recent years, will serve as the group’s public face, appearing frequently on television.

Sekulow said in an interview Thursday that the president and his legal team are intent on making sure Mueller stays within the boundaries of his assignment as special counsel. He said they will complain directly to Mueller if necessary.  

“The fact is that the president is concerned about conflicts that exist within the special counsel’s office and any changes in the scope of the investigation,” Sekulow said. “The scope is going to have to stay within his mandate. If there’s drifting, we’re going to object.”

Sekulow cited Bloomberg News reports that Mueller is scrutinizing some of Trump’s business dealings, including with a Russian oligarch who purchased a Palm Beach mansion from Trump for $95 million in 2008. 

“They’re talking about real estate transactions in Palm Beach several years ago,” Sekulow said. “In our view, this is far outside the scope of a legitimate investigation.”

 The president has long called the FBI investigation into his campaign’s possible coordination with the Russians a “witch hunt.” But now, Trump is coming face-to-face with a powerful investigative team that is able to study evidence of any crime it encounters in the probe — including tax fraud, lying to federal agents and interference in the investigation.

“This is Ken Starr times 1,000,” said one lawyer involved in the case, referring to the independent counsel who oversaw an investigation that eventually led to House impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton. “Of course, it’s going to go into his finances.” 

Following Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James B. Comey — in part because of his displeasure with the FBI’s Russia investigation — Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel in a written order. That order gave Mueller broad authority to investigate links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, as well as “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation” and any crimes committed in response to the investigation, such as perjury or obstruction of justice.

Mueller’s probe has already expanded to include an examination of whether Trump obstructed justice in his dealings with Comey, as well as the business activities of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law.

Trump’s team could potentially challenge whether a broad probe of Trump’s finances prior to his candidacy could be considered a matter that arose “directly” from an inquiry into possible collusion with a foreign government.

The president’s legal representatives have also identified what they allege are several conflicts of interest facing Mueller, such as donations to Democrats by some of his prosecutors.

Another potential conflict claim is an allegation that Mueller and Trump National Golf Club in Northern Virginia had a dispute over membership fees when Mueller resigned as a member in 2011, two White House advisers said. A spokesman for Mueller said there was no dispute when Mueller, who was FBI director at the time, left the club.

Trump also took public aim on Wednesday at Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Rosenstein, whose actions led to Mueller’s appointment. In an interview with the New York Times Wednesday, the president said he never would have nominated Sessions if he knew he was going to recuse himself from the case.

Related: Sessions learns loyalty can be a one-way street with Trump

Some Republicans in frequent touch with the White House said they viewed the president’s decision to publicly air his disappointment with Sessions as a warning sign that the attorney general’s days were numbered. Several senior aides were described as “stunned” when Sessions announced Thursday morning he would stay on at the Justice Department.

Another Republican in touch with the administration described the public steps as part of a broader effort aimed at “laying the groundwork to fire” Mueller.

“Who attacks their entire Justice Department?” this person said. “It’s insane.”

Law enforcement officials described Sessions as increasingly distant from the White House and the FBI because of the strains of the Russia investigation. 

Traditionally, Justice Department leaders have sought to maintain a certain degree of autonomy from the White House as a means of ensuring prosecutorial independence.

But Sessions’s situation is more unusual, law enforcement officials said, because he has angered the president for apparently being too independent while also angering many at the FBI for his role in the president’s firing of Comey. 

As a result, there is far less communication among those three key parts of the government than in years past, several officials said. 

Currently, the discussions of pardoning authority by Trump’s legal team are purely theoretical, according to two people familiar with the ongoing conversations. But if Trump pardoned himself in the face of the ongoing Mueller investigation, it would set off a legal and political firestorm, first around the question of whether a president can use the constitutional pardon power in that way.

“This is a fiercely debated but unresolved legal question,” said Brian C. Kalt, a constitutional law expert at Michigan State University who has written extensively on the question.

The power to pardon is granted to the president in Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution, which gives the commander in chief the power to “grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” That means pardon authority extends to federal criminal prosecution but not to state level or impeachment inquiries.

No president has sought to pardon himself, so no courts have reviewed it. Although Kalt says the weight of the law argues against a president pardoning himself, he says the question is open and predicts such an action would move through the courts all the way to the Supreme Court.

“There is no predicting what would happen,” said Kalt, author of the book, “Constitutional Cliffhangers: A Legal Guide for Presidents and Their Enemies.” It includes chapters on the ongoing debate over whether presidents can be prosecuted while in office and on whether a president can issue a pardon to himself.

Other White House advisers have tried to temper Trump, urging him to simply cooperate with the probe and stay silent on his feelings about the investigation.

On Monday, lawyer Ty Cobb, newly brought into the White House to handle responses to the Russian probe, convened a meeting with the president and his team of lawyers, according to two people briefed on the meeting. Cobb, who is not yet on the White House payroll, was described as attempting to instill some discipline in how the White House handles queries about the case. But Trump surprised many of his aides by speaking at length about the probe to the New York Times two days later. Cobb, who officially joins the White House team at the end of the month, declined to comment for this article.

Some note that the Constitution does not explicitly prohibit a president from pardoning himself. On the other side, experts say that by definition a pardon is something you can only give to someone else. There is also a common-law canon that prohibits individuals from serving as a judge in their own case. “For example, we would not allow a judge to preside over his or her own trial,” Kalt said.

A president can pardon an individual at any point, including before the person is charged with a crime, and the scope of a presidential pardon can be very broad. President Gerald Ford pardoned former president Richard M. Nixon preemptively for offenses he “committed or may have committed” while in office.

Devlin Barrett and Sari Horwitz contributed to this report. 


Carol Leonnig covers federal agencies with a focus on government accountability.

Ashley Parker is a White House reporter for The Washington Post. She joined The Post in 2017, after 11 years at The New York Times, where she covered the 2012 and 2016 presidential campaigns and Congress, among other things.

Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.

Tom Hamburger covers the intersection of money and politics for The Washington Post.

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