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White House offers muddled message on Russia sanctions legislation

President Donald Trump at the commissioning ceremony for the USS Gerald R. Ford  at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia, July 22, 2017. [New York Times]

President Donald Trump at the commissioning ceremony for the USS Gerald R. Ford at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia, July 22, 2017. [New York Times]

WASHINGTON - White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Sunday that the Trump administration supports new legislation to punish Russia for its meddling in the 2016 presidential election and its aggression toward Ukraine.

Speaking on ABC's "This Week," Sanders, who on Friday was promoted to press secretary after Sean Spicer unexpectedly resigned, said that despite opposing Congress's initial attempt to impose sanctions on Russia, the White House supports the Russia sanctions bill that congressional leaders announced Saturday.

"The administration is supportive of being tough on Russia, particularly in putting these sanctions in place," Sanders said. "The original piece of legislation was poorly written, but we were able to work with the House and Senate, and the administration is happy with the ability to do that and make those changes that were necessary, and we support where the legislation is now ."

She continued: "We will continue working with the House and Senate to put those tough sanctions in place on Russia until the situation in Ukraine is fully resolved."

But either Sanders got out ahead of President Donald Trump or Anthony Scaramucci, the White House's newly minted communications director - whose hiring Friday unnerved some West Wing staff and prompted Spicer's resignation - didn't have the most up-to-date information.

Asked the same question almost simultaneously on CNN's "State of the Union," Scaramucci said he didn't know how the president felt about the new sanctions bill.

"You've got to ask President Trump that," he said. "It's my second or third day on the job. My guess is that he's going to make that decisions shortly."

Contradicting Sanders, who said the White House did support the legislation, Scaramucci added, "He hasn't made the decision yet to sign that bill one way or the other."

Trump brought Scaramucci into the West Wing to help overhaul his communications team, which the president believed was doing a poor job of both defending him and explaining his message to the public.

But just two full days into Scaramucci's tenure in the top post, the muddled messaging continued Sunday morning, with various Trump allies offering competing opinions on Trump and his legal team's effort to undermine special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's Russia investigation - including discussing the question of whether the president can pardon aides, family members and even himself.

On ABC's "This Week," one of Trump's attorneys, Jay Sekulow, described a tweet from the president on Saturday claiming he has the "complete power to pardon" as "rather unremarkable."

"The president has the authority to pardon," Sekulow said.

But the lawyer said Trump's legal team has not discussed this question with the president. "We have not, and I continue to not, have conversations with the president of the United States regarding pardons. Pardons have not been discussed, and pardons are not on the table," he said.

Sekulow also said that while the question of whether a president has the ability to pardon himself is likely to be decided by the courts, he denied that it was something the legal team was researching "because the issue of pardons is not on the table. There's nothing to pardon from."

Sekulow's comments, however, seemed at odds not only with Trump's tweet, but also with other members of his own legal team, as well as with Scaramucci.

On "Fox News Sunday," Scaramucci said he and the president had, in fact, just last week been discussing how far his pardoning authority extends.

"I'm in the Oval Office with the president last week, we're talking about that, he says - he brought that up," Scaramucci said. " He said but he doesn't have to be pardoned. There's nobody around him that has to be pardoned. He was just making the statement about the power of pardons."

"The president does not need to pardon himself," the communications director added. " The reason that he doesn't need to pardon himself is he hasn't done anything wrong."

And in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, John Dowd, another Trump attorney, seemed to suggest a split within the legal team, denying news reports that it was working to stymie Mueller's probe by highlighting conflicts of interest.

Dowd described Mueller as an "honest guy" doing a "good job" and said any effort to undercut him or his investigation was "collateral nonsense."

White House offers muddled message on Russia sanctions legislation 07/23/17 [Last modified: Sunday, July 23, 2017 5:10pm]
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