Sunday, June 3, 2018

What did Donald Trump do today?

He started laying the groundwork for a self-pardon.

Yesterday saw the release of a memo written by Trump's lawyers arguing that the president can never obstruct justice, since the president can simply order the end of any given investigation (and fire anyone who disobeys). The memo specifically cited the pardon power as key to this theory, since a person who has been pardoned for a crime can never be prosecuted for it again. 

In other words, Trump was arguing that because he has the authority to force law enforcement to ignore any given crime--past, present, or future--it could not be an illegal act to use this power. As legal experts from across the political spectrum immediately pointed out, there are more than a few problems with this theory--among them that Trump cannot pardon himself. 

Today, Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani was interviewed by HuffPost and claimed that, in fact, Trump could pardon himself. Pressed for details, Giuliani said that Trump, while President, could have shot James Comey and still been immune from prosecution. Impeachment and removal is the only remedy for a law-breaking president, Giuliani said--but insisted that Trump could nevertheless pardon himself for any federal crimes committed before being removed. 

Giuliani's choice of example is an interesting one. Trump himself, as a candidate, bragged about his popularity using a similar image, saying, "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters." Put another way, Trump seems to think that as president he is immune from both political and criminal liability, even if it can be proved he's committed crimes.

Until Trump took office, the question of presidential self-pardons was treated as essentially settled but irrelevant: no president, even Nixon, had ever so much as hinted that he would need to be pardoned for criminal offenses against the United States. Nixon reportedly considered it in private, but his Justice Department believed it was not constitutional, and Nixon decided to trust that his successor, Gerald Ford, would do it for him. The DOJ memo remains the formal position of the United States government, for the moment.

While Giuliani's example of Trump being immune from even murder charges is vivid, Trump has actually been laying the groundwork for pardoning himself for some time, stressing the "complete power" of the presidential pardon in the context of the Russia investigation as early as last July.

UPDATE, 6/4: Trump himself weighed in on the pardon question Monday morning on Twitter, citing unnamed "legal experts" and saying "I have the absolute right to PARDON myself." He denied that he would need to, but left unexplained why he was bringing it up if he weren't considering it as an option.

So what?

  • A president who needs to make sure he can pardon himself shouldn't be president.
  • It's bad if a president thinks, or acts like, he's above the law.