A Few Thoughts on the Pardon Power

“The President… shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.”

For the most part, the pardon power is a wonderful thing. How nice to give an ‘out’, where injustices can be corrected? But there are bad pardons also. How could we make Pardons better?

The worst kinds of pardons are self-serving and corrupt. Giving friends and allies a pardon simply because they are your friends and allies is a perversion of justice. We will have to continue living with that perversion. There is no way to define these situations, and it’s better to preserve the breadth of the power. I spent the last four years listening to Preet Bharara complaining that Trump ignored the Pardon Office as if that was so incredibly horrible. I think Preet is wrong here, it is not such an obviously bad thing. The point of the power is to be outside normal processes, and each President should be free to deploy it as they see fit. It’s easy to imagine situations where the Pardon Office is a barrier against getting justice. If there is any solution to corrupt pardons, it is not to elect corrupt Presidents, not re-elect them, and hold it against the political party they come from.

No one gets a blank check.  President Ford erred here. He pardoned Nixon for “all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed or taken part in during the period from January 20, 1969 through August 9, 1974.” By making it so broad, he set a bad precedent.

If someone gets a pardon, they get it for specific offenses. It can say “and other offenses related to the same incidents”, but not a blanket pardon for everything. If it’s not spelled out it’s not a pardon, it’s a magical cloak of immunity.

No pardoning yourself. It’s hard to believe this needs to said out loud. This was quickly addressed during the Nixon impeachment, under the theory that no man can serve as his own judge. My simple justification is that no one is above the law. If the Executive can pardon themselves, they are above the law, so it can’t happen.

Trumps Final Pardons

Like so much with Trumps presidency, it could have been much worse. It was terrible, but.

The worst ones are the pardoning of other high officials who used their office to enrich themselves, also known as corruption. Some of these Trump didn’t even both to defend. (Interestingly, I can no longer access the actual text of the pardons. The links now go to a dead 404 page at whitehouse.gov.) It’s striking that the most corrupt president in our times pardoned other corrupt officials. Like so much with Trump, he can barely muster any empathy unless you are like him.

(By the way, Steve Brannon’s may not matter so much. He can be charged from anywhere; the prosecutors can just ship the evidence to another jurisdiction.)

The rest are not so bad. Many are good. Let’s remember that Bill Clintons were pretty bad also. He too sent out a raft of pardons just at the end of the presidency, and he too had some bad ones. That doesn’t make Trumps pardons okay, it’s points against Clinton.

What didn’t Trump do? He didn’t pardon himself. That was not a given at all, it was assumed he would try. He also didn’t pardon anyone in his family. He didn’t pardon anyone in his cabinet. At the last second, he walked back the pardon of Sheldon Silver. He didn’t pardon Rudy Giuliani. He didn’t pardon any of the Jan 6th insurrectionists. All of these were possible or expected.

That’s the Trump presidency. Investigate and talk about doing the worse thing possible, then do something that is merely very awful.

Top Priorities for the Biden Adminstration

As Joe Biden takes office, his three biggest priorities should be:

COVID-19: Biden is lucky here. It is actionable – simply having federal policy and coordinated focus will go a long way, above and beyond what the particular policies and spending are. Additionally, the timing of the vaccines is perfect. Biden shouldn’t get credit for the vaccine, but thanks to quirks of human psychology, he will.

Climate Change / Global Warming: An actual existential threat to the human species. The good news is that, like COVID-19, the actions are easy. Just reverse everything from the Trump administration, and you’re back on track. Biden is also fortunate to be on the right side of ongoing trends. In 2009, global warming was understood as urgent, but a political problem. Twelve years later, the majority of the country is behind him. The rest of the world, private industry, and the populace are already taking action, he just needs to keep pushing that boulder.

Promote American Democracy: For Democrats to get their policies in place over the long term, they need their officials in power, they need the votes. Fortunately, they have those votes. The Democratic party has gotten more votes in five of the last six presidential elections, and the House and Senate, and Supreme Court would all be Democratic if we simply counted votes and went with the will of the people. We don’t. Biden should focus on voting rights, voting reform, same-day voting, remote/advance voting, anti-gerrymandering, the national popular vote, and possibly statehood for DC and Puerto Rico. All these have a great advantage: They not only favor Democrats, they are morally correct. All you have to do to get a permanent Democratic majority is allow the will of the people to be heard. That’s a lot easier than fighting uphill all the time.

Save American Democracy: Maybe there is a fourth one. We can’t ignore the recent storming of the Capitol Building and pretend there won’t be more going forward. Sadly, there is a significant swath of the country that has abandoned factual evidence, undermined liberal democracy, and believes that Biden is illegitimate. The forces that led to this need to be actively fought. Besides the political, social, and law-enforcement arms (which are probably more important, but I don’t have strong views here yet), we can go a long way to addressing concerns about election validity. There are many ways to reduce concerns about voting and elections. And unless the GOP is a bunch of hypocritical bombthrowers, they should be fully on-board with a rejuvenated FEC, vastly increased election funding, transparency, embracing technological improvements, actively fighting Russian (and others) interference, etc.

Good luck Joe!