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Politics

Amid widening Russia investigation, Trump tweets that the president ‘has complete power to pardon’

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President Trump arrives Saturday for the commissioning ceremony of the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford at Naval Station Norfolk, Va.
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

President Trump raised the specter of presidential pardons Saturday — declaring his “complete power” to grant them — amid a string of angry tweets that reflect his growing concern about the widening criminal investigation into potential collusion with Russia that he has long dismissed as “fake news” and a “witch hunt.”

By mentioning pardons, even as he said it’s too soon to consider them, Trump appeared to acknowledge the legal jeopardy his inner circle may face in the FBI inquiry into whether his presidential campaign coordinated with Russian intelligence agents trying to influence the 2016 election.

He thus opened a new chapter for an embattled White House that has seen the president and his top aides hire private lawyers and provide testimony. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, is scheduled to meet in closed session next week with the House and Senate intelligence committees, among the congressional panels conducting inquiries.

Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, and Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, have agreed to provide records and speak privately with the Senate Judiciary Committee as soon as next week.

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Trump’s reference to pardons was part of a Twitter flurry of 10 early-morning messages, in which he vented anger about the media, Donald Jr.’s legal problems, new disclosures about Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions’ meetings with a Russian diplomat, and old grievances over the emails of Democratic presidential rival Hillary Clinton.

But the Russia investigation remains the chief focus of his ire. The multiple investigations at the FBI and on Capitol Hill have overshadowed the White House as it struggles to push through major legislation after six months in office.

The mounting difficulties were highlighted Saturday when congressional leaders defied Trump and reached agreement on bipartisan legislation that allows sweeping new sanctions against Russia for its meddling in the U.S. election — and sharply limits Trump’s ability to lift or reduce them.

If the legislation passes intact, as expected, Trump will face a difficult choice — whether to veto a bill and fuel concerns that he is siding with Russian President Vladimir Putin, or sign legislation that his administration strongly opposes because it ties his hands in foreign affairs.

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Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the legislation was “the product of intense negotiations.”

“A nearly united Congress is poised to send President Putin a clear message on behalf of the American people and our allies, and we need President Trump to help us deliver that message,” Cardin said in a statement.

The message from Trump’s tweets Saturday, after he shook up his communications and legal teams this week, was that he has no intention of curbing the brash shoot-from-the-lip style he brought to the White House.

Indeed, Trump’s new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, declared shortly after he was appointed Friday that he had little desire to rein Trump in, even if it were possible.

“The president himself is always going to be the president,” Scaramucci said in his introductory news conference. “I was in the Oval Office with him earlier today, and we were talking about letting him be himself, letting him express his full identity.”

It’s unlikely Trump’s early-morning tweets were vetted by his staff or attorneys. In one, he misspelled “special counsel” as “Special Council,” a reference to Robert S. Mueller III, the former FBI director who was appointed in May to lead the Russia investigation.

As often happens these days, Trump allowed his explosive tweets to overshadow the kind of pomp and ceremony that most presidents, including Trump, relish.

By midday Saturday, he was commissioning the Gerald R. Ford, a $13-billion aircraft carrier, in Norfolk, Va., smiling broadly as thousands of people cheered, white-clad sailors ran through the hangar deck in formation and a military band played “Anchors Aweigh.”

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“American steel and American hands have constructed a 100,000-ton message to the world,” the president said. “American might is second to none, and we’re getting bigger, and better and stronger every day of my administration.”

That message could have served as a capstone to “Made in America Week,” one of several themed weeks the White House has declared in an attempt to impose discipline on Trump’s scattershot communications and focus public attention on his economic agenda.

But hours before the rousing ceremony in the sweltering heat, Trump was sending his tweets from the White House, beginning at 6:33 a.m.

“While all agree the U. S. President has the complete power to pardon, why think of that when only crime so far is LEAKS against us,” he tweeted at 7:35. “FAKE NEWS”

The Washington Post reported Thursday that Trump had discussed pardons of close associates, and even himself, with staff in recent days. The Constitution indeed grants almost unlimited authority to the president to issue pardons for criminal actions.

Shortly after President Nixon resigned in August 1974, President Ford granted the former president a full, unconditional pardon for any crimes he had “committed or may have committed or taken part in” during his tenure in office.

President George H.W. Bush pardoned several members of the Reagan administration implicated in the Iran-Contra affair. And President Clinton pardoned an influential donor for tax evasion charges, as well as his half-brother, Roger Clinton Jr., for federal drug crimes.

But no president has ever tried to pardon himself. Legal scholars hold mixed views on whether that would withstand constitutional scrutiny.

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Attorneys have cautioned repeatedly that Trump’s untamed public statements on Twitter and elsewhere could hurt him and his administration in legal and political battles.

Scaramucci, his new communications chief, acknowledged his own troublesome tweets on Saturday. The former Wall Street hedge fund magnate has expressed liberal views on gun control and climate change that don’t mesh with the administration’s, so he has begun purging some of his old messages.

“Full transparency,” Scaramucci tweeted. “I’m deleting old tweets. Past views evolved & shouldn’t be a distraction. I serve @POTUS agenda & that’s all that matters.”

The notion of erasing messages while claiming “full transparency” provoked widespread mockery on social media.

Scaramucci gave his first radio interview in his new job Saturday to Breitbart, the hard-right populist news outlet that has close ties to the administration and its nationalist base.

“We’ve got to refine the message,” he told Breitbart. “We have enough outlets, whether it’s Breitbart, the president’s social media feed, all of the different apparatus that we have where people will allow us to deliver our message to the American people unfiltered.”

But he promised only to “tighten up that message,” not kill it, “because the president’s message is a very compelling one.”

noah.bierman@latimes.com

Twitter: @noahbierman

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