Donald Trump has made bounteous use of the presidential pardon in the final days of his administration – and may now make United States history by trying to pardon himself.
White House insiders say he is ‘obsessed’ with his power to forgive any federal offence, as he has proved in recent days.
There have been presents under the tree for everyone from jailed campaign aides to American mercenaries convicted of massacring civilians in Iraq.
As a man who has been compared to a Mafia don in the value he places on unquestioning personal loyalty, he was always expected to want to reward allies who stuck by him – especially those who, as his critics see it, ‘took a fall’ to save the President’s own neck.
As many as 60 of Mr Trump’s 65 pardons up until Wednesday went to individuals with personal or political ties to the President.
White House insiders say he is ‘obsessed’ with his power to forgive any federal offence, as he has proved in recent days. Pictured: President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump
Now, the question on many minds is whether the embattled leader, facing civil and criminal investigations over his business dealings as well as sexual misconduct claims, will play his own ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card.
It may seem more an executive act worthy of a dictatorship – Vladimir Putin has signed a bill giving former Russian presidents lifetime immunity – than that of a country that prides itself on being the world’s greatest liberal democracy.
Astonishingly, however, in the US it’s certainly not impossible.
The presidencies of Richard Nixon, George H W Bush and Bill Clinton were all mired in scandals that sparked speculation that they might try to pardon themselves.
Richard ‘Tricky Dicky’ Nixon seriously considered it to avoid prosecution over the Watergate affair, in which his administration was involved in burgling the Washington HQ of the Democratic national committee. But, like the other two, he decided against it.
As laid out in the US constitution, the presidential pardon, which is based on the English royal pardon, gives the ‘Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment’. It does not specify who can and can’t be pardoned, but the pardon cannot be reversed by a future president.
Another relative, Jared Kushner, who is married to Mr Trump’s daughter Ivanka, (pictured together) is said to be managing the avalanche of requests for pardons in his role as chief adviser
An 1866 ruling by the US Supreme Court said the pardon could be pre-emptive, covering any offence that had been committed even if it hadn’t yet resulted in charges. (This week, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani angrily denied reports he had discussed with the President getting his own pre-emptive pardon for anything he’s said or done as Mr Trump’s aggressive personal lawyer).
However, the constitution doesn’t specify whether presidents can pardon themselves, and given the courts have never been asked to rule on it, the question is fiercely contested by legal experts.
Charles I wasn’t able to save himself from the chop, say some, so why should Mr Trump?
Lawyers in the US Justice Department have offered an opinion – back in 1974 when Nixon was considering his options to wriggle out of the Watergate Scandal.
They said there was a ‘fundamental rule’ that no one, including presidents, could be a judge in their own case. Yet the same legal opinion also laid out a cunning way to get round this.
Under the constitutional provision for the vice president to take over if the president is ever incapacitated, the latter could temporarily step down so that the ‘Veep’ (vice president) could pardon him. The president could then resume office.
As many as 60 of Mr Trump’s 65 pardons up until Wednesday went to individuals with personal or political ties to the President
This option, of course, depends on the vice president playing ball and in Nixon’s case, Gerald Ford (after consulting his wife, Betty) made clear that he wouldn’t necessarily do that and Nixon dropped the idea. (In the event, President Ford did pardon Nixon after he resigned].
Given that Mr Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, has virtually never broken ranks with his boss over anything and, unlike Ford, he wouldn’t be in the White House for long if he did step in, he may well grant this final request to The Donald.
There’s another reason why Mr Trump might take the plunge where Nixon baulked and now try to pardon himself.
The issue would almost certainly end up in the US Supreme Court and, while Nixon knew he couldn’t rely on its support, Mr Trump has managed to pack it with conservatives, who now account for six of the nine judges.
No wonder the army of Trumpphobes who want to see him end his days behind bars are fretting.
Even so, others wonder whether Mr Trump would want to pardon himself from future prosecution given that it would imply he was guilty of something criminal. He has always strenuously insisted he isn’t. The great man certainly took that tack back in June 2018 when – in the middle of the Mueller investigation into his links with Russia – he claimed on Twitter that he had ‘the absolute right to pardon myself’.
Then, he added quickly: ‘But why would I do that when I have done nothing wrong?’
Now, the question on many minds is whether the embattled leader, facing civil and criminal investigations over his business dealings as well as sexual misconduct claims, will play his own ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card. Pictured: President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump
That inquiry, led by special counsel Robert Mueller, a former FBI chief, certainly proved a damp squib in providing damning evidence of Mr Trump’s collusion with the Putin regime. However, his enemies haven’t given up all hope of making something stick on Teflon Don.
After stepping down as president next month he’ll no longer enjoy immunity from either civil or criminal prosecution.
He faces wide-ranging criminal investigation by the Manhattan district attorney in New York into whether the Trump Organisation has indulged in bank fraud, insurance fraud, criminal tax fraud and falsification of business records. Some types of tax fraud in New York carry long prison sentences.
Mr Trump also faces a civil investigation by the New York attorney general into whether the Trump Organisation is guilty of property fraud, lying about the value of its properties to more easily secure bank loans or to lower its taxes. If the allegations are proved, the investigation could turn into a criminal one.
These New York cases could pose the biggest legal threats to Mr Trump, especially since a president can pardon only federal offences so these would not be covered.
Mr Trump could also yet be charged with obstruction of justice over attempts to impede the Mueller inquiry.
The President also faces civil lawsuits claiming he benefited financially from his presidency as well as sexual misconduct lawsuits by various women stretching back decades.
Lawyers in the US Justice Department have offered an opinion – back in 1974 when Nixon was considering his options to wriggle out of the Watergate Scandal. Pictured: Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner
E Jean Carroll claimed he raped her in the 1990s while Summer Zervos, a contestant on The Apprentice, says he sexually assaulted her in 2007.
Ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal and porn star Stormy Daniels have accused him of paying them ‘hush’ money to stay quiet about sexual relationships.
New York prosecutors are investigating whether the Trump Organisation falsified business records to hide the payoffs. That constitutes a criminal offence punishable by up to a year in prison.
Even the President’s niece, Mary Trump, is suing him, saying he and two siblings cheated her out of her inheritance.
Another relative, Jared Kushner, who is married to Mr Trump’s daughter Ivanka, is said to be managing the avalanche of requests for pardons in his role as chief adviser.
However White House sources believe that the President won’t want to suggest he’s guilty of anything by pardoning himself, especially as it’s legally murky.
Nothing may be beyond him now though.