Justice Department investigated potential ‘bribery-for-pardon’ scheme involving Trump White House in August

A red ribbon for World Aids Day adorns the White House on December 1, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
–BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP via Getty Images

WASHINGTON – The Justice Department in August investigated a potential “bribery-for-pardon” scheme in which a large political contribution would be offered in exchange for a presidential pardon by the Trump White House, according to court records unsealed Tuesday.

The documents show that U.S. prosecutors were scrutinizing whether two individuals approached senior Trump White House officials as unregistered lobbyists, and a related scheme in which cash would be funneled through intermediaries for a pardon or reprieve of a sentence for a defendant apparently in Federal Bureau of Prisons custody at some point. The status of the investigation is unclear.

The slender record is heavily redacted and does not identify the investigation’s targets or whether anyone has been or will be charged. It also does not indicate what senior Trump White House officials did after allegedly being approached.

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“No government official was or is currently a subject or target of the investigation disclosed in this filing,” said a Justice Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

The records were unsealed by Chief Judge Beryl Howell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, who released an Aug. 28 opinion describing the government’s theory. The opinion granted prosecutors’ request to access search warrant evidence, including confidential emails sent among at least three individuals and their agents that could have been protected by attorney-client privilege.

The White House had no comment.

A government review of the evidence identified emails “indicat[ing] additional criminal activity” after scouring more than 50 digital media devices, including iPhones, iPads, laptops, thumb drives and computer and external hard drives, Howell wrote.

The ruling offers glimpses of the underlying investigation, stating at one point, for example, that the government alleged at least one person “requested [redacted]’s assistance, ‘as a personal favor,’ to use his political connections [redacted].”

It continues, “This political strategy to obtain a presidential pardon was ‘parallel’ to and distinct from [redacted]’s role as an attorney-advocate for [redacted].”

In a footnote, Howell’s opinion added, emails submitted by the government as exhibits “do not show any direct payment to [redacted] by [redacted] or [redacted] and instead indicate that [redacted] expected [redacted] to assist in obtaining clemency for [redacted] due to [redacted]’s past substantial campaign contributions [redacted] and [redacted]’s anticipated future contributions.”

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The language of the opinion suggests that the potential pardon scheme was not the original subject of the warrants, and it is not clear whether any targets subsequently challenged any grand jury proceedings.

In her largely blacked-out 18-page opinion, the judge granted the government’s request for investigators to access the emails, confront three people and take any further investigative steps.

The opinion was originally sealed. In an update to the court Nov. 25, the Justice Department asked to keep the ruling secret because it “identifies both individuals and conduct that have not been charged by the grand jury.”

Howell found the response insufficient, directing the government to explain line-by-line why a redacted version could not be released that did not name uncharged individuals, prompting the government to submit the now-public document on Monday, she wrote.

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The Washington Post’s Matt Zapotosky, Seung Min Kim and Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.

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