Trump, lawyers lay out expansive presidential powers view

By Eric Tucker - Associated Press
In this June 1, 2018 photo, President Donald Trump attends a Change of Command ceremony at the U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington. Trump asserted his presidential power and escalated his efforts to discredit the special counsel Russia probe Monday, declaring he has the “absolute right” to pardon himself and attacking the investigation as “totally UNCONSTITUTIONAL!” (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) -
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, right, accompanied by White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley, left, arrives for the daily press briefing at the White House, Monday, June 4, 2018, in Washington. Sanders discussed, Trump's pardon powers, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, and other topics. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) -
In this May 30, 2018 photo, President Donald Trump arrives for a bill signing ceremony in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus, Wednesday, May 30, 2018, in Washington. President Donald Trump says he has "absolute right to PARDON myself" but says has "done nothing wrong" in the Russia probe. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) -

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump claimed Monday he has an “absolute right” to pardon himself, part of an extraordinarily expansive vision of executive authority that is mostly untested in court and could portend a drawn-out fight with the prosecutors now investigating him.

No need of a pardon anyway, Trump tweeted, because “I have done nothing wrong.” In fact, his lawyers assert in a memo to special counsel Robert Mueller, it’s impossible for him to have done anything wrong in the area of obstructing justice, an issue Mueller has been investigating. That’s because, as the country’s chief law enforcement officer, Trump himself has ultimate control of the Justice Department and executive branch.

Beyond that, his lawyers have repeatedly insisted that it’s beyond dispute that a sitting president cannot be criminally prosecuted.

Trump also tweeted Monday that the Justice Department’s “appointment of the Special Counsel is totally UNCONSTITUTIONAL.”

Mueller’s investigation moves forward nonetheless, and as it does courts may have to confront questions with minimal if any historical precedent. Those include whether a president can be forced to answer questions from prosecutors, whether it’s possible for a commander in chief to criminally interfere in investigations and whether a president’s broad pardon power can be deployed for corrupt purposes.

“There’s a reason they’re untested. It’s because they were unthinkable,” said Savannah Law School professor Andrew Wright, who served in the White House counsel’s office under President Barack Obama. “The president’s game here in part is to take issues that are so beyond the pale that they have never been tested and say, ‘Look, there’s no authority here on point.’”

Mueller is investigating whether Trump associates coordinated with Russia during the 2016 presidential election and whether Trump took steps to shut down that investigation through actions including the firing of FBI Director James Comey.

Though Trump insists he did nothing wrong, the statements from him and his lawyers, including the just-disclosed January memo to Mueller, make clear that much of their defense revolves around establishing that he was constitutionally empowered to take the actions he took.

The defense argument suggests that protocols meant to protect against abuses of power are merely norms the American public has come to expect, rather than laws binding on a president.

In Trump’s view, for instance, he is entitled to fire an FBI director — Comey or any other — for any reason. He can similarly terminate an FBI investigation given the constitutional powers he enjoys, the president’s lawyers say. That argument may help ward off allegations from Comey that the president asked him to consider shutting down an FBI investigation into former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn.

There is logic to the argument that Trump couldn’t have obstructed justice by firing Comey, even if the questions haven’t been fully resolved, said Josh Blackman, a professor at South Texas College of Law.

“If you’re trying to apply the obstruction statutes to something the president has the power to do, then I don’t think the statute applies,” he added.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was questioned repeatedly Monday about whether the president is above the law, said no, he is not.

But Blackman said that was overly simplistic, that the better question is how the law applies to the president.

“It’s a great slogan, but the law doesn’t treat the president in all respects,” Blackman said. “There are certain things the president can do that no one else can do,” such as granting pardons and negotiating international treaties.

There’s some historical precedent for a court clash that could be instigated by the Trump investigation, but in many ways the arguments remain unsettled.

The Supreme Court has never definitively ruled on the question of whether a president can be forced to testify, though the justices in 1974 did rule that Richard Nixon had to produce recordings and documents that had been subpoenaed.

In this June 1, 2018 photo, President Donald Trump attends a Change of Command ceremony at the U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington. Trump asserted his presidential power and escalated his efforts to discredit the special counsel Russia probe Monday, declaring he has the “absolute right” to pardon himself and attacking the investigation as “totally UNCONSTITUTIONAL!” (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/web1_120585819-eb095f72a51a40778b5e63210a2a25be.jpgIn this June 1, 2018 photo, President Donald Trump attends a Change of Command ceremony at the U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington. Trump asserted his presidential power and escalated his efforts to discredit the special counsel Russia probe Monday, declaring he has the “absolute right” to pardon himself and attacking the investigation as “totally UNCONSTITUTIONAL!” (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, right, accompanied by White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley, left, arrives for the daily press briefing at the White House, Monday, June 4, 2018, in Washington. Sanders discussed, Trump’s pardon powers, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, and other topics. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/web1_120585819-b2011296b9d6458697a9c38be37e18c0.jpgWhite House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, right, accompanied by White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley, left, arrives for the daily press briefing at the White House, Monday, June 4, 2018, in Washington. Sanders discussed, Trump’s pardon powers, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, and other topics. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

In this May 30, 2018 photo, President Donald Trump arrives for a bill signing ceremony in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus, Wednesday, May 30, 2018, in Washington. President Donald Trump says he has "absolute right to PARDON myself" but says has "done nothing wrong" in the Russia probe. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
https://www.timesleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/web1_120585819-20da997722e34beb916a204d99208065.jpgIn this May 30, 2018 photo, President Donald Trump arrives for a bill signing ceremony in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus, Wednesday, May 30, 2018, in Washington. President Donald Trump says he has "absolute right to PARDON myself" but says has "done nothing wrong" in the Russia probe. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

By Eric Tucker

Associated Press