President Donald Trump has been on a pardon rampage. After social media mogul Kim Kardashian visited him at the White House to discuss prison reform, Trump has pardoned Dinesh D’Souza, and has floated the idea of pardoning Martha Stewart and Rod Blagojevich. Nonetheless, his newest and most concerning pardon conquest yet is himself, and officials defending justice do not intend to remain quiet.
U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into possible collusion with Russia during the president’s campaign incited Trump to tweet on Monday night, “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? In the meantime, the never-ending Witch Hunt, led by 13 very Angry and Conflicted Democrats (& others) continues into the mid-terms!”
There is no exact precedent that dictates how much power the controversial president actually has in rectifying his own legal ramifications. Both Nixon and Clinton were accused of obstruction of justice — one of several things Mueller is working to find Trump guilty of — but, given that their actions called their personal character into question, their misconduct was not treated as a hindrance of the official powers of the president.
“Trump is doing this not for national security reasons but to impede an investigation into himself and his associates, and he’s staking a far more sweeping claim to power than even other presidents, by saying he can use the Justice Department for whatever he wants,” said David Kris, formerly the most senior national security official at the Department of Justice, to the New York Times.
“They are saying not just that the president is above the law, but in effect that he is the law — that he is the personification of justice and cannot obstruct himself. That is very stark and not very persuasive.”
Despite Trump’s lofty claims to overarching power, the Constitution does include several restrictions on the president’s authority, such as that which prevents him/her from firing certain officials without good cause. But, since there is no precedent for a president attempting to do so, it is unclear to what extent Congress can actually limit the president’s claimed dominion over the Justice Department.
If this most recent occurrence of unwieldy executive behavior sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Trump’s language in his tweet makes it seem like he believes himself to be a monarch-like figure for the United States.
His claims to an “absolute right to pardon [himself]” harken back to absolute monarchies, during which time kings and their subjects believed that they received the right to wield their power from God. That kind of ultimate sovereignty is exactly what the American forefathers set out to avoid when writing the U.S. Constitution; it’s why we have a set of checks and balances in place.
“We overthrew control by a monarchy, and the Constitution signals in multiple places that the president is subject to law,” said Peter Shane, an Ohio State University law professor, to the New York Times. “The idea that the president could — regardless of his motive — just work his will on the investigation of civil or criminal offenses, that the Constitution frees him to act with corrupt motives, is just an affront to the idea of the president as a public trustee and subject to law.”
At first glance, Trump’s recent tweet on his right to pardon himself may seem like just more presidential bravado. A closer look, however, reveals the danger of Trump’s monarchical mindset. Still, despite his intentions, not even the president can escape the gaze of those who seek to prevent political corruption.