President Trump has a little more than two months in office. How he will use that time is America’s newest parlor game. Oh, the most popular subject is whether Trump will leave the White House peacefully – if not gracefully. But that is largely a paranoid debate. Of course, he will leave peacefully – but maybe not gracefully.
Make no mistake. Efforts to fight election results in the courts are not illegal, unconstitutional or unprecedented. It is an American tradition. Trump has every right to do so. We should not put too much into those court battles. Just let them play out – much like we had to do when the Al Gore campaign postponed the results of the 2000 election more than a month with a barrage of court cases – all the way up to the Supreme Court.
The real question is what Trump will do with the powers of the presidency while he still has them. One of the major issues is presidential pardons. Outgoing presidents traditionally issue a number of pardons in their last days in office. They are often controversial.
President Clinton pardoned Marc Rich, a major donor to the Democratic Party, who had been indicted for federal charges of tax evasion and for illegal business dealings with Iran during the hostage crisis. He avoided prosecution by staying out of the country until the pardon.
It was such a sleazy action that a special prosecutor was appointed to investigate the pardon, — but was replaced by the quintessential Washington establishmentarian … drum roll, please … James Comey, who ended the investigation. Do we see a pattern here?
Clinton commuted the sentences of 16 Puerto Rican terrorists associated with the FALN that had set off at least 20 bombs in New York and Chicago – maiming and killing several people. They were found guilty of criminal conspiracy and sedition with sentences ranging from 35 years to 105 years in prison. After serving 19 years of their sentences, Clinton thought justice had been served. Of course, that is not what the prosecutors, juries and judges thought.
Two of the terrorists rejected clemency. One was eventually released and the other accepted clemency from President Obama.
Clinton made other controversial pardons, including convicted Democrat Congressman Dan Rostenkowski (defrauding the federal government) and Congressman Mel Reynolds (bank fraud and sexual assault of a child).
President Obama issued more than 1700 commutations (many for life sentences) and 212 full pardons. Many of these were for drug offenses – ironically mostly young Black males who had been incarcerated under Joe Biden’s crime bill. President Bush issued approximately 200 pardons and commutations, and none creating any political controversy.
There is no doubt that Trump will be issuing pardons and commutations. The guessing game centers on who will receive executive clemency. The odds favor such folks as former campaign manager Paul Manafort, and former National Security Advisor General Michael Flynn. It would be shocking if Trump did not pardon them.
While Trump has already commuted the sentence of one-time advisor Roger Stone, the President could completely clear the record with a full pardon. There could also be one for one-time staffer George Papadopoulos. Pardons can be issued even after a sentence has been served. It basically expunges the record and removes any limitations – such as security jobs, voting rights or practicing law – that are lost upon felony conviction.
The granddaddy of all pardons was the one issued by President Ford for the recently resigned President Nixon. Ford said he wanted to save the nation of the trauma having a former President in court for years. Many historians believe that it was the pardon that led to Ford’s defeat in the 1976 election.
A question that has arisen in view of Trump’s multiple legal problems is whether he can pardon himself. There is no language in the Constitution that resolves that question – and no history of the matter being tested and resolved in the federal courts. It would be up to the Supreme Court to make the decision and set the precedent.
But that is not the only possibility for Trump. He could resign the presidency in late December with an agreement from Vice President Pence to issue a presidential pardon. The issue rests on whether Pence would do that. Pence could refuse on moral grounds – or refuse because it would most certainly end his own political career.
Not much is being said about pardons today, but you can rest assured that it will become a hot topic sometime before Inauguration Day 2021.
So, there ‘tis.