Though he has used it only a few times so far, President Donald Trump is clearly enamored of his power to pardon those who have committed federal crimes, no doubt because his decision is not subject to any pesky oversight from Congress or the courts. And it appears that many of the criminals with whom Trump has surrounded himself are, or at least were, eager to have him use that power to benefit them.
Let’s begin with our good friend Michael Cohen:
“Michael Cohen’s former legal team reached out to President Donald Trump’s lawyers seeking a pardon, Cohen’s current attorney said late Wednesday, largely settling speculation about who initiated conversations about the matter but raising new questions about whether Cohen was honest in his public testimony to Congress last week,” The Washington Post reported.
“Cohen’s lawyer Lanny Davis said in an interview that Cohen directed his former attorney Stephen Ryan to contact Trump’s representatives after they “dangled” the possibility of pardons ‘in their public statements.’ Davis did not specify which public statements swayed Cohen, saying only that the outreach took place before federal law enforcement raided Cohen’s home and office in April 2018.”
But that’s not all:
“Trump’s lead lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, said Wednesday that lawyers for several people facing scrutiny from the Justice Department in the investigations into the Trump campaign and presidency had contacted him to see whether the president would pardon their clients,” The Post reported.
Several people! Well, you might say, that’s not the president’s fault. Anyone can ask for a pardon. It doesn’t mean he’ll say yes, and Giuliani says his response to these supplicants was that they’d have to wait until the investigation was over before Trump would even consider it.
So what could possibly have convinced these people that a man of Trump’s unquestionable integrity would even consider something so unethical as using his pardon power to get free one of his former aides from accountability in an investigation in which he himself is under suspicion?
To answer that question, we might start with the extraordinary number of Trump aides and associates who have either been convicted or pleaded guilty to crimes, a list that includes his former national security adviser, his former campaign chairman, his former deputy campaign chairman and his former personal attorney. It’s almost as though people with questionable ethics and a propensity toward criminality gravitate toward him, the kind of people who think that if all else fails they can get the boss to make their problems go away.
Then we might move on to the fact that Trump has been trying to obstruct the investigation into the Russia scandal from the beginning. He pressured FBI Director James Comey to back off the probe of Michael Flynn, and reportedly asked the director of national intelligence to intervene with Comey for the same purpose.
Then he fired Comey and said on national television that he did it amid anger over the Russia investigation.
Then he told the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in an Oval Office meeting that now that he had fired Comey, “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
All of which is to say, if you were caught up in the Russia investigation, you know well that Trump is both contemptuous of it (“Witch hunt!”) and favorably inclined toward using whatever means are available to obstruct it.
You also know that much like a mob boss, Trump has a principled opposition to anyone cooperating with authorities investigating crimes, no matter the investigation in question.
He has called Cohen a “rat,” mob slang for those who provide evidence against other criminals, and said about such cooperation, “I have had many friends involved in this stuff. It’s called flipping, and it almost ought to be illegal.” Should you refuse to cooperate, you know you’ll win his admiration and perhaps his favor.
Then there are the things Trump has said about the pardon power itself, like this:
“As has been stated by numerous legal scholars, I have the absolute right to PARDON myself, but why would I do that when I have done nothing wrong?” the president tweeted in June.
If he thinks he has the right to pardon himself for crimes he might have committed, why wouldn’t he pardon you too? Especially if you do him a solid by refusing to give up information that could have implicated him.
I doubt anyone can honestly say that if Trump believed he could get away with it - legally and politically - he’d pardon everybody. He wouldn’t only pardon those like Flynn and Manafort, who have already been shown to have committed crimes, he’d issue some pre-emptive pardons, too, for people like his son Don Jr.
And of course, he’d pardon himself.
Paul Waldman is an opinion writer for the Plum Line blog.