Stopping the abuse of the pardon power
How much more corruption do we have to endure before we see Donald Trump’s term end on Jan. 20? Trump’s most recent grants of clemency add to his pattern of self-serving publicity stunts and pervert a power designed for mercy, turning it into a tool of personal perquisites and protection and grift. They are of a character so vile they cry out for reform. Although we can’t stop these pardons, we must do what we can and make sure this type of abuse can never happen again.
In the latest batch of 15 pardons and five commutations, convicted corrupt Republican politicians, mercenaries convicted of killing innocent civilians in Baghdad, stirring international outrage, and two who lied, and served prison terms, for covering up their contacts during the Mueller probe of Russian meddling all get reprieves. Doing the opposite of what the Founders intended in providing mercy and justice when the legal process has gone too far, this president assures injustice and rank corruption is rewarded. Who’s next?
President Trump, while campaigning in 2016, famously declared that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it. It seems he still thinks he can, acting like a dictator/ruler instead of honoring the rule of law. These are the Shoot-Someone-on-Fifth-Avenue-and-Get-Away-with-It pardons. I introduced H. J. Res. 8, a proposed Constitutional Amendment limiting the presidential pardon power, at the beginning of the current Congress and in a prior Congress. I intend to file a slightly revised joint resolution on the first day of the new Congress in January limiting that power to prevent those whose actions showed corrupt intent, or whose pardons would serve the personal interest of the president, from receiving clemency.
This country needs a serious debate on whether we need the president to have a pardon power at all. If given that power, perhaps it should be limited to groups of people who have been clear victims of injustice, like those convicted of marijuana offenses, or whose actions seem excusable after calm reflection, like Jimmy Carter’s pardon of Vietnam-era draft resisters or Lincoln’s grants of clemency that prevented some young soldiers from execution.
Our Founders and civic-minded public servants ever since understood that, inherent in the minds of moral leaders was a sense of shame. That unwritten sensibility was an internal brake on using the powers of high office to abuse that power. Trump, a narcissistic sociopath, has no such restraint. His previous pardons, especially those of Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, have rewarded those who flouted the rule of law and lied to protect Trump’s interests. In an office demanding the utmost in high character and ethical judgment, this president has no shame.
The pardon power is the last vestige of kings. Alexander Hamilton and others at the Constitutional debates in Philadelphia argued it would be a last resort against injustice, and a noble method of conferring mercy when all other remedies were exhausted. Providing clemency to three money-grubbing Republicans convicted of corruption and admitted their guilt is not merciful; it’s an assault on the public interest. One pocketed money intended for charity. Another blamed his wife when cornered. Pardoning such criminals may in fact encourage similar lawless behavior.
The Blackwater contractors who shot up Nisour Square in Baghdad, killing 17, including children, were rightly convicted and are serving prison terms. Everyone condemned their actions, which disgraced our country in the eyes of the world. Now, they go free. This was clearly done at the behest of Blackwater founder Erik Prince, a Trump ally, whose sister Betsy DeVos is Trump’s Education secretary.
President Trump is hunkered down in the Oval Office surrounded by sycophants and misfits, has-beens, never-was-es, publicity seekers and buffoons. His efforts to undo his loss in this year’s election are going nowhere. These pardons demonstrate he recognizes he’s reached a dead end. His term is almost up. This is one more ignominious public disgrace — and he doesn’t care.
Trump’s dishonorable pardons are a mere footnote to a failed presidency, but they will be remembered.
Press accounts indicate Trump didn’t bother with the established legal processes and confer with the Office of the Pardon Attorney in the Department of Justice, where 14,000 pending clemency petitions have been ignored. As a nation, we must look long and hard at this power gone awry in Trump’s hands and assure ourselves that future presidents can’t do similar damage and show a similar contempt for their high office.
Congressman Steve Cohen, the Chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, represents Tennessee’s 9th District.