US Department of Justice investigating 'bribery for pardon' scheme at White House

Rozina Sabur
·5-min read
Trump reportedly discussed preemptively pardoning his three eldest children and his son-in-law  - AFP 
Trump reportedly discussed preemptively pardoning his three eldest children and his son-in-law - AFP

A suspected bribery scheme to lobby White House officials for a presidential pardon in exchange for political donations is being investigated by the US Justice Department.

A court filing unsealed in Washington DC on Tuesday revealed that prosecutors believed there was a "secret lobbying scheme" by unnamed individuals who "acted as lobbyists to senior White House officials" in order to secure a pardon or reprieve.

According to the filing, the alleged bribery scheme offered "a substantial political contribution in exchange for a presidential pardon or reprieve of sentence" for an unidentified convict.

The heavily redacted court filing does not identify any of the people involved but reveals that a government investigation has been underway for several months. There is no reference to Donald Trump or to his campaign in the unredacted parts of the filing.

The US president responded to reports about the court filing on Twitter yesterday/WEDS, tweeting "Pardon investigation is Fake News!"

The unsealed filing relates to a court order from August 28, where investigators sought access to emails from laptops, iPhones and iPads connected to the alleged schemes which they argued should not be protected by attorney-client privilege.

In the ruling, District Judge Beryl Howell, the chief judge of Washington's federal court, granted investigators access to the material in order to "confront" the individuals with the communications and complete their investigation.

Most of the information in the 18-page court order is redacted, including the identity of the people whom prosecutors are investigating and whom the proposed pardon might be intended for. Prosecutors have sought to keep the information private because they said it identifies people who have not yet been charged.

A Justice Department official said that no government official was or is a subject or target of the bribery investigation.  

Mr Trump is expected to issue a number of the pardons in his final weeks in office. The US president has reportedly also discussed preemptively pardoning his three eldest children and his son-in-law to shield them from potential prosecutions after he leaves office.

According to the New York Times, Mr Trump has told his inner circle that he fears Joe Biden's administration would target his family for political purposes.

Mr Trump reportedly discussed granting preemptive pardons to his two eldest sons, Donald Jnr and Eric, as well as his eldest daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner.

It is not clear what type of prosecution Mr Trump's family could possibly face - but the president's children have come to the attention of investigators in the past.

Donald Jnr was investigated by Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to probe potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election, over meetings he had with a Russian lawyer offering dirt on Hillary Clinton. However the president's son was never charged with any crime.

Special counsel Mueller wrote in his report that it was arguable that Donald Jnr’s behaviour could “implicate” him in attempting to solicit “an illegal foreign-source contribution” from Russia, but that he had done so without “general knowledge of the illegality of [his] conduct.”

The Mueller report, published in April 2019, did not find sufficient evidence that the 2016 Trump campaign "coordinated or conspired with the Russian government in its election-interference activities.”

Donald Trump Jnr was cleared in the Mueller report due to his lack of knowledge of the illegality of his conduct - OLIVIER DOULIERY /AFP
Donald Trump Jnr was cleared in the Mueller report due to his lack of knowledge of the illegality of his conduct - OLIVIER DOULIERY /AFP

The report also examined whether President Trump committed obstruction of justice. Mr Mueller’s conclusion was that his report could not definitively state that he did so, but the report “does not exonerate him either.”

Ms Trump and her husband, who both serve as senior White House advisers, have also faced scrutiny for their roles for Mr Trump. Prosecutors in New York are examining tax write-offs on Mr Trump's businesses, such as for consulting fees, some of which appear to have gone to Ms Trump.

It was also reported on Tuesday that Mr Trump had discussed the possibility of a preemptive pardon for Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer.

Mr Giuliani flatly denied the report, saying it was "not true" and "fake news".

There is also public discussion around whether Mr Trump would seek to issue a preemptive pardon for himself for any crimes he might be charged with related to his time in office, although the legality of that has never been tested.

Ivanka Trump and her husband, who both serve as senior White House advisers, have also faced scrutiny for their roles for Mr Trump. Prosecutors in New York are examining tax write-offs on Mr Trump's businesses, such as for consulting fees, some of which appear to have gone to Ms Trump.

It was also reported on Tuesday that Mr Trump had discussed the possibility of a preemptive pardon for Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer. 

Mr Giuliani flatly denied the report, saying it was "not true" and "fake news".

Donald Trump with Rudy Giuliani  - AFP
Donald Trump with Rudy Giuliani - AFP

There is also public discussion around whether Mr Trump would seek to issue a preemptive pardon for himself for any crimes he might be charged with related to his time in office, although the legality of that has never been tested.

Presidential pardons are usually issued to people who have been convicted. Preemptive pardons, for people who have yet to be convicted or charged with any crime, are rare but have happened.

However, a presidential pardon does not provide someone with immunity from prosecution against state or local crimes.