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Trump Legal Team Reviews Options For Blocking Russia Investigation

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Trump's legal team is said to be reviewing its options for blocking an investigation of Russian interference in the presidential election. The Washington Post notes that the president's lawyers are investigating members of Robert Mueller's legal team for conflicts of interest. Of course, Mueller is the special counsel looking into Russia.

Joining us now is Rosalind Helderman of The Washington Post, who was one of the reporters on the story. Good morning.

ROSALIND HELDERMAN: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So we'd heard already that people around the president were complaining about supposed conflicts of interest on the special counsel's team. But you seem to be suggesting something more here.

HELDERMAN: Yeah. Our understanding is that this conversation about potentially curtailing, or finding ways to limit, the special counsel's investigation goes somewhat broader than that. There is an aggressive attempt to look for conflicts. That is one of the ways in which - or reasons an attorney general or, in this case, acting attorney general could cite to dismiss the special counsel under Justice Department regulations.

But they're also looking at other things, like challenging whether the investigation had gone beyond the written mandate that set it up from Rod Rosenstein, the acting attorney general, and also examining this issue of pardons and what is exactly the president's pardon power?

INSKEEP: Meaning the question of whether the president could pardon people around him who were implicated or even pardon himself?

HELDERMAN: Yes, that's correct. And our understanding is this is a legal conversation. It is not that the president believes he will need a pardon or has any anxiety about doing so soon. It's more a conversation about what are the powers of the president - can the president pardon staff? Can he pardon family members? Does the Constitution allow for a president to pardon himself?

INSKEEP: This is reminding me of the military, which makes many plans for many contingencies which may never be executed. You're telling me that's what the legal team is doing here.

HELDERMAN: I think that's a good analogy. And that is our understanding, yes.

INSKEEP: So I just want to be clear on the conflicts of interest because the source of that claim of conflicts is that there are some people who have been hired by Robert Mueller who have contributed to Democrats. Some people may wonder why that wouldn't be a conflict of interest. Is it simply that somebody who's a prosecutor is likely either to be a Democrat or a Republican, and if you disqualify them from investigating people from a different party, you'd just have a total mess?

HELDERMAN: Yeah, I think that's part of it, also that such contributions are disclosed. And so it's not sort of a secret. But I think if you were to disqualify all prosecutors across the political system from - who have made political contributions, you'd be hitting a lot of people. I should say, our understanding is they're looking beyond that issue, which has been discussed publicly.

For instance, we found a new example that they're apparently discussing within the White House that has to do with Bob Mueller's membership some years back at, of all things, the Trump National Golf Course in Northern Virginia. Apparently, White House advisers have been discussing some variety of dispute that arose over his membership fees and whether that's a conflict of interest that could be used or discussed to disqualify him.

Now I should say, Bob Mueller's office actually did respond to a question about that to us and denied it. They said that there was no dispute over membership fees.

INSKEEP: So somebody was trying to develop a theory that Mueller was resentful at Donald Trump because of some problem at a - at the Trump National Golf Course in the past. But...

HELDERMAN: That's correct. And...

INSKEEP: ...That's been denied (laughter).

HELDERMAN: That's correct. I think it's a topic about which some more details are needed, so we'll be doing some more reporting about that.

INSKEEP: One last thing - you mentioned trying to limit the scope of the investigation, which is something that the president said in a New York Times interview the other day he wants to happen. He doesn't want his personal finances to be investigated. Is there any legal basis they've been found to box in the special counsel?

HELDERMAN: Well, of course, the special counsel is controlled by the attorney general, the deputy attorney general. So he could potentially cite any one of a number of things if he chose to dismiss him. There is a written order that outlines the scope of the investigation. And the argument here would be that personal finances goes beyond a matter that directly arose from the Russia investigation, which is what that written order says.

INSKEEP: This is a legitimate concern. Isn't it? There have been runaway special counsels in the past.

HELDERMAN: Yeah, that's true. I mean, certainly many Democrats believe that the Ken Starr investigation of the 1990s went far beyond the reasons for which that independent counsel investigation was originally set up. That said, the language of the order is quite broad. And, you know, I think Mueller would have a strong argument for almost anything he wants to investigate.

INSKEEP: Rosalind Helderman of The Washington Post, thanks very much. Really appreciate it.

HELDERMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.