Through his pardons of political allies, conservative defenders and others convicted of federal crimes, President Trump throughout his term has sent indirect signals of his willingness to help those close to him escape punishment.
And now, the president has entwined that message with his chief campaign promise — by privately assuring aides that he would pardon them of any potential illegality as the administration rushes to build his vaunted border wall before he returns to the ballot next November.
The notion has alarmed congressional Democrats, who had been investigating potential obstruction of justice on Trump’s part as the House continues to weigh whether to launch impeachment proceedings once lawmakers return to Washington next month.
Rep. David N. Cicilline (R.I.), a member of the House Democratic leadership and the House Judiciary Committee, said any suggestion that Trump would encourage subordinates to break the law by promising pardons is “appalling” and worthy of further investigation by the panel.
“Sadly, this is just one more instance of a president who undermines the rule of law and behaves as if he’s a king and not governed by the laws of this country,” Cicilline said in an interview Wednesday. “He is not a king, he is accountable … I think it just adds to the ongoing proceeding before the Judiciary Committee as we consider whether to recommend articles of impeachment against the president.”
Trump on Wednesday denied that he had made those private assurances, first reported Tuesday evening by The Washington Post. Yet a White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity in advance of the report did not deny it and said Trump is joking when he makes such statements about pardons.
“Another totally Fake story in the Amazon Washington Post (lobbyist) which states that if my Aides broke the law to build the Wall (which is going up rapidly), I would give them a Pardon,” Trump tweeted Wednesday afternoon. “This was made up by The Washington Post only in order to demean and disparage — FAKE NEWS!”
The Post is owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, although it is run independently from the online retail enterprise.
The wall discussions are not the first time that Trump has reportedly promised a pardon to a subordinate for doing something potentially illegal.
In April, the New York Times reported that Trump told acting Homeland Security secretary Kevin McAleenan that he would pardon him if he directed his personnel to illegally deny asylum to migrants who request it at the southern border. Trump later denied doing so in a tweet, calling it “Another Fake Story.”
Members of the House Judiciary Committee sent a letter to McAleenan requesting information and documents on the incident; a panel spokesman did not respond to a question about whether McAleenan ever responded. The committee said in a statement at the time that “offering a pardon to encourage an officer of the U.S. government to undertake an illegal action appears on its face to be an unconstitutional abuse of power.”
Several Democrats said Trump’s pardon comments were fair game for investigation as they continue to delve into details of potential obstruction of justice on the part of Trump that emerged from former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation.
“The fall is a period is when we are expanding the scope of our investigation beyond the Mueller report,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who like Cicilline is a member of the Judiciary Committee. “The abuse of the pardon power fits in with our broader investigation into the abuse of the powers of the presidency.”
Raskin added: “It’s similar to the president ordering the executive branch not to cooperate with congressional investigations. That is an abuse of power and an assault on the separation of powers.”
Cicilline said it did not matter whether Trump’s subordinates ultimately carried out his illegal directives.
“It’s an abuse of the pardon power, it’s an abuse of the president’s authority, and it’s very likely illegal,” he said. “So whether anyone actually does it or not — that idea that the president of the United States, responsible for enforcing and upholding the rule of law in this country, is making a statement like that is just appalling.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary panel, did not comment on the issue Wednesday.
Several of the 15 pardons that Trump has issued during his presidency — a power that is nearly unchecked and that Trump has relished — have carried with them an overtly political tone.
The first pardon Trump issued as president went to Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., whose controversial tactics on immigration enforcement garnered legal challenges and a conviction on a criminal contempt of court charge. Trump pardoned him of that crime in August 2017 — less than a month after the conviction and weeks before he was set to be sentenced.
In April 2018, Trump pardoned I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the former chief of staff to former vice president Richard B. Cheney, who had been convicted on perjury and obstruction of justice charges. Trump suggested Libby had been treated unfairly by the prosecution as it probed the leak of the identity of Valerie Plame, a CIA officer.
Trump said at the time that he did not personally know Libby, but the pardon came as several former Trump associates had pleaded guilty to similar charges amid Mueller’s Russia probe.
The following month, Trump gave a full pardon to Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative commentator who had pleaded guilty to illegally using straw donors for a Republican Senate candidate in New York.
As with Libby, Trump concluded that D’Souza had been mistreated and said at the time that he was also considering clemency for former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich (D) and lifestyle guru Martha Stewart. The three had been convicted of crimes similar to charges faced by former Trump associates as part of the Mueller probe.
In May of this year, Trump pardoned Conrad Black, who in 2007 was convicted on fraud and obstruction of justice charges. The billionaire last year penned a flattering biography of the president, “Donald J. Trump: A president like no other,” that defended him against accusations of racism and praised him for the “optimism to persevere and succeed, the confidence to affront tradition and convention, a genius for spectacle, and a firm belief in common sense and the common man.”
Trump has even pondered pardoning himself — tweeting in June 2018 amid the Mueller probe that he has the “absolute right” to do so and that his argument was bolstered by “numerous legal scholars.” (Whether Trump can actually do so is up for debate.)
“More than one isolated remark, it’s the pattern that’s concerning,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said of Trump’s pardon tendencies. “As much as what he may do, or not, is the message that it sends to the American people about his view of the importance of law and law enforcement.”