As special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators prepared charges against Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn last year, President Donald Trump’s then-lawyer sent the two men word that Trump might pardon them, according to a new report from five New York Times journalists.
Yes — if the Times report is right, a personal lawyer for the president of the United States floated preemptive possible pardons in secret communications with two of the president’s close associates. And this sure looks like an attempt to prevent them from flipping and telling Mueller what they knew.
The lawyer, John Dowd, who departed Trump’s legal team last week, denied to the Times that he talked pardons, saying, “There were no discussions.” But the Times’s sources claim that Dowd floated pardons to both Flynn’s lawyer Robert Kelner and Manafort’s then-lawyer Reginald Brown before the two men were charged last fall.
The Times cites an anonymous person who claims that Dowd has spoken about the matter in private:
Mr. Dowd has said privately that he did not know why Mr. Flynn had accepted a plea, according to one of the people. He said he had told Mr. Kelner that the president had long believed that the case against Mr. Flynn was flimsy and was prepared to pardon him, the person said.
No pardons in the Russia probe have yet materialized. Flynn pleaded guilty to two charges of making false statements to investigators last December and began cooperating with Mueller’s team. Former Trump advisers George Papadopoulos and Rick Gates have similarly flipped, as part of plea deals.
But Manafort hasn’t, despite being hit with a plethora of tax, bank fraud, false statements, and other charges in two different venues, with documentary evidence that sure seems damning. “Given the nature of the charges against the defendant and the apparent weight of the evidence against him, defendant faces the very real possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison,” Judge T.S. Ellis, who is overseeing Manafort’s case in Virginia, said in court.
So there’s been much speculation in Washington that Manafort could be resisting a plea deal with Mueller’s team because he expects — or, perhaps, has been told — that Trump will pardon him eventually. (Manafort and his legal team claim he’s pleading not guilty because he’s genuinely innocent.)
Until today, that’s been mere speculation. But the Times report claims Trump’s lawyer did, in fact, talk to Manafort’s lawyer about a pardon. What exactly was said — or, perhaps, promised — remains unknown.
Mueller’s team is already looking into the question of whether Trump has tried to obstruct justice in Mueller’s probe, and the Times team quotes some experts saying this could be more evidence of that. However, as Vox’s Dylan Matthews has written, the president’s pardon power for federal crimes is “basically unlimited.”
Still, there would be several problems with Trump trying to pardon his way out of the Russia investigation. The first is that it would create an enormous political backlash — the president pardoning his close associates in an ongoing investigation would truly be a stunning development.
Second, as Vox’s Sean Illing has written, people Trump pardons could then be called to testify under oath about him — and they’d no longer have the ability to “plead the Fifth” and refuse to answer to avoid self-incrimination. Third, the president’s pardon wouldn’t work for hypothetical state charges.
Perhaps the likeliest prospect, though, is that, like several other past presidents, Trump could use the pardon power liberally on his way out the door — after losing reelection, closing out his second term, or if he were to depart the office early for any reason. That, however, is still a long way off.