Blockbuster story on pardons in Mueller investigation leaves White House walking a tightrope

How to make it seem like you are denying something without actually saying anything.

Attorney Ty Cobb. (CREDIT: The Denver Post / Jerry Cleveland via Getty Images)
Attorney Ty Cobb. (CREDIT: The Denver Post / Jerry Cleveland via Getty Images)

On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that an attorney for President Donald Trump discussed the possibility of pardoning key witnesses in the Russia investigation, including former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. The bombshell report raises the question of whether Trump’s personal attorney at the time, John Dowd, was seeking to persuade Flynn or Manafort against cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller. The efforts, if true, could be seen as obstruction of justice.

During Wednesday’s White House press briefing, Sarah Sanders was asked repeatedly about the report. Each time, she simply referred the questioner back to the statement White House counsel Ty Cobb provided to the New York Times.

This is the statement Cobb released:

I have only been asked about pardons by the press and have routinely responded on the record that no pardons are under discussion or under consideration at the White House.

The key word in this statement is “are.” Cobb’s statement applies only to the present. He does not address the actual report, which is that the possibility of pardons were floated to key witnesses in the past.

Matthew Miller, a Justice Department official in the Obama administration, told ThinkProgress that Cobb’s statement — and Sanders’ reliance on it — was a “typical dodge.”


Eventually, Sanders was called out on this evasion. NBC’s Kristen Welker noted that “Ty Cobb’s statement is about the present” and asked whether “the president directed John Dowd to talk to the attorneys of Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn about potential pardons.”

Sanders responded with another evasion, saying that “I’m not aware of any conversation of that nature.”

Miller told ThinkProgress that since Dowd was Trump’s personal attorney, his conversations with Trump would be privileged. Sanders saying she isn’t “aware” of privileged conversations is saying nothing at all. It’s a way of appearing to deny the report without actually denying anything.

Trump, for his part, has openly discussed the possibility of pardoning Flynn.

“I don’t want to talk about pardons for Michael Flynn yet. We’ll see what happens,” Trump said publicly on December 15.