Trump just sent a clear signal to associates in Mueller's crosshairs to 'stay the course and he will protect them'

Alex Wong/Getty ImagesRobert Mueller.

  • President Donald Trump announced this week that he had pardoned the conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, and was considering pardoning Martha Stewart and commuting the sentence of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
  • D’Souza, Stewart, and Blagojevich were all convicted on charges that Trump and his associates are currently being investigated for or have been charged with.
  • Experts say people in Trump’s orbit who are being investigated should find the developments “quite comforting.”
  • One Justice Department veteran pointed out that Trump’s comments strike at two levels: “One, he’s targeting the crimes that are the subject of the investigation of his associates, and two, he’s punching back at some of those in law enforcement that he thinks are arrayed against him.”

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President Donald Trump sent a not-so-subtle signal on Thursday when he pardoned the conservative political commentator Dinesh D’Souza and openly mused about pardoning the television personality Martha Stewart and commuting the sentence of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

D’Souza was convicted of violating campaign finance laws. Stewart was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and making false statements to investigators. Blagojevich was convicted, among other things, of making false statements.

And Trump’s recent actions come as the Justice Department probes whether some of Trump’s associates committed those same crimes.

  • Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime personal lawyer and closest confidant, is under investigation for violating campaign finance laws.
  • Michael Flynn, Rick Gates, and George Papadopoulos – all of whom worked on Trump’s campaign in some capacity – have pleaded guilty to lying to investigators, and Gates has additionally pleaded guilty to conspiracy.
  • Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, has been charged with lying to the FBI.

Jens David Ohlin, a vice dean at Cornell Law School who is an expert in criminal law, put it bluntly: “If I were Cohen, Flynn, or Manafort, I would find these recent developments quite comforting.”

‘What a gamble’

Donald TrumpOlivier Douliery-Pool/Getty ImagesDonald Trump.

The power to pardon people convicted of federal crimes is perhaps the one tool in Trump’s box that is entirely up to his discretion, and the president has not shied away from reminding the public – and his embattled associates – of that.

“I’ve always felt [D’Souza] was very unfairly treated,” Trump told reporters on Air Force One this week after announcing the conservative commentator’s pardon. “And a lot of people did, a lot of people did. What should have been a quick, minor fine, like everybody else with the election stuff. … What they did to him was horrible.”

The president’s comments likely resonated with Cohen, who is being investigated by the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York for possibly violating campaign finance law when he paid the porn star Stormy Daniels $US130,000 shortly before the 2016 election in exchange for her silence about an affair she claims to have had with Trump.

He is also a subject of interest to the special counsel Robert Mueller, stemming from his involvement in several key events Mueller is scrutinizing as part of the probe into Russian election interference.

“There is no question in my mind that this is a signal to people who are caught up in the Mueller investigation to stay the course and [Trump] will protect them,” said Alex Whiting, a longtime former federal prosecutor in Boston and Washington, DC.

Cohen has been described at different times as Trump’s fixer, pit bull, and consigliere, and he has a long history of going to bat for the president to quash negative stories and protect his reputation. In addition to serving as Trump’s personal lawyer, Cohen also worked for over a decade as the Trump Organisation’s lead counsel and is likely privy to the innermost workings of Trump’s business and financial dealings.

“The critical question for someone like Cohen is, can he take it to the bank?” said Harry Litman, a former deputy assistant attorney general. “Is he going to completely trust in Trump’s words? Boy, what a gamble.”

Trump also expressed sympathy toward Stewart and Blagojevich, both of whom he said did not deserve to go to jail for their actions.

His comments could be a good sign for Flynn, who has already pleaded guilty in the Russia investigation and is cooperating with prosecutors.

“Right now, Mueller’s biggest leverage over Flynn is that he can sharply reduce his sentence if Flynn cooperates,” Litman said. “If Flynn thinks he’ll get pardoned, he’ll start speaking in mono-syllables.”

Manafort, meanwhile, has been hit with dozens of charges related to his lobbying work for the Ukrainian government and pro-Russian interests, but he has pleaded not guilty. His lawyers have mounted an aggressive defence that rests on the claim that Mueller was not authorised to indict Manafort on charges unrelated to Russian collusion.

Last month, a federal judge in Virginia delivered a massive setback to Manafort’s lawyers when he ruled that Manafort’s indictment falls within the scope of Mueller’s mandate. But before making his final decision, US District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III laid into prosecutors, questioning whether they had only charged Manafort to get him “to sing.”

For that reason, despite the final ruling, Trump’s defence team sees the case as somewhat of a win for the president, who accuses Mueller of embarking on a politically motivated “witch hunt” against him and his associates.

“The fact that a federal judge even questioned Mueller’s motives here is a big deal for us,” said Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s outside lawyer, who is a former Justice Department veteran. “It means there’s something there.”

Asked Friday whether Trump’s comments about D’Souza, Stewart, and Blagojevich were intended as a signal to Manafort and others ensnared in the Russia probe, Giuliani replied: “No, only independent situations.”

Trump’s comments strike at two different levels

Even so, Justice Department veterans emphasise that there are other, deeper consequences to Trump’s haphazard approach to granting pardons, particularly as it relates to Thursday’s comments.

Former FBI Director James Comey was leading the Manhattan US attorney’s office when it prosecuted the Martha Stewart case. Former US attorney Preet Bharara led the office when it tried D’Souza. And Patrick Fitzgerald, a close associate of Comey’s, led the US attorney’s office for the Northern District of Illinois, which handled the Blagojevich case.

Trump’s statements strike at two different levels, Whiting said.

“One, he’s targeting the crimes that are the subject of the investigation of his associates, and two, he’s punching back at some of those in law enforcement that he thinks are arrayed against him,” Whiting said.

Litman agreed.

“The pardon power defines the border between mercy and justice,” he said. “And Trump’s actions are completely disconnected from any of the sorts of considerations that presidents traditionally have.”

He added: “This might be the most purely corrupt or abusive of all his exercises of executive power, because it’s not simply that he’s ignoring the norms, but he’s almost gleefully undermining the core principles of justice and law enforcement.”

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