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White House, Dems Work The Referees In Public Battle Over Russia Probes

President Donald Trump takes his seat as he meets with Republican congressional leaders at the White House in June.
Nicholas Kamm
AFP/Getty Images
President Donald Trump takes his seat as he meets with Republican congressional leaders at the White House in June.

Charges and counter-charges by the White House and top Democrats endured into Friday as the two sides continued trying to work the referees like hard-bitten NBA coaches in the playoffs.

White House aides told The Washington Post this week that President Trump has been investigating his powers to pardon aides — and even himself.

The White House also is compiling dirt on the team of lawyers and other staffers who have joined Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller in his investigation into Trump's potential connections to Russia's interference in the 2016 election, according to reports Thursday by both The Post and The New York Times.

But Trump would go beyond the pale if he tried to use his pardon power on himself or try to fence in Mueller's team, warned the ranking members of Congress' two intelligence committees.

"The possibility that the president is considering pardons at this early stage in these ongoing investigations is extremely disturbing," said Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va. "Pardoning any individuals who may have been involved would be crossing a fundamental line."

And the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., defended Mueller's ability to pursue his investigation in whatever direction he wants. Trump had suggested that if Mueller looks into his or his family's financial dealings that would be unacceptable.

No, Schiff said — that's the whole point.

"Indeed, this is a very important part of Mueller's responsibility given that any financial impropriety between Russia and the Trump Organization, such as money laundering, could represent just the kind of 'kompromat' that Russia could utilize to influence administration policy," he said.

("Kompromat" is a Russian term for embarrassing material about someone collected by those in power to use as leverage — such as compromising photos or videos.)

Trump and his opponents both want to shape the public's perception of a sprawling imbroglio that almost no one understands completely amid international intrigue, classified information and the partisan filters that today screen so many Americans' perceptions of events.

House Intelligence Committee ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., speaks to reporters about the recent disclosure of a meeting between Donald Trump, Jr. and a Russian lawyer during the presidential campaign in July.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
Getty Images
House Intelligence Committee ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., speaks to reporters about the recent disclosure of a meeting between Donald Trump, Jr. and a Russian lawyer during the presidential campaign in July.

Emails released by Donald Trump Jr. documented what was described as an offer of support for his father's campaign from the Russian government which resulted in a meeting involving Trump Jr., other top Trump campaign aides, a Russian lawyer and two other Russian-Americans.

President Trump has downplayed those revelations and scoffs at the "witch hunt" he says Democrats are leading.

The New York Times asked Trump in an interview this week about whether it would cross a "red line" if Mueller begins to investigate his family's finances — and it would, he said.

"I would say yeah," he told The Times. "I would say yes. By the way, I would say, I don't — I don't — I mean, it's possible there's a condo or something, so, you know, I sell a lot of condo units, and somebody from Russia buys a condo, who knows?"

Trump appeared to be referring to the accounts that have connected his real estate business with alleged money laundering by Russians and others.

Bloomberg Politics reported this week that federal investigators want to know whether that might have been a way through which Trump had financial connections to Russia and through which the Russian government might have tried to pressure him.

"FBI investigators and others are looking at Russian purchases of apartments in Trump buildings, Trump's involvement in a controversial SoHo development in New York with Russian associates, the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow and Trump's sale of a Florida mansion to a Russian oligarch in 2008," wrote reporters Greg Farrell and Christian Berthelsen.

"The investigation also has absorbed a money-laundering probe begun by federal prosecutors in New York into Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort," Bloomberg Politics also reported.

Another specific focus for Mueller's team is said to be Trump's sale of a home in Florida to Russian fertilizer baron Dmitry Rybolovlev, for as much as $100 million — which has been described as far in excess of its value.

An attorney on the president's outside legal team told The Post that the deal wasn't pertinent to Mueller and it would be inappropriate for the special counsel to look into the details. But as Schiff has argued, Russia has a range of ways to curry favor with people of interest, including possibly using deals in which a buyer overpays for property as a way to pass funds openly on top of a lawful transaction.

Trump's team went on offense this week following a New York Times interview in which he complained about Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has recused himself from the Justice Department Russia investigation, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller as special counsel. White House aides have continued to keep open the prospect that Trump might try to fire Mueller, as well as make clear that they consider any donations his team might have made to Democrats to be unacceptable conflicts of interest.

For example, Trump complained to The Times about acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, as he had on the campaign trail, because McCabe's wife ran for the legislature in Virginia as a Democrat.

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Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.

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