Trump asserts ‘power to pardon’
DECLARATION COMES AMID RUSSIA PROBE Tweets precede political remarks at military event
norfolk — A defiant President Trump unleashed a flurry of nearly a dozen tweets Saturday morning, asserting that he has the “complete power to pardon” aides, family members and possibly even himself — an apparent response to the special counsel’s widening Russia probe.
The president also decried “illegal leaks” in the “FAKE NEWS.” He lashed out at a Washington Post report of previously undisclosed alleged contacts between Attorney General Jeff Sessions — at the time a U.S. senator and senior adviser to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign — and Russia’s then-ambassador to the United States. In a tweet, Trump called the disclosures an illegal new “intelligence leak.” The charge was part of his continuing effort to try to shift the public focus to what he claims is a partisan attempt to undermine his presidency.
The president’s assertion of his pardoning authority came days after The Post reported that he and his legal team have discussed his power to pardon those close to him and even himself.
Shortly after his barrage of tweets, which started just after 6:30 a.m. and lasted nearly two hours, Trump flew to Norfolk, where he injected a small dose of partisan politics into the ceremo-
commissioning of an aircraft carrier.
Speaking aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford, Trump extolled the virtues of the “wonderful, beautiful but very, very powerful” nuclear-powered warship named after the 38th president. “We will win, win, win,” Trump said. “We will never lose.” But he also decried the budget compromise known as sequestration, which requires mandatory and corresponding military and domestic cuts.
Trump promised to try to restore higher levels of military funding but also urged the audience of about 6,500 — many in uniform — to help him push through Congress this year’s spending plan, a budget in which he said he will seek an additional $54 billion in defense spending.
“I don’t mind getting a little hand, so call that congressman, and call that senator, and make sure you get it,” he said to applause. “And by the way, you can also call those senators to make sure you get health care.”
But Trump’s brief appeal created a potentially awkward tableau at a ship-commissioning event largely intended as ceremonial: a commander in chief offering political remarks and what could even be construed as an order to the naval personnel he commands.
The president’s 17-minute speech aboard the massive vessel, as well as his frenzied social-media assertions Saturday — which veered between proclamations of innocence and expressions of frustration — came as Trump struggles to stabilize his presidency, just six months in. He and several family members, including his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., and son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, are potentially facing mounting legal questions in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russia’s attempt to tamper with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
And on Friday, Trump set off the most dramatic, if potentially unintended, overhaul of his White House staff so far when he installed financier Anthony Scaramucci as communications director. That move triggered an unexpected chain reaction of one resignation (White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s) and one promotion (that of deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to Spicer’s former spot at the briefing room lectern).
Trump’s early-morning tweets Saturday revealed a president who is still exasperated, if not downright angry, over the cascade of controversies muddling his tenure, including a Russia probe so expansive that the question of presidential pardons has spilled out into public view.
Although one of Trump’s attorneys, John Dowd, described as “not true” and “nonsense” the notion that Trump’s legal team was working to undermine Mueller’s probe — including by exploring the president’s pardoning authority — Trump’s Saturday tweets seemed not only to confirm the Post article but also to signal the potential of future issues emerging. (The only crime “so far,” Trump wrote, “is leaks against us.”)
Trump aides said the president is merely curious about his powers and the limits of Mueller’s probe.
The Trump legal team’s discussion of pardoning authority is purely theoretical, according to two people familiar with the ongoing conversations. But if Trump pardoned himself in the face of Mueller’s investigation, he 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.
Trump’s hypothetical questions, however, may be further complicated by a recently unearthed 1998 memo obtained and published by the New York Times, in which the legal scholar Ronald Rotunda wrote to independent counsel Kenneth Starr opining that on the basis of his extensive analysis, a sitting president can be indicted on a charge of a criminal offense.
That conclusion contradicts a 2000 Justice Department memo finding that to indict or criminally prosecute a sitting president would “undermine the capacity of the executive branch to perform its constitutionally assigned functions.”
The rediscovered 56-page analysis was written in the context of Starr’s investigation of Bill Clinton in the Whitewater real estate affair. It examined the U.S. Constitution and existing laws and legal precedents, including Supreme Court opinions involving Clinton and President Richard M. Nixon. The Rotunda memo concludes that “no legal precedent has ever concluded that the president is immune from the federal criminal laws. In fact, the cases have suggested the contrary.”
The analysis notes that the Constitution carves out certain limited immunities from prosecution for members of Congress, proving that the framers were aware of “how to draft immunity language” — but did not do so for the office of the president.
“The contemporary sources suggest that the Constitution provides no criminal immunity for any president who commits crimes in his personal capacity,” the memo states. Elsewhere, it adds: “No federal statutes recognial nize, or purport to recognize, any presidential immunity from criminal indictment.”
In no small irony, this chain of reasoning emerged in the context of a Republican desire to prosecute Clinton — yet now could be neatly used by Democrats to make a case against Trump.
On Saturday, in one of his many tweets, Trump continued his campaign to discredit Mueller’s Russia investigation as based on leaks of information from political enemies aiming to undermine him. The Post reported late Friday that U.S. intelligence officials had intercepted communications in which Russia’s ambassador to the United States told his superiors in Moscow that he had discussed campaign-related matters and policies important to Moscow last year with Sessions, then a U.S. senator who had endorsed Trump.
Trump also restated on Twitter his view that Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency should be under greater scrutiny, and he contended that his son Donald Jr. “openly” disclosed emails concerning a meeting he had with a Russian lawyer during the campaign — even though the younger Trump did so only after the New York Times obtained the emails and was preparing to publish a report on them.
Sessions, who is now attorney general, had failed to disclose his meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during his confirmation hearing; when the occurrence of the meetings was made public in news reports, he insisted that he had met with Kislyak only in his capacity as a senator and had not discussed campaign issues.
But The Post’s reporting indicated that U.S. intelligence intercepts showed Kislyak telling Moscow that he had had “substantive” discussions with Sessions on matters including Trump’s positions on Russia-related issues and on prospects for U.S.-Russia relations in a Trump administration.
Trump was not the only member of his administration attempting damage control on Twitter this weekend. The newly installed Scaramucci also began deleting his previous tweets — some of which had been critical of Trump and the policies that Scaramucci will now be promoting. And he announced his decision, of course, on Twitter.
“Full transparency: I’m deleting old tweets,” Scaramucci wrote, explaining that his previous views had “evolved” and that he does not want them to be a “distraction” from the president’s agenda.