As he departed the White House Friday for an economic summit in Canada, President Donald Trump again reminded the nation of his exclusive and unbounded right to absolve anyone of a federal criminal conviction, including himself.
“I do have an absolute right to pardon myself. But I’ll never have to do it because I didn’t do anything wrong. And everybody knows it,” Trump said about the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, while again demanding that Democrats be investigated.
In public statements and in legal memos, Trump and his lawyers claim that if Mueller were to find that the president and those around him broke the law, the president could exonerate everyone. “They haven’t been convicted of anything. There’s nothing to pardon. It’s far too early to be thinking about it,” Trump said when asked about those close to him already targeted by Mueller.
The implications of Trump’s aggressive stance are breathtaking. His legal arguments may be upheld by the courts but using those powers to protect his own self-interest would be devastating to our rule of law.
These presidential powers, vaguely defined in the Constitution, are unsettled precisely because no president has tested the limits of his power to pardon and end a federal investigation of himself. While some scholars argue a president can’t use these powers for corrupt purposes — the opinion the Justice Department gave Richard Nixon, leading to his resignation three days later — others say presidential power is absolute. Impeachment by Congress, they argue, is the only real check on the reckless or abusive use of executive authority.
Trump’s rhetoric last week might be a sign that Mueller’s simmering investigation is reaching a boil. If Trump moves to end the investigation, it’s likely the Supreme Court would be asked to define the limits of the president’s power, a scenario that risks provoking a constitutional crisis that will deepen this nation’s regrettable political schism.
That’s why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other prominent Republican senators, as well as House Speaker Paul Ryan, were alarmed enough to publicly tell Trump not to take such actions. Even Trump defender Rudy Giuliani said “it would be suicide to pardon yourself.”
The president should listen. Yet Trump delights in pushing our constitutional system to the brink. His gamesmanship is relentless, and his constant disregard for the norms that underpin our rule of law is dangerous.
Trump insists there was no need for a special counsel investigation, yet it was his firing of FBI Director James Comey that generated the need for one. He continues to berate Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the probe, even saying Sessions would not have gotten the job if the president knew Sessions wouldn’t quash an investigation. That’s frightening.
As he did during the campaign and in the White House, Trump will attack anyone or any institution — the FBI, Justice Department, federal judges — standing in his way. His discrediting of anyone who might check his power exposes authoritarian tendencies. And that was clear last week in his delight in the power to pardon.
On Wednesday, Trump commuted the sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, who had served 22 years of a life sentence for her 1996 conviction on multiple counts of drug trafficking. President Barack Obama, who commuted the sentences of more than 1,700 prisoners, never acted on Johnson’s clemency petition, and Trump’s advisers did not recommend he do so either because of Johnson’s role in flooding the streets of Memphis with cocaine.
But Trump, who adores celebrities, released her from prison days after Kim Kardashian came to the White House to lobby for Johnson. He told her that she and her husband, Kanye West, were boosting his popularity with African-Americans. Regardless of whether releasing Johnson was the right decision, Trump’s refusal to respect the process of reviewing pardon requests is problematic.
Trump pardoned African-American boxer Jack Johnson at the request of Sylvester Stallone. He’s thrown out a few other names, like Martha Stewart and former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who fit Trump’s list of his well-known people whom he describes as “unfairly treated” by the Justice Department. And on Friday, he mentioned he was thinking of extending a pardon to Muhammad Ali, except the boxing legend has no record that needs to be cleared. His 1967 conviction for failing to report for military service by declaring himself a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War was unanimously reversed by the Supreme Court four years later. Ali’s family quickly said thanks, but no thanks.
Trump’s “Pardon Me” reality show is likely to continue. “It’s a very, very positive thing for a president. I think you see the way I’m using them,” he said Friday before mentioning that he had the absolute right to pardon himself.
Yes, we see how you are using them: By evoking Ali, Jack Johnson and Stewart, Trump positions himself as yet another victim of the Justice Department, the “witch hunt” as he calls it.
Trump tells us he is not above the law. But he’s all too willing to pull this country apart for that to be proven.