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Trump sought his lawyers' advice weeks ago on possibility of pardoning Manafort

August 24, 2018 12:23 pm Updated: August 24, 2018 12:23 pm

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump asked his lawyers several weeks ago for their advice on the possibility of pardoning Paul Manafort and other aides accused of crimes, his lawyer said Thursday.

The subject of pardoning Manafort came as Trump's former campaign chairman faced multiple charges of bank fraud and tax evasion in an Alexandria criminal case, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani said in an interview.

Trump's lawyers counseled the president against the idea of pardoning anyone linked to the investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election, according to Giuliani, saying Trump should at least wait until special counsel Robert Mueller III has concluded his probe. Giuliani said the president agreed and did not push the issue further.

"He said yes," Giuliani said. "He agreed with us."

Giuliani said Trump was seeking advice in the wake of a spate of pardons he granted earlier this summer, including for a woman whom Kim Kardashian had lobbied the White House to release. Giuliani said he and fellow personal attorney Jay Sekulow had advised waiting to see whether Mueller delivers a damning report that accuses the president of trying to block a federal probe of his campaign's contacts with Russians.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Wednesday she "wasn't aware" of any discussions of Trump pardoning Manafort and the topic was "not something that's been up for discussion."

On Thursday, in the wake of Giuliani's comment, Sanders said the pardon topic is not under active consideration "in the White House."

"This pardon is not something being discussed in the White House and the president has not made a decision on pardoning Paul Manafort or anyone else," she said in a statement.

The exact timing of the pardon discussion is unclear.

A senior administration official said the president discussed the pros and cons of granting pardons to Manafort and others linked to a probe of his campaign "a few weeks ago."

Giuliani initially said he and Trump had the conversation "three to five weeks ago," but later corrected his statement to say he believed they discussed it several weeks earlier, in June. Giuliani also clarified in his follow-up call to The Post that his conversation with Trump was a general discussion about potential pardons for a range of people under investigation, including but not limited to Manafort.

Some experts have argued Trump could expose himself to more legal danger if he were to pardon aides who are witnesses in the Mueller probe, because Mueller is examining the president's own conduct and whether he sought to obstruct justice.

Giuliani acknowledged that risk.

"We sat him down and said you're not considering these other pardons with anybody involved in the investigation. He said yes, absolutely I understand," Giuliani said. "The real concern is whether Mueller would turn any pardon into an obstruction charge."

Other Trump associates who have plead guilty as part of Mueller's investigation include former national security adviser Michael Flynn, former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos and Trump campaign aide Rick Gates.

Mueller's findings are supposed to be provided in a report to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who would then decide whether any evidence of wrongdoing was serious enough that it should be presented to Congress to consider for impeachment proceedings.

Trump has repeatedly decried the government's treatment of Manafort - who a jury found guilty Tuesday on eight counts of tax- and bank-fraud charges. Manafort refused to cooperate with Mueller investigators seeking his information about the Trump campaign and instead took his chances at trial.

On Tuesday, the president told reporters that Manafort was a "good man" and that he felt sorry for him.

Trump then tweeted his support of Manafort on Wednesday while criticizing Michael Cohen, his former personal lawyer, who pleaded guilty Tuesday to five counts of tax evasion, one count of making a false statement to a bank and two campaign finance violations: willfully causing an illegal corporate contribution and making an excessive campaign contribution.

"I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family," Trump tweeted. " 'Justice' took a 12 year old tax case, among other things, applied tremendous pressure on him and, unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to 'break' - make up stories in order to get a 'deal.' Such respect for a brave man!"

Inside the West Wing, the prospect of a Manafort pardon is met with near universal opposition. Chief of Staff John Kelly, White House counsel Donald McGahn and attorney Emmet Flood are all opposed. Aides are trying to keep Trump from even discussing the matter. After Ainsley Earhardt, the Fox News anchor, said Wednesday night that Trump discussed a pardon while appearing on Fox News, Sanders asked her to clarify her comments that she did not hear Trump say that, according to a person familiar with the matter. Officials are increasingly frustrated with Giuliani inside the West Wing.

Trump has admiringly talked about how Manafort did not "flip" on him and was ebullient when Judge T.S. Ellis said that the prosecution only wanted to go after Manafort to get him. Asked about a pardon, one senior White House official said: "What does it accomplish? You pardon him, it doesn't get rid of the Mueller probe, it causes you more headaches, he still has another trial, you have more Republicans coming after you."

"Legally he's entitled to pardon Manafort," said Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard professor that Trump likes to watch on TV. "My advice to the president is don't tweet, don't pardon, don't testify, don't fire."

That was a major shift for Trump, who in April called it a "national disgrace" when federal investigators raided Cohen's home and office as part of an investigation into his efforts during the campaign to squelch embarrassing stories about Trump.

Cohen implicated Trump directly in some of his acts when he pleaded guilty Tuesday, saying he arranged to pay off two women to keep their stories of alleged affairs with Trump from becoming public before Election Day - in coordination with the then-candidate.

Trump has repeatedly expressed his anger at how federal prosecutors had "beat up" and mistreated Manafort. The president's critics argue that Trump's public tweets are a thinly-veiled message to Manafort, that he supports his refusal to cooperate with Mueller and is willing to pardon him in the future.

Giuliani said Trump's concern for Manafort is what motivates him to consider a pardon.

"He feels Manafort has been mistreated. Nobody in a case like this gets raided in the middle of the night, put in solitary confinement," Giuliani said. "They tried to crack him and it didn't work. Over the last two to three weeks, he's expressed anger and frustration about how he's been treated."

 

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The Washington Post's Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.