Federal officials have been investigating since August whether someone tried to bribe an official or officials in the White House in exchange for presidential pardon, a federal court order that was unsealed Tuesday revealed.
The heavily redacted order signed by U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell, appointed by then-President Barack Obama and who supervised the grand jury empaneled by special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 Trump campaign, described a “bribery-for-pardon” investigation, several media outlets reported.
Howell’s order claimed federal investigators had obtained information indicating a scheme in which someone “would offer a substantial political contribution in exchange for a presidential pardon or reprieve of sentence.”
Investigators approached Howell, who is a district judge in the District of Columbia, for permission to intercept electronic communications and review other documents – seized as a result of a search warrant – between a lawyer and clients suspected in the probe who were not identified. Howell granted the request in August, determining client-attorney privilege did not apply.
About half of the 18-page document was redacted, including all names, making it unclear if anybody in the White House was even aware of the matter.
“This political strategy to obtain a presidential pardon was ‘parallel’ to and distinct from” one individual’s role as an attorney advocate for someone else, Howell wrote.
The document said federal prosecutors in Washington said they had obtained evidence of a bribery scheme in which someone “would offer a substantial political contribution in exchange for a presidential pardon or reprieve of sentence.”
The order said prosecutors were also investigating a “secret lobbying scheme” in which two unidentified individuals “acted as lobbyists to senior White House officials, without complying with the registration requirement of the Lobbying Disclosure Act.”
A Justice Department official said no government official is or was a target of the investigation.
Prosecutors had said they planned to “confront” three unnamed individuals with the communications and finish their investigation.
According to Howell’s order, government investigators said they had seized “over fifty digital media devices, including iPhones, iPads, laptops, thumb drives, and computer and external hard drives.”
Presidents enjoy wide latitude under the U.S. Constitution in pardoning people convicted of federal crimes. President Donald Trump last week pardoned his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI during the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
That was the first of what is expected to be a string of pardons in Trump’s final weeks in the White House.
According to Howell’s order, the Justice Department had recently told her it wanted to keep the investigation from becoming public because it detailed “individuals and conduct” that had not yet been charged.