Here is the first installment of a weekly Q&A with top lawyers and lobbyists on the hot issues of the day. This week we talk Kremlingate with Peter Zeidenberg, a white-collar partner at Arent Fox. Zeidenberg was a federal prosecutor for 17 years, including six years at the Public Integrity Section. He also served as an associate Special Counsel in the prosecution of Scooter Libby.
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Q: How would you estimate the likelihood that Trump will fire Mueller? What would be the impact of his doing so? In and of itself, would that justify impeachment and what counter measures would be possible if Congress does not impeach?
Â A: Unfortunately, I think this is very likely to occur. The fact that it’s being openly discussed so early on in a process that will inevitably take months if not years to complete, tells me that Trump cannot handle what he considers—probably for good reason—to be an existential threat to his presidency. I would definitely consider such an action to be an impeachable offense, packaged together with many other examples of his abuse of his office.
Simply discussing firing Mueller potentially strengthens an obstruction of justice case against Trump. As for counter measures, I think it is entirely possible that Mueller would be reinstated as a special counsel pursuant to a new statute. Of course, Trump would undoubtedly veto such a bill, so Congress would have to be prepared to override a veto.
In other words, a huge mess.
Q: To what extent might an attempt by Trump to pardon himself affect the process? Do you see it as an issue that might go to the Supreme Court? If so, what might be the effect of such a delay, and how do you think this Court would rule?
A: This strikes me as something that is not going to happen, if at all, anytime soon. Even if it were to happen, it would not affect the investigation. Mueller’s charter is to investigate the possible collusion by Russia in the campaign. A Trump self-pardon would not affect that. And the likelihood that Trump would ever be indicted has always struck me as incredibly unlikely. What’s much more likely is that he could be impeached. Pardoning himself would simply make that possibility far more likely.
Q: What impact would a conflicts probe have on Mueller’s investigation?
A: If you are asking about conflicts on Mueller’s staff, this is a complete red herring. There is no conflict simply because someone gave a financial contribution to a democrat. After all, Trump himself gave money to Hillary Clinton and many other democrats in the past, as has Kushner and Ivanka. Are they all biased, too?
Q: Is a probe by Mueller into Trump’s broader financial dealings inevitable? Is it justified? Is it SOP in a case like this? Might Mueller conceivably entertain a possible compromise as to the scope of his investigation?
A: There is no doubt that Mueller will look into Trump’s financial dealings. It has to be done to understand possible motive. There is too much evidence already in the press that Trump was dependent on Russian money to keep his businesses afloat for Mueller to ignore such an obvious line of inquiry. It is inconceivable that Mueller would negotiate the scope of his investigation with the potential target. That is never going to happen.
Q: How does Trump’s public comments on Sessions affect the investigations? Were those comments at all self-incriminating if they suggest a willingness to stifle the investigation?
A: Trump’s comments about Sessions are incriminating. They show his state of mind: he wants to fire Sessions and, for that matter, Mueller, because he fears their investigation. If he does actually fire them, he risks adding fuel to the obstruction of justice fire.
Q: Are you surprised Sessions has not resigned? Why or why not surprised?
A: Not really. Where can he go? He’s given up his Senate seat. And Trump is so mercurial that, by the end of next week Sessions could be back in Trump’s good graces.