President Trump is shocked — shocked, I tell you — that anybody would ask him about pardoning Michael Cohen, his longtime attorney, who faces a serious criminal investigation that culminated in his home and office being raided two weeks ago.
“Stupid question,” Trump shot back Tuesday when ABC News's Jonathan Karl asked the president whether a pardon was on the table. According to the pool report, the president “glared” at Karl for having the gall to ask it.
But Trump protests way too much. There is plenty of reason to believe that a pardon could be on his mind.
Just a month ago, in fact, the New York Times reported that Trump's then-attorney John Dowd had broached pardons for both former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort last year. And this wasn't after they had been charged, mind you; this was while the cases against them were still being built. The pardon discussions seemed preemptive at the time, but they would be no more preemptive with Cohen right now:
The discussions came as the special counsel was building cases against both men, and they raise questions about whether the lawyer, John Dowd, who resigned last week, was offering pardons to influence their decisions about whether to plead guilty and cooperate in the investigation.
Mr. Dowd’s conversation with Mr. Flynn’s lawyer, Robert K. Kelner, occurred sometime after Mr. Dowd took over last summer as the president’s personal lawyer, at a time when a grand jury was hearing evidence against Mr. Flynn on a range of potential crimes. Mr. Flynn, who served as Mr. Trump’s first national security adviser, agreed in late November to cooperate with the special counsel’s investigation. He pleaded guilty in December to lying to the F.B.I. about his conversations with the Russian ambassador and received favorable sentencing terms.
Trump has also shown a clear interest in his pardon power as it relates to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's probe. In July, The Washington Post reported that he had asked, in the context of the investigation, whether he had the power to pardon aides, family and even himself.
Trump responded to that report by tweeting that his pardon power was absolute — while playing down the possibility of offering pardons.
All of this suggests that pardons have been on Trump's mind, at least to some degree. We don't know whether Dowd was acting on Trump's authority when he floated the idea of pardons for both Flynn and Manafort. But as I wrote at the time, it's almost worse if Trump didn't know about Dowd floating the possibility — because that would be a clear sign that it was intended to influence their cooperation with Mueller's team. More likely, it seems, Trump and Dowd had been discussing pardons, and Dowd was dangling that possibility in front of Flynn and Manafort. And, at the very least, this is something Trump's attorneys have been examining.
Cohen finds himself in a similar situation. Like Manafort, who was also raided, it's pretty likely that this ends with criminal charges. The Cohen raid, in fact, was even more extraordinary than Manafort's, given that Cohen serves (nominally) as Trump's attorney, and attorney-client-privilege issues are at play. Flynn also seemed to be in a heap of trouble, given his misstatements about discussing sanctions with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition period, but it wasn't clear that he would be charged.
Given Cohen's clear legal jeopardy, a president and a legal team that have shown an interest in pardoning figures in the Mueller probe would be pretty Pollyannaish not to start asking whether one should be invoked in this case. And you can rest assured that it has crossed their minds.