WASHINGTON — A lawyer for President Trump broached the idea of Mr. Trump pardoning two of his former top advisers, Michael T. Flynn and Paul Manafort, with their lawyers last year, according to three people with knowledge of the discussions.
The discussions came as the special counsel was building cases against both men, and they raise questions about whether the lawyer, John Dowd, was offering pardons to influence their decisions about whether to plead guilty and cooperate in the investigation.
The talks suggest that Mr. Trump’s lawyers were concerned about what Mr. Flynn and Mr. Manafort might reveal were they to cut a deal with the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, in exchange for leniency. Mr. Mueller’s team could investigate the prospect that Mr. Dowd made pardon offers to thwart the inquiry, although legal experts are divided about whether such offers might constitute obstruction of justice.
Mr. Dowd’s conversation with Mr. Flynn’s lawyer, Robert K. Kelner, occurred sometime after Mr. Dowd took over last summer as the president’s personal lawyer, at a time when a grand jury was hearing evidence against Mr. Flynn on a range of potential crimes. Mr. Flynn, who served as Mr. Trump’s first national security adviser, agreed in late November to cooperate with the special counsel’s investigation. He pleaded guilty in December to lying to the F.B.I. about his conversations with the Russian ambassador and received favorable sentencing terms.
Mr. Dowd has said privately that he did not know why Mr. Flynn had accepted a plea, according to one of the people. He said he had told Mr. Kelner that the president had long believed that the case against Mr. Flynn was flimsy and was prepared to pardon him, the person said.
The pardon discussion with Mr. Manafort’s attorney, Reginald J. Brown, came before his client was indicted in October on charges of money laundering and other financial crimes. Mr. Manafort, the former chairman of Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign, has pleaded not guilty and has told others he is not interested in a pardon because he believes he has done nothing wrong and the government overstepped its authority. Mr. Brown is no longer his lawyer.
It is unclear whether Mr. Dowd, who resigned last week as the head of the president’s legal team, discussed the pardons with Mr. Trump before bringing them up with the other lawyers.
Mr. Dowd, who was hired last year to defend the president during the Mueller inquiry, took the lead in dealing directly with Mr. Flynn’s and Mr. Manafort’s lawyers, according to two people familiar with how the legal team operated.
“There were no discussions. Period,” Mr. Dowd said. “As far as I know, no discussions.”
Contacted repeatedly over several weeks, the president’s lawyers representing him in the special counsel’s investigation maintained that they knew of no discussions of possible pardons.
The episode raises questions about whether the president’s lawyer was trying to influence Mr. Trump’s former advisers and their cooperation with the special counsel.