Pascrell and Lieu in USA Today: If Donald Trump thwarts Russia investigation with pardons, we might never recover
Washington, DC, June 21, 2018
Text of the article appears below:
Pardons are all the talk these days. America hasn’t seen this frequency of pardon discussion since the year President Richard Nixon resigned. President Donald Trump has issued multiple surprise pardons and commutations since taking office. Those who have received clemency have very little in common other than their proximity to celebrity, support of Trump or some combination of the two.
Additionally, Trump has also mused publicly about pardoning contestants of The Apprentice, privately about pardoning his aides and family, and he insists that he can even pardon himself. Saying this is unprecedented is a generous way to describe his use of pardons.
While many of Trump’s actions have chipped away at the prestige of his office, his view of pardons is particularly disturbing. It appears the president is setting the groundwork to undermine our country’s laws to potentially protect himself and his closest associates.
Our fear has historical context. The Framers were wary of an executive whose powers resembled the monarchical system they had freed themselves from but saw a pardon as a check on judicial excesses. To the architects of the Constitution, pardon power was meant to be broad — but used sparingly.
Shredded guidelines, no contrition
Rigid Justice Department regulations seek to limit the extension of pardons to only the most deserving supplicants — as it should be. In issuing pardons unilaterally, Trump has shredded these guidelines.
Last August, Trump pardoned former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio for imposing a reign of racial profiling terror and for the systematic mistreatment of prisoners. In April, Trump pardoned Scooter Libby, who was convicted in 2007 of lying to FBI agents and obstruction of justice. And weeks ago, he pardoned Dinesh D’Souza, a race-baiting felon who was convicted for federal election crimes. None of these individuals ever expressed contrition or a desire to atone — the bedrock requirement to even be considered for a pardon.
In ordinary times, such acts alone might be considered impeachable offenses or at the least the focus of intense scrutiny. But 286 congressional Republicans have said nary a word. And the president has upped the ante by floating pardons for Martha Stewart, Rod Blagojevich and even for himself.
Trump is purportedly frustrated by the constitutional guardrails that shackle his worst impulses. But this is only because he entered office believing that the Oval Office contained a throne.
This mindset explains Trump’s fascination with pardons. In virtually no other domestic sphere is the president’s power so unrestrained. Individual pardons are not subject to judicial review. The president wields life-and-death authority at the stroke of a pen, and clearly this has enamored the man who once played an executive on television. With this power, the law gets to be what he decides it is.
The problem is, democracy is not reality TV. The very suggestion of offering pardons to his friends cheapens our justice institutions, making them more vulnerable to misuse and debasement.
Trump’s repeated references to his authority and his pardons of figures such as Libby and Arpaio are sinister signals. He is demonstrating that his power to pardon is unhindered. In between the lines of these actions, Trump is telling his associates under the legal microscope of the Russia probe that he has the power to save them if they keep quiet. Just this month, his attorney Rudy Giuliani suggested that Trump will use pardons to “clean up” former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s criminal indictments.
So far, special counsel Robert Mueller has obtained five guilty pleas from Trump figures and has returned indictments against three companies and 20 people, including Trump’s former campaign chairman, his national security adviser and other top aides. Trump issuing pardons to his advisers, his children or himself would constitute perhaps the gravest abuse of power in U.S. history. Trump has indicated that he sees himself above all laws; the exercise of such authority would be a formal declaration.
What is Trump's decision process?
While Congress cannot overturn individual pardons, it is imbued with expansive oversight powers to monitor the health of government. Last week, we took steps to bring that oversight to life by issuing a Resolution of Inquiry, which will allow us to better understand the decision-making behind Trump’s pardons. Our resolution would compel Attorney General Jeff Sessions to transmit to the House any documents, records or other communications relating to any pardon Trump has approved or has considered issuing.
Though congressional Republicans remain committed to shirking their oversight duties over rampant corruption, our legislation will bring awareness to an issue with massive implications.
Presidents have long been wary to use pardons for fear of appearing soft on crime. That hasn’t always been the right decision, as our nation would do well to show mercy to offenders such as Alice Johnson and wronged people such as Jack Johnson. But these cases cannot be used to inoculate Trump from the abuses he has committed and continues to contemplate.
Even Richard Nixon had personal boundaries and was constrained by Republicans in Congress, who still placed the fitness of our democracy over their own standing.
If Donald Trump can use pardons to head off criminal investigations and put himself above the rule of law, it might represent a change that can’t be made right again.