Resignations add to turmoil as Trump legal team weighs options
HARI SREENIVASAN: It was a tumultuous day in the Trump administration, with a major shakeup involving the public faces of the Trump presidency.
All this came among new reports of conflict within Mr. Trump's legal team, as they prepare to respond to the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller.
We break it down now with Rosalind Helderman, political enterprise and investigations reporter for The Washington Post.
Thanks for joining us.
What's the Trump legal team's strategy to deal with this investigation?
ROSALIND HELDERMAN, The Washington Post: Well, we reported today that the legal team is examining a broad array of options that would allow it — or would lead to the restraining or restricting of the special counsel's investigation.
At present, they say they are cooperating with special counsel Bob Mueller, but we understand that they are doing research into possible conflicts by Bob Mueller himself, conflicts of interest or members of his staff that he is assembling.
Keep in mind that conflict of interest is one of the only things in the regulations establishing the special counsel that can be used by the attorney general or in this case the acting attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, to dismiss the special counsel.
So they are looking at that and a number of other things that would try to curb this sort of scope of this expanding investigation.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Did any of these conflicts of interests come up when Mueller was originally assigned to the task? Did Jeff Sessions or anyone else give him a pass on these?
ROSALIND HELDERMAN: Yes, that's a good question that we don't entirely know yet.
We do know that President Trump himself has said that he interviewed Bob Mueller to be FBI director very shortly before his appointment as special counsel.
One of the conflict that we reported today the White House has been examining is, of all things, Bob Mueller's membership at the Trump National Golf Course in Northern Virginia. Apparently, White House advisers tell us there was some variety of dispute over his membership fees at that club.
Now, Mueller's office has told us that's not true. There was no membership fee dispute, so we're continuing to try to learn more about that. But whatever happened at the golf club, President Trump clearly didn't see it as an impediment to potentially appointing Bob Mueller to be FBI director, so it's interesting that they're now returning to that topic.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Let's talk a little bit about the legal team that seems to be changing, at least faces, in the past few days.
ROSALIND HELDERMAN: That's right.
We saw today the resignation of Mark Corallo, who had been sort of the spokesman for the team. He had been officially the spokesman for Marc Kasowitz. He's a New York-based attorney who had worked with Donald Trump on various matters for many years who has been until today the leader of this team.
There have been some reports that he is leaving the team altogether. Our reporting is that Kasowitz is remaining aboard, but is going to take a reduced role. The leader now is John Dowd, who was hired last month, a veteran Washington litigator. He had been involved in the investigation of Pete Rose of baseball fame.
He's leading the team. Jay Sekulow, familiar to television viewers, remains on the team as sort of its public face.
HARI SREENIVASAN: The individual that you mentioned, Mr. Dowd, actually came out in The Wall Street Journal and kind of questioned this reporting that The Washington Post had done and said that it's not true that President Trump and his team were looking into the act of possibly pardoning his aides or himself.
There are multiple lawyers. Is it just the lawyers that you spoke to vs. Mr. Dowd?
ROSALIND HELDERMAN: So, we feel very comfortable in our sourcing for our story. When he said that this morning, we did add those comments — they were on the record — to our story to reflect his denial.
We feel comfortable that our story was accurate and accurately reflected conversations that have been going on amongst this large legal team.
I would note Mr. Dowd gave an interview to The Wall Street Journal in which he said that in fact the legal team is not at all interested in the topic of conflicts of interest. Well, Jay Sekulow was quoted in that very same story as saying they are looking at conflicts, that any reasonable lawyer would do so.
So there was a conflict right there in the same story from two different lawyers for the team.
HARI SREENIVASAN: If I'm a lawyer representing somebody like the president, wouldn't it be normal for me to say let's look at the tools that my clients have? If one of the tools includes a presidential pardon, shouldn't I just investigate what the parameters of that pardon are?
ROSALIND HELDERMAN: Yes, absolutely.
And as we reported, we do believe that this was a conversation about legal options, that this wasn't the president saying that he plans to pardon himself or that he believes he is ultimately going to need a pardon, which is to say he believes he's going to be accused of a crime.
This was a conversation about legal options and the powers of the presidency. How does the president go about or what's the breadth of his authority to pardon staff, to pardon family members, and indeed what does the Constitution say and the law say about a president pardoning himself, which actually is a question of rather distinct dispute in the legal community?
HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, and, finally, briefly, in the sources that you have spoken with, is the shakeup or at least the changeover in the legal team, as well in the communications department ,part of something bigger?
ROSALIND HELDERMAN: I think there's a sort of sense of a White House on edge right now. There's a lot of turmoil.
I certainly wouldn't guarantee that we have seen the end of the changes. Of course, we will all note that the president had those very harsh words for Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier this week in an interview with The New York Times. We're told that people in the White House were quite surprised that those comments didn't result in Jeff Sessions resigning. He instead came out and said he planned to stay on the job.
So, that's in the air. The chief of staff, Reince Priebus, there's been many, many rumors that he's on his way out. So, I don't think that the team is settled by any means.
HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Rosalind Helderman at The Washington Post, thanks so much for joining us tonight.
ROSALIND HELDERMAN: Thank you for having me.