11:23, July 23 67 0 theguardian.com

2017-07-23 11:23:02
Trump not convinced Russian meddling took place, communications chief says

Donald Trump remains unconvinced that Russia interfered in last year’s US election, his new communications chief said on Sunday, as the White House gave mixed signals about whether it would approve new sanctions against Moscow.

Anthony Scaramucci said the president believed Russian intelligence services were “super confident in their deception skills and hacking” and would have left no trace if they had intruded into Democratic computer systems.

“If the Russians actually hacked this situation and spilled out those emails, you would have never seen it, you would have never had any evidence of them,” Scaramucci quoted the president as saying, during an interview with CNN’s State of the Union.

Scaramucci, the new White House communications director, also confirmed that the president had recently discussed his power to pardon people for criminal wrongdoing, contradicting denials from Trump’s legal team following leaks to the media this week.

US intelligence concluded in January that Russian state hackers broke into email accounts at Democratic party headquarters and the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, as part of a campaign ordered by President Vladimir Putin to help elect Trump.

The FBI, a special counsel and two Republican-controlled congressional committees are investigating whether anyone on Trump’s campaign colluded with Russian officials on that effort.

Trump’s son, Donald Jr, is due to testify to senators after it emerged that he and other advisers on Trump’s campaign met a Russian attorney who represented the country’s intelligence services when promised damaging information about Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Yet after six months of his presidency being consumed by the Russian controversy, Trump’s view on the Kremlin’s alleged interference is that “maybe they did it, maybe they didn’t do it,” Scaramucci said on Sunday.

The Trump White House has in recent weeks been lobbying members of Congress to weaken a proposal for new sanctions that are intended to punish Moscow for its meddling in the US election.

Asked on Sunday if Trump would veto the new sanctions, which were passed overwhelmingly by both parties in the Senate, Scaramucci said: “He hasn’t made the decision yet to sign that bill, one way or the other.”

This clashed with remarks by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the newly promoted White House press secretary, who said Trump does intend to approve the legislation. She told ABC’s This Week: “We support where the legislation is now.”

Scaramucci also contradicted White House denials of reports this week that Trump’s legal team was looking into pardons as it sought to limit the reach of special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating links between Trump aides and Russian meddling.

On Saturday, Trump said in a tweet that “all agree the US president has the complete power to pardon”.

Asked on CNN if Trump had discussed pardons, Scaramucci said that “it has been coming up a lot” and emphatically defended Trump’s right to look into his pardoning powers, saying: “He’s the president of the United States.”

In an interview on Fox News Sunday, Scaramucci said: “I’m in the Oval Office last week, we’re talking about that, he brought that up. But he said that he doesn’t have to be pardoned, nobody around him has to be pardoned, he was just making the statement about the power of pardon.”

Scaramucci’s remarks came soon after Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s attorneys, told reporters on Saturday there had been no such discussions among the president’s team.

“We’re not researching [pardons] because it’s not an issue,” Sekulow said at the Western Conservative Summit in Denver. Questioned by reporters, Sekulow said: “I don’t know where this came from. There is nothing to pardon.”

Citing a person familiar with such discussions, the Washington Post last week said Trump had “asked his advisers about his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the probe”.

The Post also quoted a “close adviser” as saying: “This is not in the context of, ‘I can’t wait to pardon myself’.” The report prompted the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, Mark Warner, to express serious concern.

Legal experts who spoke to the Guardian doubted that a president could pardon himself, but said the legal picture was by definition unclear, given that Richard Nixon was pardoned after resigning over the Watergate scandal – but by his successor, Gerald Ford.

“It really is uncharted territory, and that makes it interesting to discuss but hard to predict,” said Brian Kalt, a law professor at Michigan State University and author of a recent book, Constitutional Cliffhangers. “Anyone who’s certain is wrong.”

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Trump’s tweet immediately concerned – and seemed to confirm – the leak to the Washington Post of intelligence material that said Sergey Kislyak, the outgoing Russian ambassador to the US, told superiors he discussed the Trump campaign with then-senator and Trump adviser Jeff Sessions at meetings in 2016.

Sessions, now attorney general, has denied discussing the campaign with Kislyak. His failure to immediately disclose such meetings led to his recusal from the justice department investigation.

This week, in an interview with the New York Times, Trump criticised Sessions and said he regretted hiring him. Sessions said he would stay in the job “as long as is appropriate”.

Trump’s Saturday tweet was one of 10 fired off in an hour, on the morning after the appointment of Scaramucci as the new White House communications director and the subsequent resignation of the press secretary, Sean Spicer.

The president defended his son for meeting the Russian lawyer last June. He also attacked Clinton, Democrats, the Post and the Times. He added that healthcare reform, stalled in the Senate, was now solely the responsibility of the Republican party.

Citing unnamed sources, Reuters reported that investigators were hoping to gain the cooperation of Trump’s former campaign chair, Paul Manafort, in their inquiry into links with Russia.

  • Additional reporting by Tom McCarthy