OP-ED: The voters must punish Trump for sparing Roger Stone

Michael McGough
Los Angeles Times (TNS)
Roger Stone, a longtime adviser to President Donald Trump, gestures as he leaves the Prettyman United States Courthouse in Washington, D.C., after facing charges from Special Counsel Robert Mueller that he lied to Congress and engaged in witness tampering, on January 29, 2019. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

It’s understandable that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is outraged by President Donald Trump’s decision to commute the sentence of his pal Roger Stone. Last year, a jury convicted the self-described dirty trickster of seven felony counts, including witness tampering and lying to Congress, and he was sentenced to three years and four months in prison.

This cockeyed clemency would be a scandal even without the suspicion that the president was rewarding a crony who said in an interview that Trump “knows I was under enormous pressure to turn on him. It would have eased my situation considerably. But I didn’t.”

But Pelosi is probably blowing constitutional smoke by proposing that Congress pass legislation “to ensure that no president can pardon or commute the sentence of an individual who is engaged in a coverup campaign to shield that president from criminal prosecution.”

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As the Congressional Research Service noted earlier this year, “the Supreme Court has recognized that the authority vested by the Constitution in the president is quite broad, describing it as ‘plenary,’ discretionary, and largely not subject to legislative modification.”

But Congress isn’t completely powerless where pardons are concerned. CRS reports that Congress can exercise some oversight over the pardons system and “has, in the past, been relatively successful in obtaining information from the executive branch on particular clemency decisions, up to and including congressional testimony from the president himself.”

Political junkies of a certain age will remember that former President Gerald Ford agreed to testify before Congress about his post-Watergate pardon of Richard M. Nixon. (Ford denied that the pardon was the price of Nixon’s resignation.)

Congress also investigated Bill Clinton’s last-minute pardon of the fugitive financier Marc Rich, whose ex-wife Denise Rich was a generous donor to the Democratic Party.

But CRS adds that requests from Congress for clemency-related documents could raise issues of executive privilege.

CRS also notes that Congress could approve a constitutional amendment to rein in the pardon power. But we all know that ratification of such an amendment would be difficult.

That leaves impeachment. CRS observes that during the ratification of the Constitution, James Madison suggested that impeachment was a check on abuse of the pardon power.

But the House already impeached Trump over his outrageous attempt to have Ukraine investigate Joe Biden; with the election only a few months away, the possibility of a second impeachment is remote. Even if Trump were impeached again, the prospect of the Senate acting to remove him is more remote. Just consider the pusillanimous silence from most Republican senators. (As in Trump’s impeachment trial, Sen. Mitt Romney, who called the commutation “unprecedented, historic corruption,” is an honorable exception.)

That doesn’t mean Pelosi and other House Democrats shouldn’t keep the focus on Trump’s latest abuse of the pardon power. No less a Trump loyalist than Attorney General William Barr has said that the prosecution of Stone was “righteous,” suggesting that the commutation was wrong even if it wasn’t a payoff for Stone’s silence.

But the remedy for this abuse of office, as for all of Trump’s other outrages, is the one Pelosi mentioned at the end of her statement: “This decision and Trump’s many other acts of corruption point to the urgency of electing a president in November who will respect the Constitution, the rule of law and the will of the American people.”

— Michael McGough is the Los Angeles Times’ senior editorial writer, based in Washington, D.C.