Ever since impeachment questions began to swirl around an investigation of Trump personally, as well as the campaign and even into his administration, there's been a concern among people who want to see where the investigations properly lead about the matter of pardons. And that concern was only raised with the Washington Post news story the other day of Trump asking his lawyers questions about a president's rights to pardoning. And this was further exacerbated by the concern of Trump asking about pardoning himself. (Though reporters say that self-pardoning wasn't yet made as a serious inquiry, but just to understand the framework of what exists.)
Honestly, this concern about Trump pardoning himself -- which most legal experts I've read said can't be done -- really don't bother me. It truly doesn't matter to me if Trump can (or can't) pardon himself. After all, in the end, if Trump does resign or get convicted of impeachment, Mike Pence will be able to pardon him. Assuming he's not impeached and convicted himself -- not likely, but not something to start laying odds for yet.
To me, the ONLY important matter of Trump inquiring about presidential pardons is that it means he's actually thinking there's a reason to use them. Whoever they're for.
The thing is, though, that as great as the concern is for Trump pardoning others, which would remove the threat of jail and therefore impetus to testify -- a real concern -- my understanding beyond this is that it's not the full "Get out of jail" card (literally) as some may think.
The first reality is that with acceptance of a pardon, one is compelled to testify honestly and unable to use the Fifth Amendment since there is no threat of self-incrimination. If one refuses to testify (as Susan McDougal did when granted immunity during the Bill Clinton/Whitewater investigation), you can be charged with contempt and go to jail (as Susan McDougal did for two years). Certainly one can lie under oath, but that brings its own risks, especially given that others will be testifying on the same matters, and prosecutors can judge your words against the record.
Additionally, it's important to know that a presidential pardon is only good for federal crimes. I've read it's likely that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has been working with state Attorneys General (notably NY's Eric Schneiderman) on state laws that may have been violated.
And finally, although Trump can grant pardons to his family members and staff, he significantly raises the possibility (or even likelihood) of being impeached for having done so, as abuse of power in hindering prosecution during an active investigation.
There is something important to know, as well, underlying all this -- that accepting a pardon appears to be considered a legal admission of guilt to crimes committed. This is according to a 1915 Supreme Court case, Burdick vs. U.S. You can read about it here. In fact, there is some legal belief that such an admission must even be made before the pardon can be granted. That's a bit less clear-cut, but indeed, when Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, that act was held up because of Ford requiring such a statement. Only through protracted negotiations was a carefully-phrased public wording developed that both parties could accept. (Here's the story on that.)
The point is that, no, one does not want to see blanket pardons passed out like party favors at a cotillion, if the goal is to see the full course of justice. But even if they are, that is not remotely the end of the story, nor solves the problems for those who have them. The problems they will still have are many, and pardoning can cause other issues that will then need to be dealt it.
And just to be clear, from my own personal beliefs, as much as I want to see all these heinous crooks in jail, the most important issue by far is just getting Trump and his minions out of the White House. Everything else, as important as it is, is a distant second.
And if that alone happens, I think there is a side benefit -- the potential collapse of the "Trump brand" and perhaps a seventh bankruptcy.
No, pardoning does not resolve all of Trump’s problem. It shines a big klieg light on them.
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Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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