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January Memo To Mueller Says Trump Has Authority To Pardon Himself


According to President Trump, he has the, quote, "absolute right" to pardon himself. In a tweet this morning, the president cites numerous legal scholars as backing him up in this claim. And it comes after a New York Times report over the weekend revealed that last January, President Trump's lawyers drafted a 20-page letter to special counsel Robert Mueller. That memo argues that the president cannot obstruct the special counsel investigation because he is ultimately the person in charge of the investigation.

NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley is with us now. Hey, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: What else did the president say in his tweet this morning?

HORSLEY: Well, as you say, he asserts this absolute right to pardon himself but says, why would I do that when I've done nothing wrong? And then he goes on to attack the investigation, as he has before, as a witch hunt. He says it's led by 13 very angry and conflicted Democrats. Never mind that the deputy attorney general overseeing the investigation, the head of the FBI and the special counsel himself are all longtime Republicans.

This is one of a number of tweets the president sent out on this, his 500th day in office. He also spent some time gloating about the strong economy, his successful judicial appointments. He's got plenty to gloat about. And yet the fact that he's tweeting on this milestone day about the Russia investigation shows just how much of a cloud it continues to be over his administration, at least in the president's own mind.

MARTIN: Right. And we should say the president continues to tweet. He has just written, the appointment of the special counsel is totally unconstitutional. Despite that, we play the game because I, unlike the Democrats, have done nothing wrong. That was the president's latest tweet on this. Of course all this, as we mentioned, coming after the revelation that his team of attorneys sent this letter to Robert Mueller earlier this year. They're basically laying out an argument for why they believe the president should not have to sit for an interview with Robert Mueller in the course of the investigation. What's their argument?

HORSLEY: Well, they say that there's a high bar for asking a president to testify. He's a busy guy, after all. And they say that he should only be compelled to testify if there's information that the special counsel can't get from any other source. And they say given all the information the White House has turned over, including making top aides available for interviews, that standard is not met.

And then they go on to say, look; there is no case for obstruction of justice against the president. There can't be because he is acting within his legal authority. Even if you take the most unflattering view of his asking James Comey to go easy on his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, or his firing James Comey, the former FBI director - even if you believe that those were motivated by the Russia investigation, the lawyers say the president was within his legal authority, and therefore, it's not obstruction. And therefore, he shouldn't have to testify.

MARTIN: A couple of prominent Republicans on the Sunday talk shows said that if the president did do something wrong and if he pardoned himself as a result, it would be political suicide. This is a clip from New Jersey - former governor of New Jersey Chris Christie.


CHRIS CHRISTIE: Listen; there's no way that'll happen. And the reason it won't is because it then becomes a political problem, George. If the president were to pardon himself, he'll get impeached.

MARTIN: Would the lawyers for President Trump agree to that?

HORSLEY: Well, at least one of his lawyers, Rudy Giuliani, said much the same thing on a Sunday talk show that look; so far, the Republican-controlled Congress has acquiesced in a lot of actions of the president. But a self-pardon, an unprecedented self-pardon, would maybe be a bridge too far and would likely lead to impeachment. Note that's different than what the president's saying in his tweet this morning, which is that there's no need to pardon himself because he hasn't done anything wrong.

MARTIN: I want to get at one other revelation in this letter that has come out from Trump's lawyers to Robert Mueller. In it, the Trump team acknowledges that the president himself dictated a statement to the press after the now-infamous meeting between Don Jr. and a Russian lawyer after this came to light last summer. Can you explain the significance of this?

HORSLEY: Yes. And they describe that statement that the president dictated as short but accurate. It was short. It was not particularly accurate about the circumstances of that Trump Tower meeting, as Donald Trump Jr. himself revealed soon after the statement came out.

MARTIN: But there had been a debate over who wrote it. And...

HORSLEY: That's right.

MARTIN: ...The administration had maintained that this did not come directly from the president.

HORSLEY: The president and his own lawyers had denied playing a role in dictating that statement. And now we have his attorneys acknowledging that, yes, the president himself dictated that pretty misleading statement about the Trump Tower meeting. And the fact that their stories are inconsistent, Rudy Giuliani said, is just one more reason you wouldn't want to have the president sit for an interview. Those kinds of inconsistencies are exactly the sort of thing that could trip up the president. And that's why his lawyers don't want him to testify.

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley - thanks, Scott.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.