Trump lawyers explore pardoning powers and ways to undercut Russia probe

Trump Russia Probe Lawyers
Jay Sekulow, one of President Trump's private lawyers, said Thursday that the president and his legal team are intent on making sure Robert Mueller stays within the boundaries of his assignment as special counsel.

Some of President Trump's lawyers are exploring ways to limit or undercut special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, building a case against what they allege are his conflicts of interest and discussing the president's authority to grant pardons, according to people familiar with the effort.

Trump has asked his advisers about his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the probe, according to one of those people.

A second person said Trump's lawyers have been discussing the president's pardoning powers among themselves.

Trump's legal team declined to comment on the issue. But one adviser said the president has simply expressed a curiosity in understanding the reach of his pardoning authority, as well as the limits of Mueller's investigation.

"This is not in the context of, 'I can't wait to pardon myself,' " a close adviser said.

With the Russia investigation continuing to widen, Trump's attorneys are working to corral the probe and question the propriety of the special counsel's work. They are actively compiling a list of Mueller's alleged potential conflicts of interest, which they say could serve as a way to stymie his work, according to several of Trump's legal advisers.

A conflict of interest is one of the possible grounds that can be cited by an attorney general to remove a special counsel from office under Justice Department regulations that set rules for the job.

The president is also irritated by the notion that Mueller's probe could reach into his and his family's finances, advisers said.

Trump has been fuming about the probe in recent weeks as he has been informed about the legal questions that he and his family could face. His primary frustration centers on why allegations that his campaign coordinated with Russia should spread into scrutinizing many years of Trump deal making.

He has told aides he was especially disturbed after learning Mueller would be able to access several years of his tax returns.

Breaking a tradition that began with President Jimmy Carter, Trump has repeatedly refused to make his tax returns public after first claiming he could not do so because he was under audit or after promising to release them after an IRS audit was completed.

Further adding to the challenges facing Trump's outside lawyers, the team's spokesman, Mark Corallo, resigned on Thursday, according to two people familiar with his departure. Corallo did not respond to immediate requests for comment.

"If you're looking at Russian collusion, the president's tax returns would be outside that investigation," said a close adviser to the president.

Jay Sekulow, one of the president's private lawyers, said in an interview Thursday that the president and his legal team are intent on making sure Mueller stays within the boundaries of his assignment as special counsel. He said they will complain directly to Mueller if necessary.

"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. "The scope is going to have to stay within his mandate. If there's drifting, we're going to object."

Sekulow cited Bloomberg News reports that Mueller is scrutinizing some of Trump's business dealings, including a Russian oligarch who purchased a Palm Beach mansion from Trump for $95 million in 2008.

"They're talking about real estate transactions in Palm Beach several years ago," Sekulow said. "In our view, this is far outside the scope of a legitimate investigation."

The president has long called the FBI investigation into his campaign's possible coordination with the Russians a "witch hunt." But now, the president is coming face-to-face with a powerful investigative team that is able to study evidence of any crime they encounter in the probe - including tax fraud, lying to federal agents, and interference in the investigation.

"This is Ken Starr times 1,000," said one lawyer involved in the case, referring to the independent counsel who oversaw an investigation that eventually led to House impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton. "Of course, it's going to go into his finances."

Following Trump's decision to fire FBI Director James Comey - in part because of his displeasure with the FBI's Russia investigation - Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel in a written order.

That order gave Mueller broad authority to investigate links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, as well as "any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation" and any crimes committed in response to the investigation, such as perjury or obstruction of justice.

Mueller's probe has already expanded to include an examination of whether Trump obstructed justice in his dealings with Comey, as well as the business activities of Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law.