EDITORIAL: Can't pardon Trump's sins

York Dispatch
  • Trump and his legal team are discussing his authority to grant pardons.
  • They are specifically looking at if he can pardon himself and members of his inner circle
  • Legal experts concur that the president does indeed have broad pardoning powers

“As president, I, Donald J. Trump, in order to end once and for all this ridiculous witch hunt of a Russian investigation, do hereby grant complete and total pardons to any and all persons named in the investigation, including myself. It is now time to move forward with the important work that the American people sent me to Washington to do.”

FILE - In this June 9, 2017, file photo, President Donald Trump listens during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. A clear majority of Americans believe Trump has tried to interfere with the investigation into Russia’s alleged election meddling and possible Trump campaign collusion, a new poll shows. Just one in five support his decision to oust James Comey from the FBI. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

You might think a statement to that effect is out of the question. Unfortunately, it’s not entirely clear the president agrees.

Why else would he raise the issue in a Saturday morning message on Twitter: “… all agree the U.S. President has complete power to pardon …”?

That tweet followed a Washington Post report last week that detailed the president and his legal team discussing his authority to grant pardons as just one way to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian meddling in last year’s presidential election.

Trump’s legal team has reportedly also been conducting its own version of opposition research against Mueller and his colleagues, looking for past actions — such as donations to Democratic candidates — that it can paint as conflicts of interest.

OPED: Why won't the president own up?

The absurd implication that an independent investigation can only be conducted by a team that has spent its adult life collectively supporting one party or another is just the latest presidential effort to muddy the waters and plant public doubt. That it can even be suggested is yet another reflection of the astoundingly divided state of American politics.

Talk of pardons and otherwise undermining the probe has surfaced in the immediate wake of word that Mueller is expanding the investigation into Trump’s business dealings. Trump even refused to dismiss the possibility of firing Mueller during a freewheeling interview with the New York Times last week.

The president continues to insist — through posts on Twitter and comments elsewhere — that there has been no coordination between his campaign and Russian efforts to sway last year’s vote in his favor, calling such allegations “fake news” and the ongoing investigation a “witch hunt.”

FILE - In this Friday, July 7, 2017, file photo U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 Summit in Hamburg. A separate US-Russia-brokered truce for southern Syria, brokered by the U.S. and Russia, is meant to help allay growing concerns by neighboring Jordan and Israel about Iranian military ambitions in the area. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Of course, the administration also denied any contact between campaign players and Russian agents, and that assertion has been repeatedly disproven.

Keep in mind, administration efforts to cast doubt on the investigation are not just a way to defend the president (from what, we wonder?) but an undermining of the very real work needed to determine the extent of Russian infiltration into the U.S. elections system and to prevent future such acts. As we have argued, this investigation is about protecting the foundation of democracy, free and fair elections, rather than the president’s fragile ego.

And yet, entrusted with the protection of an electoral system that saw him elevated to the nation’s highest office despite losing the popular vote by almost 3 million ballots, the president focuses not on the national good, but on his power to pardon.

Legal experts concur that the president does indeed have broad pardoning powers and could likely pardon even his own family members — political fallout be damned (which, let’s be honest, is all but this president’s motto).

It’s much less clear that Trump can pardon himself. No president has ever tried. An ongoing academic debate among law professors and other legal experts leans against the legality of such an action, but there is no definitive answer. What is known: a president cannot pardon himself in case of impeachment.

In continuing to refuse to acknowledge Russian electoral meddling, impeding efforts to get to the bottom of it, and even suggesting that he could deal himself a legally binding get-out-of-jail-free card, the president may not be committing impeachable offenses. But it is not unfair to characterize his acts as unpardonable sins.