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Pardon discussions open up new questions about Russia probe

First Read is your briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter
Image: Michael Flynn
Then White House National Security Advisor Michael Flynn arrives at the White House on Feb. 13, 2017.Carlos Barria / Reuters file

WASHINGTON — The New York Times first reported yesterday that Trump lawyer John Dowd floated the possibility of pardons for Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort last year, just as special counsel Robert Mueller was investigating the two men. The discussions with Flynn and Manafort’s lawyers (which Dowd denies) open up a host of new questions about why a Trump lawyer was raising the possibility of pardons for individuals who were facing the choice of granting or denying cooperation with the probe.

Here are six new questions the story raises about Manafort, Flynn and the potential for pardons:

1) Was Dowd acting on his own? Or was he speaking for the president? The president is the only person who can grant a pardon for federal crimes, so in a more typical presidency, it would seem obvious that discussions about pardons would be done with the president’s knowledge. But one can also argue that Trump is no regular president, and his management style does seem to allow for some freelancing from his trusted staff.

2) Why was Dowd the one asking rather than Don McGahn? — Dowd, who resigned last week, was Trump’s personal lawyer, not the White House counsel. (That’s Don McGahn.) So why did a personal attorney, not the official White House legal mind, have discussions on a power that resides firmly in Trump’s role as president, not as a citizen?

3) Does this explain why Manafort isn’t making a deal? Legal experts have been scratching their heads about why Manafort hasn’t agreed to cooperate with the probe, considering the severity of the charges against him. We don’t know if Manafort is holding out for a pardon, but the idea that it was floated to his attorney would give some credence to the idea.

4) And if it DOES explain why Manafort didn’t take a deal, why did Flynn agree to cooperate? Flynn agreed to cooperate with Mueller in early December, saying that he “is working to set things right.” If both he and Manafort knew that a pardon was on the table, why did they choose different paths when it came to cooperation with Mueller? Could it be the cost of an extended legal battle, concern that Trump wouldn’t follow through on a promise, or something else entirely?

5) Would a federal pardon even be enough? Manafort is accused of offenses — including financial crimes — that are also crimes under state law. But a presidential pardon doesn’t cover charges from state and local authorities. We know that investigators in New York have also been probing Manafort’s business dealings, and Trump’s pardon wouldn’t apply if state authorities ultimately prosecuted the former campaign chairman.

6) Was the White House concerned about what Manafort or Flynn would say to the special counsel? This is really the crux of the story, and we simply don’t know. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in response to this exact question that “there was no collusion and we’re very confident in that and look forward to this process wrapping up.” But if there’s one thing every development in this story underscores again and again, it’s that the “wrapping up” doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon.

The doctor is in (as secretary of the VA)

After an extended period of limbo, Trump finally pulled the plug on VA chief David Shulkin, announcing (via tweet) that he has instead named White House physician Dr. Ronny Jackson to lead the department. Jackson, a rear admiral in the Navy who announced the results of Trump’s first physical in office back in January, is said to have impressed the president with that performance. But he also has no real experience in managing a huge organization like the VA, and no one really knows what policy views he holds.

We wrote last week that Trump’s recent personnel moves showed his preference for people with TV experience who give him the advice he wants, not what he needs. Jackson, who said in a memorable televised briefing that the president “could have lived to 200 years old” with a slightly better diet (due to his “incredible genes”) fits that pattern once again.

Shulkin: ‘It should not be this hard to serve your country’

Jackson would be walking into a difficult situation even if he did have a wealth of management experience. The VA is the government’s second-largest department and has long been plagued by inefficiencies and controversy. What’s more, an agency that has been largely apolitical (remember, Shulkin was unanimously confirmed) is now embroiled in controversy over Shulkin’s ouster, which he says was engineered by advocates of privatizing veterans’ care.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Shulkin wrote that privatization “is a political issue aimed at rewarding select people and companies with profits, even if it undermines care for veterans.” And he closed with this sentiment: “As I prepare to leave government, I am struck by a recurring thought: It should not be this hard to serve your country.”

Trump campaign touts Census move in a very different way than the official line

As outcry continues over the Trump administration’s move to add a question about citizenship status to the Census — with at least twelve states joining a lawsuit to block the change — here’s something we noticed.

The Commerce Department has tried to paint this as an administrative decision necessary “to provide complete and accurate census block level data” and to “determine violations of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.” But that fairly dry language isn’t what the Trump campaign is saying in two fundraising list-building emails to supporters — one on March 19, before the decision was announced, and one yesterday. “Our poll showed that Americans OVERWHELMINGLY want this question on the census,” read yesterday’s appeal. “We cannot let a few Hollywood special interests speak for the rest of our country. It’s time to fight back. It’s time to once again reclaim our voice in America.”

Trump isn’t shy about touting policy proposals that fit into base politics (most notably “the Wall”), but this is a case where the campaign is explicitly firing the Census up as a culture war issue even as officials try to argue from the podium that it’s about empirical accuracy and fairness.

Don’t miss this tidbit on MS-SEN

The Washington Post reports that Mississippi Senate appointee Cindy Hyde-Smith sat down yesterday with White House officials, who weren’t too keen on her when Gov. Phil Bryant named her for the seat last week. At issue, among other things, is Hyde-Smith’s past as a former Democrat, which some Republicans worry could hamper her run against conservative firebrand Chris McDaniel, who’s also seeking the seat. Keep in mind that, if no candidate between Hyde-Smith, McDaniel and Democratic candidate Mike Espy gets to 50 percent of the vote on Election Day, we’ll be in for a runoff.

McDaniel, for his part, seems to be enjoying the storyline, tweeting “It sounds like the WH is on the right track in refusing to endorse @cindyhydesmith but this should help them make a final decision.”