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Mueller Investigation's Lead Prosecutor On Trump's Pardons

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Trump's pardons are getting closer to home. Early this month, it was his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. At the start of the week, it was corrupt former members of Congress and low-level offenders caught in the Russia probe. Last night, it was his old friend and adviser Roger Stone, along with Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his son-in-law's dad, Charles Kushner. Many of these high-profile pardons are connected to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Andrew Weissmann was a lead prosecutor on that team. He won Manafort's convictions on tax evasion and bank fraud, which were wiped away last night.

Andrew, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ANDREW WEISSMANN: Nice to be here. Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Last night, you tweeted, the pardons from this president are what you would expect to get if you gave the pardon power to a mob boss. Explain what you mean by that.

WEISSMANN: So, Ari, you really have to ask yourself, what kind of person decides that of all of the applications for pardons and commutations, corrupt politicians, corrupt law enforcement officers, including people who were sent to jail for murder, are deserving of a pardon? And then you add in the people who are, for me, closer to home; the people like Flynn and Stone and Manafort and Papadopoulos and Alex van der Zwaan, which have their own problems. And that's why I really find that this is somebody who's just completely abusing the power that was conferred on him by the framers of the Constitution.

SHAPIRO: So let's talk specifically about the Manafort pardon. The New York Times has reported that Trump's lawyers discussed a pardon with Manafort back in 2017 and that, perhaps, Manafort violated his agreement to cooperate with investigators in anticipation of that pardon. Do you think that what we saw last night is the payoff of that?

WEISSMANN: Absolutely. I mean, we have the dangling of pardons to Stone and Manafort. And one thing about this president is he's not very subtle. I mean, he came out and publicly praised Manafort while he was saying that Michael Cohen was, you know, loathsome because he, quote, "was a rat," again, using the terms of a mob boss. And what you saw with Roger Stone and with Manafort is that he made good on the dangling of the pardon by actually conferring it.

SHAPIRO: So this is one of many steps the president has taken that could be described as shocking but not surprising. And given that it's not surprising, prosecutors took some steps ahead of time in anticipation that this might happen. Tell us about them.

WEISSMANN: One of the things that we did anticipating that he might get a pardon is that when Paul Manafort pled guilty in the District of Columbia, we made sure that he agreed with respect to the forfeiture that it was going to be imposed criminally and civilly. And the reason...

SHAPIRO: You're saying with respect to the forfeiture, he gave up millions of dollars worth of real estate and other things.

WEISSMANN: Exactly. With a pardon, that wipes away attributes of a criminal conviction. But you cannot be pardoned for civil liability, so that's something that will stand. And there's no ability for Paul Manafort now to go back and say, you know, I want my money back.

SHAPIRO: And despite the pardon, he's not totally out of legal jeopardy. Explain that.

WEISSMANN: Sure. Well, just because you're pardoned federally does not mean that you do not have to give testimony. So Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, for instance, could be put into the grand jury and asked a whole series of questions, such as, why did you refuse to cooperate? How did you protect the president? Why did you lie to Congress? - and a whole series of questions. And one thing about a federal pardon is it does not operate to immunize you with respect to future crimes. It can only be for prior crimes. So in the grand jury, people like Paul Manafort or Roger Stone, just like any other witness who goes into the grand jury, they have an obligation to be truthful. And if they lie, they expose themselves to prosecution for perjury and/or obstruction of justice. And nothing about a prior pardon will help Paul Manafort or Roger Stone or anyone else in that situation.

SHAPIRO: You know, you've been talking with us about this from a legal perspective, but could you end by reflecting on this from a personal perspective? I mean, you spent years building these cases. What is it like to see the result of that work just wiped away with the stroke of a pen?

WEISSMANN: It's incredibly disheartening because when you're in the Department of Justice - and this is true for career people, whether they're Republicans or Democrats - you believe in the rule of law. It really is depressing that you have a president who is so undermined what the whole idea of the special counsel is, which is a way that a Western democracy has figured out to hold an executive to account so that the president is not above the law. And seeing the pardon power used in a way that's so fundamentally at odds with what I've tried to stand for for the last 20 years of my life working in the Department of Justice is very upsetting for me and I know for many, many career people at the Department of Justice.

SHAPIRO: Andrew Weissmann was a lead prosecutor in the special counsel's Russia probe, and he's author of "Where Law Ends: Inside The Mueller Investigation."

Thank you for talking with us.

WEISSMANN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.