President Trump’s lawyer told attorneys representing Paul Manafort last summer that the president might be willing to pardon his former campaign chairman if he was charged with a crime stemming from the investigation into Russian election interference, according to two people familiar with the discussions.
John Dowd, then Trump’s lead lawyer, was described as floating the idea of a pardon for Manafort during the time he was under investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, but had not yet been charged, these people said. Dowd, who resigned as Trump’s lawyer last week, also floated the offer of a pardon last summer to attorneys for former national security adviser Michael Flynn, according to a report Wednesday by the New York Times.
Mueller indicted Manafort on multiple charges of financial fraud in October. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to investigators and agreed to cooperate with the Mueller probe in December.
Dowd insisted Wednesday that he did not raise the idea of pardons with lawyers representing the two men.
“I had no such discussions with them,” Dowd said in a phone interview. “We never talked about pardons. There was no reason to talk about pardons. No ma’am.”
A spokesperson for Manafort, Jason Maloni, also declined to comment.
Robert Kelner, an attorney for Flynn, declined to comment.
Legal experts said prosecutors could view the dangle of a presidential pardon to people under investigation as a criminal effort to obstruct justice. Raising such a possibility could be viewed as an incentive for witnesses not to cooperate with investigators.
What Dowd precisely offered — and whether Trump was involved — could now become part of Mueller’s investigation, which has included examining whether the president has taken steps to obstruct or stop the probe.
Legal experts are split about whether the president can commit obstruction of justice while exercising powers that are constitutionally afforded to him, such as the pardon power.
“It’s an open question about which there’s been a great deal of debate,” said Paul Rosenzweig, a lawyer who served on the team of independent counsel Kenneth Starr that investigated President Clinton.
But, he added, “given the openness of both the legal and factual questions, it would be irresponsible of Mueller not to add this to his inquiry.”
“The full truth is that it’s stone-cold stupidity on his part if he actually did it,” Rosenzweig added.
The Times first reported Dowd floated the idea of pardons with lawyers for Manafort and Flynn.
Flynn’s family and advocates have indicated publicly that they are hoping Trump will pardon Flynn.
In December, after Flynn pleaded guilty, Trump was asked by reporters if he would be willing to pardon Flynn and Trump replied he wasn’t ready to discuss it — “yet.”
“We’ll see what happens,” he told reporters before a speech he was giving at the FBI’s National Academy. “Let’s see, I can say this: When you look at what’s gone on with the FBI and the Justice Department, people are very, very angry.”
The possibility of a pardon raises new questions about why Manafort has repeatedly refused to cooperate with Mueller’s team. He faces a raft of serious felony charges and, if convicted, decades in prison.