There were some interesting reports a few weeks ago about Donald Trump’s lawyers warning him to be very careful about contacting witnesses involved in the Russia scandal, The point was obvious: the president, already under investigation, could be accused of witness tampering and/or obstruction if he engaged in improper communications.
All of this came to mind today when the New York Times first reported that one of Trump’s attorneys “broached the idea” of presidential pardons for Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort during conversations with their lawyers last year.
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.
The talks suggest that Mr. Trump’s lawyers were concerned about what Mr. Flynn and Mr. Manafort might reveal were they to cut a deal with the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, in exchange for leniency. Mr. Mueller’s team could investigate the prospect that Mr. Dowd made pardon offers to thwart the inquiry, although legal experts are divided about whether such offers might constitute obstruction of justice.
Let’s just state the obvious: innocent people with nothing to hide generally don’t act like this.
Of course, if Dowd did float the possibility of a presidential pardon for Flynn – someone Trump has reportedly long worried about in the context of divulging secrets – it didn’t work. The former White House national security advisor pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his Russia contacts and he’s now cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
If we assume the latest reporting is accurate, it would raise the question of why Flynn didn’t rebuff Mueller and wait for Trump’s rescue in the form of a pardon. There’s plenty of room for speculation, but at this point, we just don’t know.
Let’s also note that two weeks after Flynn pleaded guilty, the president responded to a reporter’s question on the subject by saying, “I don’t want to talk about pardons for Michael Flynn yet. We’ll see what happens.”
As for Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman hasn’t cut any deals and he’s currently facing multiple felony counts. There’s been no chatter about a presidential pardon – in fact, Team Trump generally acts as if the president barely knows who Manafort is.
For his part, Dowd resigned as the head of Trump’s legal defense team last week, and he today denied discussing pardons with Flynn’s and Manafort’s attorneys. Jay Sekulow, who now appears to be leading the president’s outside team, made a similar denial.
As for the White House, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders faced some questions about this today, and her answers were less than categorical. I’m not sure why.
One thing Team Trump cannot say at this point is that the president would never abuse his pardon power. After all, we’ve already seen evidence to the contrary.