A bombshell New York Times report reveals that President Donald Trump's lawyer, John Dowd, floated the idea of Trump pardoning two of his former top advisers, Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort, of charges related to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. The information comes from several people with knowledge of these discussions who spoke to Times reporters.
Two people familiar with how the legal team operated said Dowd "took the lead" in dealing directly with attorneys for both Flynn and Manafort.
Dowd's conversation Robert Kelner, Flynn's attorney, occurred sometime after Dowd became the president's personal lawyer, at a time when a grand jury was hearing evidence against Flynn on several potential crimes. A White House source told reporters that Dowd had mentioned privately that he did not know why Flynn had accepted a plea with the special counsel. The discussion with Reginald Brown, Manafort's attorney, came just before his client was indicted in October for federal crimes.
While it's unclear whether Dowd discussed the pardons with the president before bringing them up with the other lawyers, the talks suggest that the president's legal team was concerned about what Flynn and Manafort might reveal were they to cut a deal with Mueller and his investigators.
Dowd issued terse denials when asked whether he discussed pardons with lawyers for the president’s former advisers.
“There were no discussions. Period,” Dowd said. “As far as I know, no discussions.”
Kelner and Brown also declined to comment.
The president's lawyers maintain that they had no knowledge about conversations related to possible pardons.
"Never during the course of my representation of the president have I had any discussions of pardons of any individual involved in this inquiry,” said Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow.
Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer dealing with the investigation, added, “I have only been asked about pardons by the press and have routinely responded on the record that no pardons are under discussion or under consideration at the White House.”
Speaking earlier today at the daily press briefing, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders read Cobb's statement to the press. “Ty Cobb is the person that would be most directly involved in this,” she said, adding that while “the president has the authority to pardon individuals,” the cases mentioned by the Times have not been discussed, and that she is “not aware” of any conversations between Trump and Dowd on the matter of pardons.
The news is only the latest media firestorm for Dowd, who resigned on March 22 from his role as the president's lead lawyer for the special counsel investigation. Dowd had concluded that the president was ignoring his advice, according to an individual briefed on the matter who spoke to Times reporters last week.
Although Dowd had approached the special counsel’s investigation with caution, his record was marred over his response to the guilty plea of Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who became the first Trump administration official to face charges in Mueller’s investigation. Dowd apologized to the White House after he claimed to have authored a tweet suggesting that Trump knew Flynn lied to the FBI in January, reviving questions as to whether the president obstructed justice when he asked James Comey, the former FBI Director, to drop the investigation into Flynn’s Russian dealings.
Last week, Representative Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) admonished Dowd after he called for an end to the Justice Department’s investigation.
“If you have an innocent client, Mr. Dowd, act like it,” Gowdy said. “The President’s attorney frankly does him a disservice when he says that.”
Gowdy was responding to criticism of Robert Mueller that the president tweeted. Until then, Trump had refrained from attacking the special counsel directly.
"Why does the Mueller team have 13 hardened Democrats, some big Crooked Hillary supporters, and Zero Republicans? Another Dem recently added…does anyone think this is fair? And yet, there is NO COLLUSION!” the president wrote on March 18.
Mueller’s investigation isn’t limited to possible Russian collusion with the Trump campaign, Gowdy noted, adding that the investigation is also examining Russian interference with the entire U.S. democratic process and the 2016 presidential election.
“If the allegation is collusion with the Russians, and there is no evidence of that, and you are innocent of that, act like it,” Gowdy said at the time.
Last summer, The Washington Post reported that Trump had indeed asked his legal team about his power to pardon his aides, and an individual confirmed that the president's lawyers had discussed the president’s pardoning powers among themselves.
At the time that the Post broke the story, Dowd said it was “not true” and “nonsense.”
“The President’s lawyers are cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller on behalf of the President,” he said.
Jay Sekulow was asked for comment on the story as well, and he responded that Trump and his legal team simply wish to ensure that Meuller does not widen the probe outside the boundaries of his powers as special counsel.
“The fact is that the president is concerned about conflicts that exist within the special counsel’s office and any changes in the scope of the investigation,” Sekulow said at the time, citing reports which confirmed that Mueller is scrutinizing the president's business dealings. “The scope is going to have to stay within his mandate. If there’s drifting, we’re going to object. They’re talking about real estate transactions in Palm Beach several years ago. In our view, this is far outside the scope of a legitimate investigation.”