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Reports Suggest White House Efforts To Undercut Mueller's Russia Probe


The White House communications operation isn't the only part of President Trump's orbit to experience a shakeup. The spokesman for his outside legal team has also resigned. This comes as The Washington Post and The New York Times report that Trump's outside legal team is looking at ways to undermine or discredit special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: In an interview with The New York Times earlier this week, President Trump raised questions about Mueller and his investigative team having conflicts of interest. It's not a new charge. In June, Trump tweeted, quote, "you are witnessing the single greatest witch hunt in American political history led by some very bad and conflicted people," exclamation point. On Fox News earlier today, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway talked about what she sees as a potential conflict - political contributions to Democrats made over the years by some of the lawyers on the special counsel's team.


KELLYANNE CONWAY: These were significant donations by members of that team. They clearly wanted the other person to win. Now, whether that prejudice is then one way or the other in the investigation remains to be seen. But it is relevant information for people to have.

KEITH: Under Justice Department rules, though, political contributions aren't considered conflicts of interest. Michael Bromwich was on the independent counsel's team for Iran-Contra and is a former Justice Department inspector general.

MICHAEL BROMWICH: The mere fact that somebody may have contributed to candidates of one party has never, to my knowledge, been deemed to be disqualifying in terms of conducting investigations of political figures of the other party. In my 35 years in law enforcement, I've never heard that to be the standard.

KEITH: NPR reached out to several lawyers who specialize in ethics and investigations, and none of them considered political contributions on their own to be a conflict of interest. Also, in his interview with the Times, Trump suggested that if Mueller started digging into his finances, that would be a red line. His spokeswoman says Trump has no intention of firing Mueller. But if he wanted to get rid of the special counsel, he probably could indirectly, says Peter Zeidenberg, a former deputy special counsel. For instance, if Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has recused himself from the investigation, were to resign or be fired, Zeidenberg says...

PETER ZEIDENBERG: There would be a new attorney general who would not necessarily be recused from the case and most likely would not be - and would be in a position to fire Mueller if directed to do so.

KEITH: That said, it would create an epic political firestorm. And if you want to talk about political uproar, imagine what would happen if the president were to pre-emptively pardon members of his family or campaign. That's something Trump is at least casually exploring, according to the Post's reporting. And it's something he could do, says Mark Foster, a lawyer specializing in ethics at the firm Zuckerman Spaeder.

MARK FOSTER: There are just very few conceivable limits to it. Could a president start handing out pardons to all the members of his family and, you know, for parking tickets or murder cases? Yeah, I think he probably can.

KEITH: But Foster says can and should are two very different things.

FOSTER: Man, oh, man, that is something that could really blow this country apart.

KEITH: But Zeidenberg warns in addition to the political ramifications, there's a practical reason issuing pardons before the investigation has run its course just wouldn't make sense.

ZEIDENBERG: It wouldn't necessarily end the investigation either. Anyone who was pardoned would have - no longer have a Fifth Amendment privilege against testifying. So any and all of those individuals could be brought to the grand jury and forced to testify.

KEITH: Once an investigation of this kind is underway, it's nearly impossible to put the genie back in the bottle. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.