The Washington Post reports two stories bundled under one headline: Trump team seeks to control, block Mueller’s Russia investigation.
The first story is in the headline. Trump’s lawyers are trying to dig up dirt on Mueller and his hires in order to discredit, and even block, the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. So far, as far as I can tell, despite what the say, they have discovered nothing but Trump’s temper. Mueller, on the other hand, is reported to be closing in on Trump’s financial ties to Russia and that triggered more rage from Trump.
The second story is that Trump and his lawyers are reported to be discussing presidential powers to issue broad pardons for Trumps family and staff and even a self-pardon for Trump. That would set off a constitutional firestorm. Here are snippets from the Post’s story.
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.
Trump’s legal team declined to comment on the issue. But 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.
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.
A related thread in all this was reported by the NY Times in Trump’s Fury Erodes His Relationship With Sessions, an Early Ally. Trump has expressed anger with AG Jeff Sessions over Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigations. Trump claims he would not have appointed Sessions if Trump knew in advance that Sessions would recuse. That seems to me to be a strange argument, one that implies advance knowledge of all things in the future. But most of what Trump says is strange.
The deeper concern is the possibility that Trump will force Sessions out and appoint someone favorable to ending Mueller’s investigation. Right now Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein is Trump’s boss and Sessions has said he would stay on as AG - in spite of Trump’s anger. If Trump could fire Sessions and install a new AG, then the way would be open for charges of conflict of interest ( or other trumped-up claims) to be the basis for fireing Mueller. And all that would eclipse Watergate.