Less than two years ago, most Americans would probably have laughed at the suggestion that a president, whether Trump or a previous president, could grant himself a pardon. And in the American experience, very few presidents have even been in the position for the topic of a presidential pardon, let alone a “self-pardon,” to come up. Until recently, too, the idea of a U.S. president having unbounded power in any area was unthinkable. But the Donald Trump presidency continues to test and stretch beyond the bounds of reason.
Recently, the New York Times obtained a confidential 20-page memo written by Trump’s attorneys to Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The document argues, in effect, that Donald Trump, as president, has the power to direct the Department of Justice to open or terminate any investigation at any time and for any reason. Consequently, with this authority, it’s not possible for Trump to be guilty of committing obstruction of justice. The memo also asserts that the president has the power to pardon anyone at any time before, during, or after an investigation or conviction.
“Indeed, the President not only has unfettered statutory and Constitutional authority to terminate the FBI Director, he also has Constitutional authority to direct the Justice Department to open or close an investigation, and, of course, the power to pardon any person before, during, or after an investigation and/or conviction. Put simply, the Constitution leaves no question that the President has exclusive authority over the ultimate conduct and disposition of all criminal investigations and over those executive branch officials responsible for conducting those investigations,” the memo declares.
News of the memo and its content has led many Americans to ask, “Does this mean that Trump could pardon himself? And if so, would he?” Trump’s attorneys say that, though it’s unthinkable that Trump would actually pardon himself, he does have the authority to do so.
At this point in the Trump presidency, it shouldn’t require much effort to suspend disbelief and assume that, of course he would pardon himself.
There was a time when many Americans were incredulous that Donald Trump, an unqualified reality TV star, could actually be elected President of the United States. Then, many Americans were flabbergasted when his supporters, many of them evangelical conservatives, continued to support him despite the fact that his actions and words largely went against what they purported to believe.
Many of those outside Trump’s base have learned simply to stop expecting an epiphany as Trump supporters continue to make excuses for Trump, his actions, and his words, no matter what. With each new preposterous Trumpian tweet or sensationalist-sounding news story of Trump’s antics, we shake our heads in disbelief a little less vigorously.
One might think, though, that this recent declaration of “exclusive authority” that Trump’s lawyers assert belongs to the President of the United States, would be too much even for Trump’s staunchest supporters to stand behind. This, some of us have assured ourselves, must surely be the last straw. It negates the system of checks and balances set up to prevent the danger of precisely a situation like this – a leader attempting to exert unrestrained authority – from happening. It resembles support for an authoritarian leader a little too closely.
Though many Republicans are troubled by the memo put out by Trump’s lawyers, other key GOP members such as Paul Ryan, stand behind its assertions. Many in the GOP, that party known for its position of “smaller government,” are going along with the idea that a president can, in effect, rule as an authoritarian, at least when it comes to how justice is carried out (or obstructed, as the case may be).
We can only hope that reason (with the help of the U.S. Supreme Court) would prevail if our country landed in a position where Donald Trump were actually poised to pardon himself, or if he would actually get away with acting like a totalitarian ruler. Perhaps we can draw some hope from the Supreme Court case, United States v. Nixon, in which the court ruled unanimously that presidential privilege did not supplant the law. Following the ruling, Nixon resigned. Then again, in the current political landscape, reason and credulity appear to have ever-widening boundaries.
Can President Trump pardon himself in the Russia investigation? | Face the Nation [2013-06-03]
Can Trump pardon himself? | Fox Business [2018-06-04]