WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An attorney for President Donald Trump raised the idea of Trump pardoning two of his former top advisers last year as Special Counsel Robert Mueller was building a case against them in his probe into possible Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election, the New York Times reported on Wednesday.
John Dowd, who was Trump's lead lawyer in the special counsel investigation until he resigned last week, broached the issue in discussions with attorneys for former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign manager Paul Manafort, the Times reported, citing three people with knowledge of the talks.
Dowd, who denied to the New York Times that he discussed pardons with lawyers for the president’s former advisers, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said at a media briefing that White House counsel "Ty Cobb is the person that would be most directly involved in this and he's got a statement on the record saying that there's no discussion and there's no consideration of those at this time at the White House."
The discussions between Dowd and lawyers for Manafort and Flynn indicated Trump's legal team was concerned about what the two former aides would reveal if they cut a deal with Mueller in exchange for leniency, according to the newspaper.
Robert Kelner, Flynn's lawyer, as well as Reginald Brown, Manafort's lawyer at the time of the reported overture, and Kevin Downing, his current lawyer, did not respond to requests for comment about the New York Times report.
The discussions also raise questions about whether the possibility of a pardon was dangled to influence Flynn and Manafort's decisions on whether to plead guilty and cooperate with Mueller's investigation, the newspaper said.
Legal experts were split on whether such a discussion would amount to obstruction of justice, even if Dowd broached the idea with Trump before talking to lawyers for Manafort and Flynn - a point that the New York Times said remained unclear .
Such discussions could not constitute the crime of obstruction of justice because the president has vast power to issue pardons, according to Alan Dershowitz, an emeritus law professor at Harvard Law School.
"A president cannot commit a crime by engaging in a constitutionally protected act," Dershowitz said.
Lisa Kern Griffin, a former federal prosecutor and a law professor at Duke University School of Law, disagreed, saying an offer to issue pardons could be obstruction of justice if it is made with the intent to impede an investigation.
"One can do things one has the power to do, that would otherwise be lawful, and render them unlawful by doing them with corrupt intent," Griffin said.
MANAFORT PREPARES FOR TRIAL
Trump fired Flynn as national security adviser in February after it was revealed Flynn had discussed U.S. sanctions with then-Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak during the transition and later misled Vice President Mike Pence about the conversations.
Flynn pleaded guilty in December to lying to the FBI about his discussions with Kislyak, becoming the first member of Trump’s administration to agree to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation.
Manafort, who stepped down as chairman of Trump's campaign in August amid media reports about cash payments from Ukraine, is facing charges in two separate indictments, including allegations of money laundering, tax evasion and covertly lobbying for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine.
In contrast to Flynn, Manafort has denied wrongdoing and is preparing for trial.
(Reporting by David Alexander, Sarah Lynch, and Karen Freifeld in Washington, and Jan Wolfe and Nathan Layne in New York; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Cynthia Osterman)