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This Week In Politics: President Trump's Power To Pardon

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

If you're a member of the White House staff, this is a moment when you could come up with a lot of dark jokes that feature the phrase, pardon me. President Trump has been musing about his power to pardon, according to his new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci. The president's lawyer says there's been no talk of pardons, although the president himself did tweet about his complete power to pardon on Saturday.

We should be clear, of course - in the whole investigation of Russian interference in last year's election, nobody has yet been charged with a crime. But the pressure is plainly enormous. Yesterday, the president reached for his phone again and wrote, it's very sad that Republicans, even some that were carried over the line on my back, do very little to protect their president. And that's the start of our discussion with Jonah Goldberg of National Review, who joins us once again. Jonah, good morning.

JONAH GOLDBERG: Good morning, Steve. Good to be here.

INSKEEP: Why even talk about pardons right now?

GOLDBERG: Because I think the one thing that we know is that if you tell Donald Trump not to do something, that's how he does it. And I have to say that the sort of German railroad-like discipline that the new communications director has imposed on this...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

GOLDBERG: ...White House is really - it's like watching someone tune a Swiss watch now, how it's all perfectly aligned and working in synchronous messaging.

INSKEEP: Well, Scaramucci seemed like a smooth guy. He impressed the press corps in his first briefing, his first outing. But he also had to say over the weekend the president is not going to change. He's going to communicate. He's going to be the main communicator. He's going to say what he wants, when he wants.

GOLDBERG: Right. And look - and I think that's the problem. I think Scaramucci did have a pretty good debut, and he is a kind of impressive guy it seems. He's sort of famous for this school of thought saying fake it until you make it, and I think he's made it. But it sort of highlights the central problem in poor Sean Spicer. You know, anyone who thinks that the core problem with this White House has been the messaging staff, the communications staff, is overlooking the fact that the core problem with the communications of this White House has been that Donald Trump can't stick to a theme. I mean, let's remember, last week was made in America week.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

GOLDBERG: That went - you know, who can forget that, to be honest?

INSKEEP: His tweets are made in America. Come on.

GOLDBERG: That's true. Fair enough.

INSKEEP: It's an American company.

GOLDBERG: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Is it politically sustainable for President Trump to wreck the investigation of Russian interference in a number of ways - by pardoning people or by firing the special counsel? Is it politically possible for him to do any of those things really?

GOLDBERG: Well, I mean, I think it's certainly politically possible in the sense that the president of the United States does have plenary pardon power. I don't think, personally - I'm not a lawyer - but I don't think he can pardon himself. I think that's sort of a silly sideshow. But he can certainly pardon his son. Whether that's politically smart is a completely separate question. I thought yesterday, if you were trying to do the sort of criminology of his Twitter feed, almost everything else was a sideshow except for, of course the president has complete power to pardon.

That was the idea he wanted to get out there. That was the idea he wants to be able to refer back to saying, I've been saying this all along. I thought it was a tell. And I think politically, that or firing Mueller is one of these things that I don't think he appreciates how much the swamp will riot if he tries to sort of - just sort of rig the system out of a sense of unfairness to him.

INSKEEP: Amid all of this, we have word of a bipartisan deal on sanctions against Russia. Senate and House negotiators agreed to some changes, we're told, in a bill that had been passed overwhelmingly by the Senate. Now, the White House was opposed, so far as we know, to this sanctions bill, but press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told ABC over the weekend that that's changed. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABC BROADCAST)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: The administration is supportive of being tough on Russia, particularly in putting these sanctions in place. The original piece of legislation was poorly written, but we were able to work with the House and Senate. And the administration is happy with the ability to do that and make those changes that were necessary. And we support where the legislation is now.

INSKEEP: OK, she says we support the legislation. Yet, on the same day, Scaramucci, the new communications director, says that the president still doesn't accept that Russia interfered in the election. How can he sign a sanctions bill for Russian interference if he doesn't even believe it happened?

GOLDBERG: Oh, I think this is a classic Washington case of Ferris Buellerism (ph), where sometimes, if you just see a parade out there, you've got to run out in front and pretend that you're leading it.

INSKEEP: OK.

GOLDBERG: If - this is a totally veto-proof majority in the Senate. It's going to pass anyway. It's an even worse optics for him to go fighting, fighting hard to keep Russia from being sanctioned. But he's not going to let go of the idea that Russia didn't meddle in this because he thinks it undermines the legitimacy of his election, and it's his main obsession.

INSKEEP: All of this has made it hard to focus on another huge upcoming story. The Senate, we're told, is going to vote on Tuesday. They're determined to vote on Tuesday to begin debate on repealing the Affordable Care Act, although a lot of senators - some senators, anyway - are protesting they don't know actually what the shape of the bill is they're supposed to begin debate on. Why do they have to proceed, Jonah?

GOLDBERG: I think the - we are in a really messed up place right now on health care in that the Republican Party seems obsessed to do only - have only a single major accomplishment on health care, and that is to be able to say it repealed Obamacare - not to repeal Obamacare. None of these things are actually about repealing Obamacare because you can't get rid of the regulations that make up Obamacare.

But everyone on the Republican side wants to be able to say that they repealed it to fulfill this promise that they've campaigned on for seven years. And pretty much everybody on the Democratic side simply wants to be able to say they stopped it from being repealed. And so there's almost no actual policy fight except about the Medicaid side on this.

INSKEEP: Are Republicans willing to vote on bills that are, according to polls, massively unpopular, just to be able to say they repealed it?

GOLDBERG: Apparently so. And I think part of this has to do with the fact that, you know, the Republican Party - and the Democratic Party, to a certain extent - they're more - most of these guys are - and women - are more worried about being primaried than they are about winning a general election...

INSKEEP: Challenged in a primary.

GOLDBERG: And if you're challenged in a primary for portraying this promise, you're very likely going to lose. And so they're all voting on that calculus.

INSKEEP: Jonah, always a pleasure, thanks very much.

GOLDBERG: It's great to be here. Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's Jonah Goldberg, senior editor at National Review, columnist for the LA Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.