In its Eighteenth Century wording, the U.S. Constitution in Article II Section 2 grants Presidents “Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” Our founding fathers left that power to speak for itself and many Presidents have used it, usually for cases of miscarriage of justice or excessive sentencing, and mostly after those cases were thoroughly researched by the federal Department of Justice. One significant aspect in considering requests for pardon is the applicant’s sincere regret for having committed the offense. A pardon does not rule that the individual was innocent of the offense, only that he or she is officially forgiven and therefore will forgo any further punishment. President Ford famously used his position to pardon his predecessor in office, Richard Nixon, in a very controversial ruling; Ford himself was subsequently defeated in his bid for re-election.
President Trump last week pardoned Joe Arpaio, the former Sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, a man who never expressed any regret at all. The President stated his opinion that “Sheriff Joe was convicted of just doing his job.” What he was actually convicted of is willfully ignoring a court order to respect the Constitutional rights of American citizens. A federal judge had ruled in 2013 that Arpaio’s office had racially profiled people in his district, instituting “pretextual” traffic stops and sweeps zeroing in on Hispanic neighborhoods in order to require people to prove American citizenship. People were stopped only because they appeared to be Hispanic, and they were not alleged to have committed any crime. Stops like that, based just on a person’s race or ethnicity, violate the due process of law, hence they violate the Constitution. Sheriff Joe was directed to stop that practice, but instead he told his force to ignore the order. He was then found guilty of “contempt of court,” because he “broadcast to the world and to his subordinates that he would and they should continue what he had always been doing.” The law and the Constitution, he apparently felt, held no sway on his office. The court ruled otherwise.
What was the point of President Trump’s pardoning him? That he seems to think that the law and the Constitution hold no sway on his office, either. There are several federal investigations into the Trump campaign and administration underway now, including Presidential advisors Michael Flynn (the former National Security Advisor) and Paul Manafort (former Campaign Chairman). If the President feels unconstrained at pardoning people with whom he agrees politically regardless of their being found guilty of a crime, then it doesn’t take too much imagination to see where the current FBI investigations may be headed.
President Trump has reportedly asked his legal team whether he can pardon even himself, for crimes that may have been committed during the campaign or afterward. The answer is unsure, but (as above) the Constitution specifically states “except in cases of Impeachment.”
It looks as if 2017, and perhaps even 2018, will be an interesting year.