US President Donald Trump tweeted on Monday that the appointment of Special Counsel Robert S Mueller III in the Russia investigation was “totally UNCONSTITUTIONAL!”, and declared that, “As has been stated by numerous legal scholars, I have the absolute right to PARDON myself, but why would I do that when I have done nothing wrong?” In the 230-year history of the US presidency, there has been no instance of a President pardoning — or contemplating a pardon for — himself.

No precedent
The United States Constitution does not specifically forbid a President pardoning himself, and there has been no clear ruling from the US Supreme Court on this question. The only official noting on the question, from 1974, pointed to a fundamental problem with a President taking such a step, but did not provide a detailed argument.

With President Richard Nixon’s troubles mounting, Mary C Lawton, who was then heading the US Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, said in a memo that “it would seem” that the President could not pardon himself “under the fundamental rule that no one may be a judge in his own case”, because “no one may be a judge in his own case”.

He may be impeached
US media commentary has been underlining that any attempt at self-pardon could either trigger impeachment proceedings against President Trump, or lead to his indictment for federal crimes in courts where the legal validity of the self-pardon would inevitably be put to test. The point to note about impeachment though, is that such proceedings in Congress are invariably partisan affairs, and it is difficult to imagine Trump being pushed out of office as long as the Republicans control the House and the Senate.

But his powers are vast
Pardoning himself aside, the US Constitution does, indeed, give the President “absolute” power to pardon others in regard to federal crimes, wiping out a criminal’s convictions entirely, a decision that Congress or courts cannot reverse. In an 1866 decision involving a former Confederate senator, Ex Parte Garland, the Supreme Court said the President’s power to pardon “is unlimited”. “It extends,” the court said, “to every offence known to the law”, The New York Times reported.

Last week Trump pardoned Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative author convicted of making illegal campaign contributions, and said he might commute the sentence of former Governor Rod R Blagojevich of Illinois, and pardon lifestyle guru Martha Stewart. He has already pardoned I Lewis Libby Jr, former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, and former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio.

(Adapted from The Indian Express)