Donald Trump has already demonstrated that he’ll pardon anyone, even if that person is clearly guilty and even if a sentence hasn’t yet been handed down. The pardoning of Joe Arpaio is a clear signal to those who took part in Trump–Russia that if they just keep their mouth’s shut, a nice pardon is waiting for them when the special counsel comes around.
With that in mind, Robert Mueller has assigned one of his team to finding ways of stopping Trump’s pardon power from wrecking their case.
Pre-emptive pardons are a distinct possibility now that current and former Trump advisers are under Mueller’s scrutiny. Trump himself has tweeted that everyone agrees the U.S. president has “complete power to pardon.” Some of those kinds of executive moves have been well studied, including Gerald Ford’s swift pardon of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton’s exoneration of fugitive financier Marc Rich. But the legal territory is largely uncharted over pardons of a president’s own campaign workers, family members or even himself — and how prosecutors’ work would then be affected.
If Trump begins blocking the progress of the investigation with pardons, federal courts can expect some exercise. But Mueller doesn’t want to leave his case in the hands of Trump-appointed judges.
Acting as Mueller’s top legal counsel, [Michael Dreeben] has been researching past pardons and determining what, if any, limits exist, according to a person familiar with the matter. Dreeben’s broader brief is to make sure the special counsel’s prosecutorial moves are legally airtight.
And if they do end up in front of the Supreme Court, Dreeben has been there—more than 100 times.
Dreeben, 62, built that expertise over three decades as an appeals lawyer at the Justice Department. As a deputy solicitor general, he’s pored over prosecutors’ moves in more than a thousand federal criminal prosecutions and defended many of them from challenges all they way to the nation’s highest court.
That hasn’t always made Dreeben a progressive favorite. Under the charge of defending cases brought by prosecutors, it’s sometimes been Dreeben’s task to push cases where collection of evidence collided with the rights of defendants. But as part of Mueller’s team, Dreeben is the expert in how to make charges stick.