Can Donald Trump Pardon Himself? Can He Be Indicted While Still In Office?

It has become so widely accepted that the investigations into Donald Trump’s business dealings are very likely to reveal criminal activities that subjects including whether Trump can pardon himself and whether he can be indicted while in office are now being discussed. While many disagree, Donald Trump claims he does have the power to pardon himself. The New York Times reports:

President Trump on Saturday asserted the “complete power to pardon” relatives, aides and possibly even himself in response to investigations into Russia’s meddling in last year’s election, as he came to the defense of Attorney General Jeff Sessions just days after expressing regret about appointing him.

Mr. Trump suggested in a series of early morning messages on Twitter that he had no need to use the pardon power at this point but left the option open. Presidents have the authority to pardon others for federal crimes, but legal scholars debate whether a president can pardon himself. Mr. Trump’s use of the word “complete” seemed to suggest he did not see a limit to that authority.

“While all agree the U.S. President has the complete power to pardon, why think of that when only crime so far is LEAKS against us,” he wrote on Twitter. “FAKE NEWS.”

The Washington Post reported in recent days that the president and his advisers had discussed pardons as a special counsel intensifies an investigation into whether associates of Mr. Trump and his campaign conspired with Russia to intervene in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Many Constitutional experts and lawyers disagree with Donald Trump. Laurence Tribe, Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School, Richard Painter,  a law professor at the University of Minnesota and chief White House ethics lawyer for George W. Bush from 2005 to 2007, and Norman Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and chief White House ethics lawyer for Barack Obama from 2009 to 2011, wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post entitled, No, Trump can’t pardon himself. The Constitution tells us so:

Can a president pardon himself? Four days before Richard Nixon resigned, his own Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel opined no, citing “the fundamental rule that no one may be a judge in his own case.” We agree.

The Justice Department was right that guidance could be found in the enduring principles that no one can be both the judge and the defendant in the same matter, and that no one is above the law.

The Constitution specifically bars the president from using the pardon power to prevent his own impeachment and removal. It adds that any official removed through impeachment remains fully subject to criminal prosecution. That provision would make no sense if the president could pardon himself…

The Constitution’s pardon clause has its origins in the royal pardon granted by a sovereign to one of his or her subjects. We are aware of no precedent for a sovereign pardoning himself, then abdicating or being deposed but being immune from criminal process. If that were the rule, many a deposed king would have been spared instead of going to the chopping block…

President Trump thinks he can do a lot of things just because he is president. He says that the president can act as if he has no conflicts of interest. He says that he can fire the FBI director for any reason he wants (and he admitted to the most outrageous of reasons in interviews and in discussion with the Russian ambassador). In one sense, Trump is right — he can do all of these things, although there will be legal repercussions if he does. Using official powers for corrupt purposes — such as impeding or obstructing an investigation — can constitute a crime.

But there is one thing we know that Trump cannot do — without being a first in all of human history. He cannot pardon himself.

While it is commonly believed that Donald Trump would not be indicted until out of office, The New York Times reports that the commonly held view that a president cannot be indicted while in office is wrong:

A newfound memo from Kenneth W. Starr’s independent counsel investigation into President Bill Clinton sheds fresh light on a constitutional puzzle that is taking on mounting significance amid the Trump-Russia inquiry: Can a sitting president be indicted?

The 56-page memo, locked in the National Archives for nearly two decades and obtained by The New York Times under the Freedom of Information Act, amounts to the most thorough government-commissioned analysis rejecting a generally held view that presidents are immune from prosecution while in office.

“It is proper, constitutional, and legal for a federal grand jury to indict a sitting president for serious criminal acts that are not part of, and are contrary to, the president’s official duties,” the Starr office memo concludes. “In this country, no one, even President Clinton, is above the law.”

Bill Clinton was impeached, but was neither convicted in the Senate nor indicted while in office. While the investigations are at an early stage, it does appear likely that Donald Trump has committed acts far more significant than lying about an affair, and these considerations regarding indictment very well could wind up applying to him.

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