A few weeks ago, President Trump pardoned convicted or accused war criminals over the profound objection of his most senior military officials, one of whom, the secretary of the Navy, resigned in protest.
Obviously, this is not the only presidential power the president has used in an innovative and personal manner, rather than as originally intended and customarily exercised. In each case, he is forcing the country to ask itself: Is this a power that should be retained, be modified or be further protected?
The answers in the case of the power of the pardon are yes, yes and yes. And the way to do it is to modify the authority by passing a constitutional amendment requiring an additional signature for each pardon. That signature would come from the highest ranking independently elected constitutional official in the line of succession, the speaker of the House.
Let us explain.
We inherited the power to pardon from the English monarchy. Alexander Hamilton explained in Federalist 74 that sometimes mercy from on high is necessary to improve justice, and sometimes to secure civil harmony by forgiving and forgetting. Examples of the latter are Washington’s pardoning members of the Whiskey Rebellion, Lincoln’s and Johnson’s pardoning of Civil War soldiers, and Carter’s pardoning of Vietnam draft resisters.
Presidents largely fulfilled Hamilton’s goals until Ford’s controversial pardon of Nixon after Watergate, to end “our long national nightmare.” Then, in 1992, taking the advice of his Attorney General, William Barr, George H. W. Bush pardoned his friends and colleagues, the Iran-Contra conspirators, which cut short the investigation and shielded him from inquiry into his own possible complicity.
In the waning hours of his presidency in 2000, Bill Clinton pardoned 177 miscreants, over 60 of whom had not been vetted by the Justice Department’s Office of Pardons, including fugitive arms dealer Marc Rich and Hillary Clinton’s brother. George W. Bush commuted the sentence of Scooter Libby, preserving Libby’s right to use the Fifth Amendment to constrain any further investigations.
And now we have President Trump, who, in addition to the war criminal cases, has also pardoned racial profiler Sheriff Joe Arpaio from his criminal contempt of court conviction and right-wing provocateur Dinesh D’Souza for illegal Republican campaign contributions. Most ominously, Trump has dangled pardons before potential witnesses against him and has claimed he can pardon himself. Few doubt he will pardon his family and other close associates if it becomes necessary.
Clearly, although Trump’s excesses are the most extreme, Hamilton’s hopes for the pardon have been thwarted too often since Watergate.
What to do? We should not repeal the pardon power. Its value has been proved over centuries. It’s wouldn’t work to add specific restrictions, such as forbidding preemptive pardons, or pardons of close associates and family; such restrictions could never be complete and could be evaded. Much more protective would be the co-signature requirement.
If this requirement had been in force, would Speaker Carl Albert have co-signed for the Nixon pardon, Tom Foley for Iran-Contra, Dennis Hastert for Rich and for Libby, Paul Ryan for Arpaio, or Nancy Pelosi for the war criminals and for what may come? We can’t know, of course, but bringing a second high official into the process would increase the odds of screening out many questionable pardons.
Constitutional amendments are notoriously and rightfully hard to enact. We believe, however, that our proposal would not have strong entrenched interests against it, and if worse is still to come from Trump, the urgency of reform might carry the day.
If unreasonable and self-serving pardons were just a momentary lapse with this president, we could hope that traditional norms would reappear with the next. Given the post-Watergate trend, however, we should require another signature to secure Hamilton’s vision.
Budd Shenkin is a member of the Board of Advisors of the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. David Levine is a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law.