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U.S. President Donald Trump’s aides are reportedly scrutinizing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigative team, exploring potential conflicts of interest among team members as aides explore ways to discredit his Russia inquiry, according to news reports late Thursday.
A member of Trump’s outside legal team, Jay Sekulow, said the lawyers “will consistently evaluate the issue of conflicts and raise them in the appropriate venue,” even complaining to Mueller directly if needed.
The president has asked his advisers about his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the probe, The Washington Post reported, quoting one person involved. A second person told the Post that Trump’s lawyers have been discussing the president’s pardoning powers among themselves.
According to a report by The New York Times, aides are pursuing the professional and political backgrounds of the investigators, looking for conflicts of interest they could use to discredit the probe or build a case against Mueller.
This latest development is another sign of a looming showdown between Trump and Mueller, who has assembled a team of high-powered prosecutors and agents to examine whether any of Trump’s advisers aided Russia’s campaign to disrupt last year’s presidential election and look into Trump’s financial history.
While Trump’s legal team declined to comment on the issue, one adviser told the Times that the president has simply expressed a curiosity in understanding the reach of his pardoning authority, as well as the limits of Mueller’s investigation.
“This is not in the context of, ‘I can’t wait to pardon myself,’ ” a close adviser said.
Irritation with probe
News reports say sources have said the president is irritated by the notion that Mueller’s probe could reach into his and his family’s finances.
Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr.; his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort; and Jared Kushner, a senior White House adviser who also is Trump’s son-in-law, will testify next week about their meeting last year with a Russian attorney.
In recent weeks, Trump has expressed anger about the probe after being informed about the legal questions that he and his family could face.
The Post reports that he has told aides he was especially disturbed after learning Mueller would be able to access several years of his tax returns.
Breaking a tradition that began with President Jimmy Carter, Trump has repeatedly refused to make his tax returns public after first claiming he could not do so because he was under audit or after promising to release them after an IRS audit was completed.
In an interview with the Times Wednesday, the president said Mueller was leading an investigation riddled with conflicts of interest, and said the special counsel should not expand the probe to include the financial dealings of his family.
“I think that’s a violation,” Trump said. “Look, this is about Russia.”
Mueller’s team has begun examining financial records, and has requested documents from the Internal Revenue Service related to Trump’s former campaign chairman, Manafort, the Times reported, citing a senior American official. The records are from a criminal tax investigation that had been opened long before Trump’s campaign began. Manafort was never charged in that case.
Federal investigators have also contacted Deutsche Bank about Trump’s accounts, and the bank is expected to provide information to Mueller, the Times reported.
Adding to the challenges facing Trump’s external team of lawyers, the team’s spokesman, Mark Corallo, resigned on Thursday, news reports said, citing two people familiar with his departure. Corallo was one of several people who cautioned against publicly criticizing Mueller, with whom Corallo had a close relationship.
Corallo became increasingly frustrated with the operation and infighting, the sources said. One of the people said Corallo was also troubled about whether he was being given factual information about various developments.