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There's no excuse for presidential pardons


Throughout American history, presidents have granted clemency to about 250,000 people.  

Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 of the Constitution reads in part that the president “shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” 

Although the pardon power is written in the Constitution, it is not consistent with a revolution that sought freedom from the autocratic rule and absolute power of the English monarchy. Nevertheless, the 1789 Constitution of the newly born United States gave the president a portion of the king’s absolute power.  

The original intent of the framers of the Constitution was to give presidents pardon power to restore “domestic tranquility” during times of strife; for example, by pardoning Confederate soldiers following the Civil War.  

In 1833, the Supreme Court held in United States v Wilson that a pardon can be refused, but to take effect the pardon must be accepted. And in 1915 the high court held in Burdick v United States that accepting a pardon is an admission of guilt.  

The pardon power is absolute and unlimited; pardons are not granted to the innocent. Unabashed presidents quickly began to abuse that power for personal benefit and political favors. All but two of America’s 46 presidents granted pardons, both likely because of their short time in office: William Harrison didn’t grant clemency because he died 31 days into his administration and James Garfield was assassinated after only months in office.   

George Washington pardoned 16 people, while Joe Biden’s count is up to 6,500, most granted to those convicted of low-level marijuana offenses.  

Andrew Johnson, the first president to be impeached, granted thousands of pardons, including to three persons convicted of conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln after four other conspirators were hanged.  

Jimmy Carter granted amnesty to 200,000 persons who evaded military service during the Vietnam War and also commuted the sentence of Oscar Collazo, who was convicted of the attempted assassination of President Harry Truman.  

Gerald Ford granted 409 acts of clemency, including by pardoning Iva Toguri D’Aquino, better known as Tokyo Rose, who was convicted of treason, and a preemptive pardon to Richard Nixon for Watergate-related crimes.  

Nixon’s 926 acts of clemency included commuting the sentence of former Army Lt. William Calley, who was convicted of murder in the 1968 My Lai massacre of 22 unarmed villagers by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam.  

Bill Clinton’s list of 459 pardons and commutations included those of persons considered terrorists by some. He also pardoned Democrat donor Marc Rich. The New York Post wrote “This pardon was widely viewed as a legal form of bribery” while The New York Times said it “was a shocking abuse of presidential power.”  

Barack Obama’s 1,900 acts of clemency included commuting the 35-year sentence of former intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning, who was convicted of leaking military documents.  

Donald Trump granted pardons and commutations to war criminals, drug traffickers and a person who had a role in the killing of a cop. Trump called for the death penalty for drug dealers, yet in 2020 Trump was lobbied by celebrity Kim Kardashian and pardoned a person serving a life sentence for drug trafficking conspiracy charges. Trump, the self-proclaimed law-and-order president who stated “I love the police” and was endorsed by the NYPD Police Benevolent Association in 2020, the next year commuted the life sentence of a drug dealer who was behind the killing of a Syracuse cop, betraying every police officer in America. 

Were these pardons and prison commutations granted to restore tranquility to America?  

Presidential pardons have reduced “Lady Justice,” once a symbol of integrity and impartiality, to a meaningless trinket. Don’t let the blindfold fool you, she selectively sees through the prism of political privilege and presidential prerogative. 

Her sword is sharp on one side for the apolitical but dull on the other for the favored and connected. And American presidents have egregiously abused their power by putting their finger on the scales of justice held in her hand. 

George Mason, a clairvoyant Virginia representative to the Constitutional Convention, refused to sign the Constitution because he opposed both the presidential pardon power and a strong central government. “The president ought not to have the power of pardoning because he may frequently pardon crimes which were advised by himself,” Mason argued. “It may happen, at some future day, that he will establish a monarch, and destroy the republic.”  

Was Mason’s prophecy fulfilled when Trump pardoned Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn and commuted Roger Stone prison sentence? In July of 2020, Utah Senator Mitt Romney posted on Twitter, “Unprecedented historic corruption: an American president commutes the sentence of a person convicted by a jury of lying to shield that very president.” Trump has also stated he would pardon persons convicted of crimes related to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, which include assaults on police officers and seditious conspiracy. 

And, as president, Trump could pardon or commute the sentence of Ghislaine Maxwell, convicted of sex trafficking crimes and posthumously pardon his friend Jeffrey Epstein who was also facing sex trafficking charges. 

Trump is now the 2024 presumptive Republican nominee. He has been indicted for mishandling classified documents and election interference and has argued he can pardon himself. A self-pardon would be an admission of the guilt he has denied ad nauseam. Moreover, that self-pardon would encourage more Trump crimes, including dangling pardons to others for “crimes which were advised by himself” to usurp the pardon power for his own authoritarian ambition and “establish a monarch and destroy the republic,” just as George Mason forewarned. 

The pardon power is a paradox. It is the antithesis of the rule of law, it sabotages justice and flagrantly disregards victims. In a country that proclaims that no one is above the law, those who receive pardons and commutations and the presidents that grant them are above the law. America is not better served by presidents granting pardons and commutations to wannabe dictators, corrupt politicians, assassins, spies, terrorists, drug traffickers and cop killers.  

Article V of the U.S. Constitution allows for the Constitution to be amended.  

The presidential pardon power must be repealed. 

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