President Trump said Wednesday a pardon for former campaign chairman Paul Manafort is “not off the table,” while a report surfaced that Mr. Trump told special counsel Robert Mueller he wasn’t aware of a 2016 Trump Tower meeting between a Russian lawyer and members of his campaign.
In an interview with The New York Post, the president didn’t rule out a pardon for Manafort, who’s facing a lengthy federal prison term for tax evasion and bank fraud.
“It was never discussed, but I wouldn’t take it off the table. Why would I take it off the table?” the president said.
Mr. Trump asserted that Mr. Mueller’s team is pressuring Manafort, former political adviser Roger Stone and Stone associate Jerome Corsi to lie in their testimony.
“If you told the truth, you go to jail,” Mr. Trump said. “You know this flipping stuff is terrible. You flip and you lie and you get — the prosecutors will tell you 99 percent of the time they can get people to flip. It’s rare that they can’t.”
Mr. Mueller said in a court filing this week that Manafort has been lying to investigators instead of cooperating, and that he should be sentenced as soon as possible.
Congressional Democrats warned the president against issuing pardons in the special counsel probe.
“This would be a blatant and unacceptable abuse of power,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner, Virginia Democrat and vice chairman of the Senate intelligence committee. “The pardon power is not the President’s personal tool for protecting himself and his friends.”
The developments came as a group of senators failed Wednesday to secure a vote for their bill to protect Mr. Mueller from being fired by the president, marking the latest stumble for their efforts to sideline the White House.
Sens. Cory Booker and Chris Coons, both Democrats, and Jeff Flake, a Republican, fear Mr. Trump is angling to fire Mr. Mueller to derail what could be an damaging report on the 2016 elections, Russian meddling and Trump campaign figures’ behavior.
They sought to force to the floor a bill that would have raised the standards for firing Mr. Mueller, making it almost impossible for the president to oust him.
“The bill is becoming more urgent,” Mr. Coons said, pointing to a renewed series of tweets from Mr. Trump this week blasting Mr. Mueller and his team.
But Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, objected to holding a vote, derailing their effort.
Mr. Lee said setting the special counsel aside in a position that is less answerable to the president would break the separation of powers framework set up by the Constitution, which divides power among the legislature, the judiciary and the executive.
Prosecutors in the federal government are answerable to the president, so carving one out from that scheme would be creating a “de facto fourth branch of government,” Mr. Lee said.
Mr. Mueller is reportedly working to finalize his report, which was launched amid accusations that Trump campaign figures colluded with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign.
Those accusations have mostly disappeared.
Instead, the president’s opponents now say Mr. Mueller’s work should continue because of his progress on other matters, including prosecutions of Russian operatives who he charged with trying to meddle in the election, and prosecutions of several Trump campaign figures who’ve been charged with lying to investigators, or with malfeasance that predates their time working for the campaign.
While the Mueller-protection legislation has some support among Republicans, its chief GOP backer is Mr. Flake, who has said he will vote against all Trump judicial picks until he gets a vote on the Mueller bill.
CNN reported Wednesday that Mr. Trump told Mr. Mueller in written responses that he was not told about the 2016 Trump Tower meeting between a Russian lawyer and members of his campaign, including Manafort.
The president also said Mr. Stone did not speak with him about Wikileaks, according to the report.
Mr. Mueller has shifted his focus to Mr. Stone and Mr. Corsi in recent weeks. He is reportedly investigating whether they were in contact with Wikileaks before or published a stash of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
The president’s responses, which he submitted last week, were framed as being to the best of his recollection, according to CNN. That is a common legal tactic used during proceedings.
⦁ Jeff Mordock contributed to this report.
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