Should Presidents Have the Power to Pardon Anyone?

Recent accusations of corruption against the Trump administration and his choice of pardons has raised questions about whether there should be more restrictions on the power of the President. But why are people upset?

Trump has been accused of pardoning people with connections to close personal friends, despite their convictions involving bribery and violations of security laws. Recent talk of pardoning Robert Stone, who was sentenced to 40 months in prison for lying to Congress and tampering with a witness, has raised further concerns.

Trump is not the first president to issue pardons, but why are we currently so focused on his actions? 

Why Can Presidents Issue Pardons?

Under the Pardon Clause, Article II, Section 2, Clause 1, of the Constitution, Presidents of the United States have the power to grant clemency to people convicted of a federal crime, except in cases of impeachment tried and convicted by Congress. The Office of the Pardon Attorney, a part of the Justice Department, hands pardons on behalf of the President. 

There are five types of clemency that fall within the President’s power:

  • Pardons – These include partial, absolute, and conditional pardons that offer varying degrees of forgiveness for criminal wrongdoing.
  • Amnesty – Grants the same benefits of a traditional pardon, but is applied to groups or communities of people.
  • Commutation – A reduction to the sentence handed down by a federal court. 
  • Remittance – A reduction or elimination of fines or the forfeiture of property that is handed over to the court as a reprieve during sentencing.

Pardons are supposed to factor in the public welfare and whether there’s some unfairness that the courts can’t correct, but because of the power of the Constitution, there is limited oversight. In 1974, the pardon process was challenged following the commuted sentence of Jimmy Hoffa by President Richard Nixon. The court stated that the President has executive discretion to grant clemency as they see fit – the Supreme Court has not ruled on this.

Notable Pardons by Presidents

There are several recent examples of Presidents issuing pardons that brought criticism.

  • Barack Obama commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, who was involved in leaking more than 250,000 State Department cables to Wikileaks.
  • Bill Clinton pardoned his brother, who had served one year for a drug conviction.
  • Ronald Reagan pardoned New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner who made illegal campaign contributions to Nixon’s presidential campaign.
  • George Washington offered clemency to John Mitchell and Philip Weigel for their participation in the Whiskey Rebellion and anti-tax movement.
  • Gerald Ford granted a full pardon to Richard Nixon for his role in the Watergate scandal.

Number of Pardons by President

The number of pardons issued by presidents varies. In some cases, because a pardon applies to a group of people. These numbers do not reflect commutations and remissions. 

  • Theodore Roosevelt – 668 pardons.
  • Jimmy Carter – 534 pardons.
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt – 2,819 pardons.
  • Harry S. Truman – 1,913 pardons.
  • Ronald Reagan – 393 pardons.
  • William H. Taft – 383 pardons.
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower – 1,110 pardons.
  • Woodrow Wilson – 1,087 pardons.
  • Lyndon Johnson – 960 pardons.
  • Richard Nixon – 863 pardons.
  • Calvin Coolidge – 773 pardons.
  • Herbert Hoover – 672 pardons.
  • John F. Kennedy – 472 pardons.
  • Gerald Ford – 382 pardons.
  • Warren Harding – 386 pardons.
  • William McKinley – 291 pardons.
  • George H.W. Bush – 74 pardons.
  • Bill Clinton – 396 pardons.
  • George W. Bush – 189 pardons.
  • Barack Obama – 212 pardons.
  • Donald J. Trump – Still counting.

Should Presidents Have the Power to Pardon Anyone?

There are some limitations around who the President can pardon. However, this power is far-reaching, being applicable even in cases of conspiracy, treason, or murder. However, pardons can open a President to investigation by government offices, may lead allies to turn on them, or lead to impeachment – a President may not pardon himself, which can disincentivize the use of pardoning power.

Is that enough to prevent a President from issuing pardons to people who contributed large sums of funds to political campaigns, or federal crimes committed by family and friends? Not as of today. Many Presidents issue pardons near the end of their final term, meaning that there will be little consequence, and the time and cost required to challenge each pardon is unrealistic. 

Obviously, it is easy to point at Trump and criticize the pardons he has already made and who he might pardon in the future, but past Presidents on both sides of the aisle have used this power to achieve the desired end with little chance of the People to stop it.