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Russia Probe: Is The White House Trying To Discredit Mueller?


President Trump's fellow Republicans want him to stop weighing in on the Russia crisis. Here's Maine Senator Susan Collins speaking yesterday on CBS's "Face The Nation."


SUSAN COLLINS: I know it's hard, but he needs to step back and not comment and let Bob Mueller, who is an individual with the utmost integrity, carry out the investigation and make his determination.

MARTIN: Senator Collins responding there to remarks the president made in an interview with The New York Times last week in which he raised questions about Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Then, over the weekend, the president criticized the GOP for not, quote, "protecting" him enough on the Russia investigation. And then in another tweet, he said he has the, quote, "complete power to pardon."

To explore the legal questions about all this, we are joined now by Benjamin Wittes. He runs the national security blog Lawfare and is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. We should say he also happens to be a friend of the fired FBI director James Comey. Ben, thanks for being here again.

BENJAMIN WITTES: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Let's start with the president's thoughts about Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the Russia investigation. President says one thing - he raises questions about Mueller's ability to be impartial. Then Trump's own lawyer on Friday says Robert Mueller is doing a good job. So is this a good-cop-bad-cop legal strategy we're seeing?

WITTES: I think the word strategy is probably generous for anything they're doing. I think it may be a good-cop-bad-cop flail is probably the better way to understand it. The messages are incoherent. And I think you have to take the president reasonably seriously that he's attempting to send a message of intimidation and menace to the special counsel.

MARTIN: You think he's trying to intimidate Robert Mueller. Could he actually remove Robert Mueller from his post?

WITTES: So I think he probably has the raw power to do it. I mean, under the regs that Mueller was appointed under, the only person who can fire him and can only do it for cause and, you know, some form of misconduct on Mueller's part is the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. But the president, of course, can direct underlings to, you know, carry out his orders. And he can probably also have the reg itself rescinded if he wants. So I think if the president - if the question is, is there some mechanism by which the president can effectuate the removal of Robert Mueller, the answer is probably he can. It would, of course, cause a huge constitutional crisis...

MARTIN: And political repercussions for sure.

WITTES: Right.

MARTIN: I want to get to this question...

WITTES: But I think it's probably doable.

MARTIN: I want to get to this question of pardoning before I let you go. One of the president's lawyers, Jay Sekulow, was sent out on the Sunday shows saying there had been no conversations about pardons. But clearly, the president is thinking about it because he tweeted about it. What are the legal limits of the presidential pardon? Can he pardon himself?

WITTES: Well, so the question of whether the president can pardon himself is a great unanswered question of American constitutional separation of powers and presidential power law because no president has ever had the audacity to try it. A lot of people believe he can't. But, you know, it's certainly within his power to try. And what he certainly can do is pardon a lot of individuals who the special counsel may be relying on in order to build his case.



MARTIN: Well...

WITTES: ...He can certainly use the pardon power to interfere with the investigation.

MARTIN: Ben Wittes of the Lawfare blog. He spoke to us via Skype. Thanks, Ben.

WITTES: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.