Donald Trump may pardon himself, but should heed the lessons of the Ford-Nixon era – Donald Trump’s America
By Micheline Maynard
The tweet seemed to be another one of Donald Trump’s bizarre early morning (in the US) ramblings.
Think about that assertion for a moment: “I have the absolute right to PARDON myself, but why would I do that when I have done nothing wrong?”
Here’s another way to phrase it. “Why on Earth would a sitting American president even bring up the subject of a PARDON when it is one of the most serious matters that can possibly face a political leader?”
Of course, in the Trump administration, pardons have become a reward, either for having an ideology that the President applauds, like the controversial Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, or something that is sought by celebrities for their favourite causes, like the clemency sought by Kim Kardashian for a drugs offender.
But in another time in American history, a presidential pardon that was a pardon of a president, was enough to rattle the nation’s collective being.
‘I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln’
In 1974, Gerald R Ford was enjoying a honeymoon with the American public after he succeeded Richard M Nixon.
Ford was already something of a media darling, in part because he actually liked, and was nice to the Washington press corps. As vice-president, he lived at home in Alexandria, Virginia, a wealthy historic suburb outside the nation’s capital.
The Nixon pardon most likely cost Gerald Ford re-election in 1976. (Reuters: Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library/David Hume)
He was photographed preparing his morning toast, laughing with his handsome family, relaxing in an arm chair while he read government papers.
When he became president, Mr Ford memorably declared, “I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln”, a play on words in which he compared the everyday car brand to its luxury cousin.
Everyone was prepared to like him — and my family did, since my parents knew him from their political activities.
I met him once when I was a small girl, and remember looking up, up, up at a tall man in a smart suit.
“Who is this young lady?” he said with a smile.
So, it came as a jolt to the American public on September 8, 1974, when Mr Ford, telling not even his closest aides, sat down on a holiday Sunday afternoon and delivered a message he hoped would tie up a nasty era in American politics.
His reasoning was simple: Mr Ford explained that by resigning, Nixon had become liable to indictment and a trial for offences he might have committed against the country. The process to get ready for a court case.
“In the meantime, the tranquillity to which this nation has been restored by the events of recent weeks could be irreparably lost by the prospects of bringing to trial a former president of the United States,” Mr Ford said in his pardon statement.
He also felt that the process would cause “prolonged and divisive debate” over a man who had already “paid the unprecedented penalty” of giving up the US presidency.
Nixon pardon burst Ford’s bubble
The reaction was swift and cost Mr Ford one of his closest aides, presidential press secretary Jerald TerHorst.
The same day, Mr TerHorst handed in his resignation, saying: “I cannot in good conscience support your decision to pardon former President Nixon even before he has been charged with the commission of any crime.”
The Nixon pardon burst the bubble of goodwill around Mr Ford.
While he is remembered now as one of the nation’s most genial presidents, and someone who did calm the country after the Nixon turmoil, the pardon also most likely cost him re-election in 1976.
For Mr Trump to talk about pardoning himself only shows how little he understands about the impact that a pardon would have, and the ramifications to his own legacy.
At the very least, a pardon would be an admission of guilt, despite Mr Trump’s contention that he has done nothing wrong.
A pardon would be the ultimate example of hubris, in an administration where Mr Trump takes credit for anything he can claim, and rejects responsibility for the messes he has created.
A pardon would forever cast a cloud over his presidency much darker and more turbulent than the one that followed Mr Ford.
In that president’s case, Mr Ford could claim a singular accomplishment to offset his action: the act of returning the nation to normal.
In Mr Trump’s case, the turbulence he has already caused would only be made more severe if he were to clear himself from any liability.
Rudy Giuliani said it was an “open question” whether Donald Trump would sit for an interview with Robert Mueller. (AP: Carolyn Kaster)
Even Giuliani thinks it’s a bad idea
Since he has taken office, Mr Trump has surrounded himself with yes men and women, scaring off or firing those who show any kind of resistance to his mercurial leadership style.
But even Rudolph Giuliani, the former New York mayor who is Mr Trump’s erstwhile legal adviser, thinks a pardon would be folly.
He said the move would be “unthinkable” and would probably lead to impeachment by Congress.
However, if we have learned anything in the Trump era, it is that actions once considered to be unthinkable by a sitting president are becoming less and less unthinkable by the minute.
After all, impeachment under the American system is only a severe form of censure. Mr Nixon resigned before he was impeached. Bill Clinton remained in office after he was impeached.
At this moment, it seems unlikely that a Republican-controlled House of Representatives would impeach Mr Trump, unless the legislators felt their own jobs were in jeopardy (they stand for re-election in November).
There is plenty of proof that by bringing up a topic, Mr Trump shows that he plans to use it as part of his message.
It’s easy to picture Mr Trump using the idea of a pardon at his rallies, with the catch phrase, “I’ve done nothing wrong” joining the pantheon that includes “Lock her up”, meaning Hillary Clinton, and “build the wall”, referring to Mexico.
Mr Trump’s advisers may dismiss the idea of a pardon, but watch this space.
There could conceivably come another Sunday afternoon in the near future, when a president drops a pardon bombshell.
Micheline Maynard is an American journalist and author, and a former White House intern.