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Key Senate Republicans warn Trump on obstruction, pardon powers

| Tuesday, June 5, 2018, 4:36 p.m.
From left, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the ranking member, confer before considering a bipartisan bill to protect the special counsel from being fired, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 26, 2018.
J. Scott Applewhite | AP
From left, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the ranking member, confer before considering a bipartisan bill to protect the special counsel from being fired, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, April 26, 2018.

Several Senate Republicans are warning President Trump against obstructing justice or pardoning himself, even as they continue to say there's no evidence to support allegations the president's team colluded with Russia in the 2016 elections.

"I'd advise everybody from the president to the people operating the elevator, don't obstruct justice," said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who was one of the House managers of the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton.

Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, who voted to impeach Clinton for obstruction, also said presidential obstruction is impeachable. "A president can obstruct justice," he told reporters.

Trump's lawyers wrote a memo in January to Special Counsel Robert Mueller arguing that the president wouldn't be obstructing justice even if he orders the investigation into his own campaign to end, or issues pardons. That memo was leaked to the New York Times over the weekend. On Monday, Trump also wrote on Twitter that he has an "absolute right" to pardon himself.

Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, echoed the president's argument in a CNN appearance Monday night. "The pardon power is complete and there is no limitation on it," the former New York mayor said, adding that "it would be suicide to pardon yourself."

Most Republicans say there isn't any evidence yet that Trump did anything illegal or impeachable.

But Graham said the dangling of pardons in the Watergate investigation was part of the impeachment articles considered against President Richard Nixon before he resigned.

"We do know that Nixon, one of the subsets of impeachment was improper use of pardoning authority, that that was seemed to be an abuse of office. What you are talking about is abuse of office here. You are the chief law enforcement officer of the land, but that doesn't make you above the law itself," Graham said.

Graham said he didn't understand why the president or his lawyers were making these arguments.

"I don't know why we're talking about it, honestly," he said, noting a planned North Korea summit, pending immigration legislation and other pressing issues. "I do know politically it would be a disaster" to pardon himself.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa, one of many Republicans who voted to convict Clinton in 1999 on a charge of obstruction of justice, didn't sound impressed when asked about the legal theory a president could not obstruct justice because he is the chief law enforcement officer and would be obstructing himself.

"Nobody is above the law. Otherwise we wouldn't have a system of laws," Grassley said.

He also dismissed Trump's assertion he has the right to pardon himself.

"If I were president and some lawyer told me that I could do that, I would hire a new lawyer," he said.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine also warned against obstruction or a self-pardon.

"There's no doubt that if the president were to ever pardon himself, it would have catastrophic implications for him and for our country, so I don't think that's going to happen," she said. She declined however to say whether it would meet the standard for impeachment.

Grassley also rejected another contention, which Trump offered Monday on Twitter, that the special counsel is unconstitutional.

"I think the way the Justice Department has done the legal work behind it, that they wouldn't be doing anything that was unconstitutional and no court has said anything to the contrary," said Grassley, who earlier this year signed on to legislation protecting Mueller and moved it out of his committee.

On the House side, many Republicans said they saw no problem with Trump's assertion that he can't obstruct justice, even by taking actions like firing former FBI director James Comey.

"He's head of the executive branch," said Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a member of the House Judiciary Committee. "To me, he can fire who he wants."

Democrats continue to call for legislation to protect Mueller, but Republican leaders have repeatedly dismissed the idea of taking on their own president and risking a veto fight or have objected on constitutional grounds.

"I think it's a distraction to get involved in a legal argument about what can and cannot happen," said John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican.

Cornyn said there's no evidence the president has committed a crime so a pardon is "a moot point" and wished Trump would stop tweeting about it.

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