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Trump continues flurry of pardons, while complicating new COVID relief

This Christmas Eve has been anything but quiet in Washington after President Trump's surprise announcement that he doesn't support a new COVID relief bill. And last night, the president added 29 pardons and commutations, with many familiar names on the list. William Brangham spoke with Andrew Weissmann, former lead prosecutor in special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe, to discuss.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    This Christmas Eve has been anything but quiet in Washington, after President Trump's surprise announcement that he does not support the COVID relief bill passed by Congress.

    The U.S. House of Representatives met briefly today and rejected two proposed revisions, to increase direct checks for individuals and to remove foreign aid.

    Now, without Trump's signature, millions of people hoping for economic assistance this holiday season will be left waiting. On Saturday, pandemic unemployment benefits are set to expire. And, on Monday, the government will run out of money.

    The House and Senate will return early next week for a planned override of Trump's veto of a defense bill. Meanwhile, President Trump is spending Christmas Eve in Florida, but he continued his flurry of pardons late yesterday.

    Just this week, he has more than doubled his acts of clemency from the previous four years.

    William Brangham picks up the story.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Amna.

    President Trump added 29 new pardons and commutations last night. And there were many familiar names, including Charles Kushner. He's the father of the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

    But there were also two new pardons for people connected to special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Trump confidant Roger Stone. Those two joined three others from that same investigation who were pardoned earlier this month.

    For more on all of this, I am joined by Andrew Weissmann. He was the lead prosecutor for special counsel Robert Mueller.

    Andrew Weissmann, very good to have you on the "NewsHour."

    We now have five individuals who you and your colleagues helped convict who were all guilty of lying or obstructing this investigation, and now they have been pardoned by the president of the United States.

    I mean, this has got to be a relatively dark period for you.

  • Andrew Weissmann:

    Well, that's an understatement. I spent 20 years at the Department of Justice, and career people there are trained to apply the rule of law.

    And what we're seeing now is the pardon power being used to undermine the rule of law. And with Paul Manafort, he didn't just lie to the government. He engaged in tens of millions of dollars in bank fraud, tax fraud, money laundering.

    He lobbied for a foreign government in the United States illegally. He obstructed justice by tampering with witnesses while he was even out on bail in a criminal case. So, this is not an upstanding citizen.

    And I would ask viewers to think about, if you were exercising the pardon power and trying to meet out justice to the most deserving applicants for a pardon, are these the people you would choose, you know, corrupt politicians, corrupt law enforcement officials, people who committed murder, a health care fraud defendant who committed billions of dollars in health care fraud?

    These are really sort of outrageous exercises of the pardon power by the president of the United States.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, this has got to imperil in some way — if I'm any future special counsel, special prosecutor who is trying to investigate the president or allies of the president, this has got to make my job in the future incredibly difficult, if I simply know that, with a nudge, nudge and a wink, wink, the president can signal to people, I have got your back. You don't have to worry about what these prosecutors do to you.

  • Andrew Weissmann:

    Absolutely.

    That, I think, is exactly the right point, which is to focus on what the precedent is here. As bad as it is in terms of what is president is doing now, we had to deal with the dangling of pardons, and that is trying to thwart this incentives people have to cooperate.

    The way that investigations are made is people come in and tell you the truth. And they know that, if they don't do that and they lie, they have committed a crime, and they could be prosecuted.

    But if you dangle pardons and then, as we have seen in the last two days, make good on that dangling, it really undermines the ability of a nation that upholds itself as a nation of laws to actually say the president is not above the law, because, de facto, he's using the pardon power to make himself above the law.

  • William Brangham:

    You have suggested recently that these pardons could, in fact, backfire on President Trump.

    Can you explain, how would that happen?

  • Andrew Weissmann:

    Well, it's an interesting phenomenon, because, while the pardon power in the Constitution is incredibly broad, one thing that is not clear is whether the president himself can pardon himself.

    So, while he can pardon Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, it's not at all clear whether that he can do that with respect to his own past crimes. And what you can look at today in terms of the various pardons as sort of the final act of his obstructing justice. In other words, he's carried through, as you mentioned, with the dangling by saying, you know what, if you just keep quiet, you will get a pardon.

    And now we're seeing it done. So, the new attorney general, when he or she is named and confirmed, is going to have on his or her plate the issue of whether to hold the former president to account, in the way that, frankly, other nations around the world hold their leaders to account. So, it wouldn't be unusual to do that.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, there is a big if embedded in there as to whether or not whomever Joe Biden selects as attorney general chooses to go down that route.

    If you were still in the DOJ, do you think, knowing all the political and sort of psychic turmoil that the country went through, would you encourage the new A.G. to pursue this, to keep this case going?

  • Andrew Weissmann:

    I think I would.

    I by no means say this is an easy decision, but we're supposed to be a nation that believes in the rule of law. And if the president of the United States is allowed to obstruct justice, and there are no consequences, as you mentioned, it's not only unfair with respect to this president, but the precedent set is really terrible.

    I have this anecdote that I think is really important for people to know, which is, when Paul Manafort was convicted by a jury in the Eastern District of Virginia, the one juror who spoke out said, it would be a huge mistake to pardon him. And she said, I voted for the president, but I left my MAGA hat in my car because I understood that I had taken an oath to uphold the law and follow the facts and render a true and fair verdict.

    And I think that is a real lesson for all of us, including the next attorney general, to decide on how to deal with the kind of corrupt behavior that we have seen.

    And I really don't think, in many ways, that you can move on until you do deal with what's happened and don't sweep it under the rug.

  • William Brangham:

    Lastly, in just the short time we have left, it's hard not to notice that Attorney General William Barr's last day was yesterday. Now we have a deputy attorney general in that position for the remainder of the president's term.

    Do you think that these pardons had anything to do with that timing or not?

  • Andrew Weissmann:

    I don't know the answer to that question.

    I suspect the answer is no. And I would hope that the new attorney general, in the very few days that he has remaining to him, acquits himself well and the honor of the Department of Justice.

  • William Brangham:

    Andrew Weissmann, very good to have you. Thank you very much.

  • Andrew Weissmann:

    Nice to be here.

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