Trump as­serts ‘power to par­don’

DEC­LA­RA­TION COMES AMID RUS­SIA PROBE Tweets pre­cede po­lit­i­cal re­marks at mil­i­tary event

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY ASH­LEY PARKER AND DAVID NAKAMURA

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.

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