Alleged bribery scheme involved campaign donations to secure a presidential pardon, court document shows

US presidents enjoy wide latitude under the US Constitution in pardoning people convicted of federal crimes

US prosecutors are investigating whether a group of conspirators offered political contributions in exchange for a presidential pardon, according to an unsealed court document.

The names of the people under investigation were blacked out in the document and there is no mention of President Donald Trump – who has the sole and largely unlimited power to grant a pardon for federal crimes – in the non-redacted portions of the filing.

The partially redacted opinion unsealed on Tuesday by US District Judge Beryl Howell in Washington said the Justice Department was investigating a “bribery conspiracy” in which an unnamed conspirator would “offer a substantial political contribution in exchange for a presidential pardon or reprieve of sentence”.

The US Justice Department alleges that two suspects acted in a “secret lobbying scheme” to persuade senior White House officials to secure a pardon without registering as lobbyists.

The opinion, dated August 28, was in response to a government request to review lawyer-client communications related to the probe.

The judge wrote that the scheme involved “intermediaries to deliver the proposed bribe”, and noted that the government hoped to present the evidence it had gathered to three unnamed individuals, at least one of whom is a lawyer.

Howell’s opinion provides few other details about the possible bribery scheme, and no one appears to have been charged as part of the investigation. But, according to the opinion, the person seeking a pardon surrendered to the custody of the Bureau of Prisons, suggesting that person has already been convicted of a crime.

“The US$10,000 question is – who is it?,” said former federal prosecutor Jennifer Rodgers. “Is it someone who would be in a position to implicate the president in anything?”

She said she didn’t think that was necessarily the case because Trump has proven himself eager to help out the people closest to him – or those who pose a possible threat – so no bribe would be necessary.

The origins of the probe appear to lie in a separate investigation that the Justice Department was pursuing before it unearthed evidence of bribery.

Using search warrants issued in that separate inquiry, the government seized more than 50 “digital media devices”, including iPhones, iPads, laptops, thumb drives and computer and external hard drives, according to Howell’s opinion. Emails recorded on those devices provided evidence of the bribery scheme, the judge said.

The government asked Howell to allow investigators to access communications that might be shielded from scrutiny by lawyer-client privilege. In the unsealed opinion, Howell agreed to allow the government to examine those communications, ruling that the documents at issue are “not protected by the attorney-client or any other privilege.”

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

Offering pardons for campaign contributions would be a crime, said Harry Sandick, a former federal prosecutor in New York.

“While the presidential pardon power is absolute, selling pardons is prohibited by federal bribery law,” Sandick said in an interview. “This investigation may well linger into the next administration.”

Since the election, lawyers and lobbyists across the country have mobilised on behalf of a wide range of clients to secure pardons in the final days of Trump’s presidency.

On November 25, Trump

, who has twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Many more pardons are expected in the coming weeks.

reported Tuesday that Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani discussed with him as recently as last week the

before Trump leaves office.

Giuliani appeared to deny aspects of the news report.

“#FakeNews NYT lies again,” Giuliani wrote on Twitter. “Never had the discussion they falsely attribute to an anonymous source. Hard to keep up with all their lies.”

also reported that Trump had discussed with advisers pardons for three of his eldest children – Donald Trump Jnr, Eric Trump and Ivanka Trump – as well as Ivanka Trump’s husband, Jared Kushner, a White House senior adviser.

There is also public discussion of Trump issuing a pardon for himself, for any crimes he might be charged with related to his time in office – though the legality of that has never been tested.

“A self-pardon would be a fitting abuse to end Trump’s presidency. It would also be corrupt, illegitimate, and void,” said Democratic congressman Adam Schiff in a tweet Tuesday.

In July Trump also commuted the sentence of Roger Stone, a friend and former campaign adviser who was sentenced to over three years in prison.

A number of Trump’s former associates have been convicted of crimes, including Paul Manafort, the former manager of his 2016 campaign who was convicted of tax and banking crimes.

Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos, both former campaign aides, were convicted of making false statements in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

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