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3 Takeaways From White House’s Semi-Denials of Pardon Talks

Aides offer qualifiers like ‘at this time’ and ‘as far as I know’

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort leaves the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse after a court hearing on the terms of his bail and house arrest on Nov. 6. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort leaves the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Courthouse after a court hearing on the terms of his bail and house arrest on Nov. 6. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

ANALYSIS | The White House on Wednesday did not categorically deny President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer discussed pardons for two former aides with their lawyers just as the special counsel was closing in on both.

At issue are conversations John Dowd, who left Trump’s outside legal team last week, allegedly had with the attorneys for Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort. The New York Times reported Wednesday afternoon that those conversations occurred, but the three sources it cites did not say that the president greenlighted those alleged conversations or was told about them after they might have occurred.

The reported conversations suggest Dowd, and possibly others including Trump himself, were concerned the former national security adviser and Trump campaign chairman might cut a deal with Robert Mueller, the Justice Department’s special counsel investigating Russia’s 2016 election meddling, and give him information damaging to the president.

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White House officials were notably careful in their responses to the Times article. Here are three takeaways.

No Blanket Denial

“No pardons are under discussion at the White House,” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at one point during her press briefing.

But she also referred several times only to conversations which she has personally been a part of. And when she was asked if Trump directed Dowd to float pardons to Flynn’s and Manafort’s lawyers in exchange for them not cutting a deal with Mueller, she did not completely rule it out: “I’m not aware of any conversations like that at all. … I’ve been in a number of conversations, it never came up.”

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She also referred reporters to a statement by Ty Cobb, an attorney hired by Trump to lead the White House’s response to the Mueller probe. “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,” Cobb said.

Wiggle Room

Sanders left ample wiggle room for aides and the president himself to argue they never ruled out pardons.

Reminded that Trump has called both Flynn and Manafort “good” men, she said this of internal talk, including by the president, of pardoning them: “There’s not been discussion or consideration of that at this time.” She added waiving their potential sentences is “not being currently discussed at the White House.”

At this time. Currently.

Even in Dowd’s comment to the Times, there was wiggle room.

“There were no discussions. Period,” he said. Sounds definitive. Not quite. He added a qualifier: “As far as I know, no discussions.”

As far as I know.

POTUS Isn’t Exactly Ruling It Out

Two weeks after Flynn’s guilty plea, Trump was asked by reporters whether he would pardon the retired Army three-star general.

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“I don’t want to talk about pardons for Michael Flynn yet,” he said on Dec. 15. “We’ll see what happens. Let’s see. I can say this: When you look at what’s gone on with the FBI and with the Justice Department, people are very, very angry.”

Based on his tweets and public comments about both entities, the Russia investigation and Mueller’s team, those people include the president. And Sanders had a reminder of her own for reporters: “The president has the authority to pardon individuals.”

When asked Wednesday whether Dowd did anything while representing the president that Trump objected to, Sanders did not say any talks to the Flynn and Manafort legal teams would fit that definition.

“Not that I’m aware of,” she said. “No, I’m not aware of any specific actions.”