It’s Happened Before: To pardon, or not to pardon

Graphic by Aliza Kibel
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In a recessionary economy, there is one group whose future looks very bright: Trump’s lawyers. Now fighting battles on three legal fronts, former President Trump is spending millions to hold off a growing cast of opponents. Initially only dealing with a House of Representatives investigation into his involvement in the Jan. 6 debacle, Trump now has to contend with a New York state investigation into financial impropriety and, since early August, an FBI investigation into illegal removal of classified material from the White House. Out of this staggering litany of incredible misconduct, the most dangerous to Trump is his potential breach of federal laws relating to classified material. On a memorable day in American history, the FBI searched Trump’s property at Mar-a-Lago and recovered, among other things, top-secret material, which, were it to fall into the wrong hands, might devastate American national security. While Trump has faced legal problems before, it seems that in this investigation he might finally face real consequences, which could include a 10-year sentence.

The last time a U.S. president, sitting or otherwise, faced a criminal investigation was Richard Nixon. Accused of sanctioning an attempt to wiretap the Democratic National Committee, Nixon came under mounting fire as it became apparent that he had committed criminal wrongdoing. Though initially defiant, it soon became clear that “Tricky Dick” would be leaving the White House — voluntarily or not. Nixon chose to resign, yet he still could have faced criminal prosecution. That is, until his successor, Gerald R. Ford, pardoned him. Ford felt the saga had gone on long enough: He wished to end it and allow the nation to heal.

The pardon is, for those weary of Trump’s divisiveness, an attractive way to both end the incessant media circus around the FBI investigation and avoid the potential shockwaves of the prosecution of a former U.S. president. In other words, it’s a way to move on. Nixon’s pardon (eventually) did both of those things. It also contained a measure of satisfaction, since his acceptance of the pardon was an implicit acknowledgment that he had committed wrongdoing. But would a pardon of Trump have the same effect? Probably not.

When Nixon received his pardon, he was done. Having resigned to avoid facing an inevitable impeachment and conviction, his political support had evaporated entirely. Ford’s pardon allowed the nation to move on from a disgraced yet impotent politician.

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Trump, however, is not done. Though he may have been defeated in 2020, a 2024 campaign is a real possibility. To pardon Trump now would not allow the nation to move on, nor would it heal its divisions. It would not let a finished politician retire in ignominy but rather give a free pass to an unrepentant one to commit fresh wrongdoings. Some may balk at the idea of prosecuting a president but in the clash between Trump and justice, only one can prevail. And it must be justice.

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