Presidential Pardons Offer Trump a Way to Go Out on a Positive Note
Despite much posturing by President Donald Trump and his supporters, it’s increasingly likely that Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. In response, Republicans seem bent on petty vengeance in the form of non-cooperation with the new administration’s transition team—an empty gesture that ruffles feathers while accomplishing nothing. But if the outgoing chief executive wants to leave office in a way that has a lasting impact (and yes, that will likely get under the new guy’s skin) he can do so and benefit the country by using the presidential pardon power.
Article II, Section 2 of the United States Constitution specifies that the president “shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” According to the U.S. Supreme Court, in Ex Parte Garland (1866), “with that exception the power is unlimited. It extends to every offence, and is intended to relieve the party who may have committed it or who may be charged with its commission, from all the punishments of every description that the law, at the time of the pardon, imposes.”
The power can even be wielded preemptively, such as when President Gerald Ford pardoned his predecessor, Richard M. Nixon, for any crimes he may have committed.
Pardons, then, are powerful tools for offering relief to people who got on the wrong side of government officials. Such people include high-profile whistleblower Edward Snowden, who revealed U.S. government surveillance of its own population and the world beyond and was personally targeted by Joe Biden when he was vice president in the Obama administration.
“Every time one of these governments got close to opening their doors, the phone would ring in their foreign ministries and on the other end of the line would be a very senior American official,” Edward Snowden told MSNBC in 2019 about the fate of his applications for asylum in multiple countries. “It was one of two people. Then-Secretary of State John Kerry or then-Vice President Joe Biden.”
Snowden went on to paraphrase the resulting conversations: “But if you protect this man, if you let this guy out of Russia, there will be consequences. We’re not going to say what they’re going to be, but there will be a response.”
In 2013, Ecuador’s then-President Rafael Correa confirmed that Biden leaned on him to deny asylum to Snowden.
Given that Snowden provided an important service to the world and that, despite on
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