The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee announced proposed legislation Thursday to ensure that Congress gets the investigative records associated with any witnesses in the federal probes of President Trump’s campaign, businesses and alleged foreign ties if the president pardons them.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) framed the bill as an attempt to ensure that, if Trump — or any president who follows him — uses pardons “to cover up crimes involving any President, his/her family or associates, Congress finds out.”
“Presidents can use a pardon to rectify an injustice,” Schiff wrote on Twitter. “They may not use it to obstruct justice.”
Lawmakers have been interested in whether Trump used the promise of pardons to sway certain witnesses’ testimony as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and various congressional panels looked into Russian interference during the 2016 campaign and possible presidential misconduct. The scrutiny has focused on operatives close to Trump, such as former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and his former attorney Michael Cohen.
Through a lawyer, Cohen said this week that he directed his former attorney to contact Trump’s lawyers about a pardon after the president’s surrogates “dangled” the idea in public statements.
Cohen, who is to begin a three-year prison term in May for lying to Congress and various financial crimes, told lawmakers last week that he would not accept a pardon from Trump if he was offered one. But if others are pardoned, Democratic lawmakers want to ensure that they will know whether those witnesses had told investigators anything of interest to congressional investigations.
Generally speaking, Democrats are concerned that the new attorney general, William P. Barr, will not be wholly forthcoming when it comes to releasing investigative materials, or even the report Mueller is expected to submit at the end of his investigation, to lawmakers and the public. Barr has refused to commit to doing so, while at the same time offering support for the president’s right to exercise his power to fire executive-branch employees and offer pardons — both actions Democrats fear could be abused to engage in a coverup.
Barr has also indicated support for Justice Department guidelines that suggest a sitting president cannot be indicted and for department rules that caution against releasing any investigative information about individuals not indicted in a criminal investigation.
Barr did acknowledge during his confirmation hearing that a president could misuse pardon power, saying that if Trump did attempt to engage in a coverup, “he could be held accountable for abusing his power.”
Because lawmakers do not know how much information Barr will consent to release, they are loath to trust him to make a judgment call on what information Congress should see in cases where pardons are issued.
Schiff’s bill, if passed, would force the Justice Department to turn over materials to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees — and also the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, if the investigation involves intelligence or counterintelligence matters.
Three of those panels — the two intelligence committees and House Judiciary — are conducting their own probes. House Democrats launched several interlacing investigations of Trump this year in an effort to determine whether his conduct during and after the presidential campaign amounts to obstruction of justice, public corruption or general abuses of power.
The party has not determined whether those investigations will ultimately lead to impeachment proceedings, which would begin with the House Judiciary Committee. In the meantime, they have cast a wide net, seeking documents and testimony from several key witnesses intimately involved in Trump’s affairs.