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What Sessions Should Tell Trump About Pardons — Before It’s Too Late

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What Sessions Should Tell Trump About Pardons — Before It’s Too Late


When Donald Trump issued a tweet reminding everyone that as president he has “the complete power to pardon,” did he mean to suggest that he can pardon himself? Or simply to boast that he can issue pardons without consulting any other authority or facing any consequences?

The impact of Trump’s provocative statement — along with news accounts suggesting he may issue a flurry of pardons to stonewall special counsel Robert Mueller — forced a denial from his lawyer Jay Sekulow. But whatever impulse propels him now, someone ought to tell Trump that while the pardon power is indeed a solo prerogative of his office, it isn’t quite absolute. And should he appear to use that power for a corrupt purpose, such as obstruction of justice, he could place himself in serious legal jeopardy. Not only could he be impeached, since the Constitution specifically prohibits pardoning any impeached official, but he might just be criminally prosecuted as well.

If Trump has any doubts about that possibility, he should ask Bill Clinton or James Comey — or his own Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Within weeks after President Clinton pardoned the fugitive oil trader Marc Rich, on his final day in office, that widely denounced decision became the subject of a criminal investigation by the Justice Department. Acting on the premise that Rich might have bribed Clinton by channeling political contributions via his ex-wife Denise, U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White announced the probe’s launch on February 15, 2001.

White House won't rule out pardons on Russia

A Clinton appointee, White was outraged by the pardon, like many of her colleagues in law enforcement, and determined to settle the score. Her office issued scores of subpoenas to the former president’s associates, donors, and friends, as well as to the Clinton Foundation, while FBI agents conducted dozens of interviews across the country, seeking any evidence that Clinton had sold the Rich pardon.

As for Clinton, he gritted his teeth and cooperated with the investigation, which added fresh legal bills to the enormous debt he already owed his attorneys.

Years later, after Comey had replaced White as U.S. Attorney, the pardon investigation finally sputtered to a close in 2005 when the government gave up looking for evidence that didn’t exist. (I examined the real motivation behind the Rich pardon, which had become obvious long before Comey closed the investigation, in my recent book Man of the World: The Further Endeavors of Bill Clinton.)

The Rich pardon probe went nowhere, slowly. Yet for Trump its outcome isn’t nearly as important as the precedent it established. A president may issue a pardon to anyone (except perhaps himself), but if his purpose is corrupt then he is not necessarily exempt from prosecution.

Nobody appears to have disagreed with that judgment at the time, least of all the Congressional Republicans who were pursuing their own enthusiastic investigation of the Clinton pardons.

Among the prominent lawmakers who endorsed the pardon inquiry was none other than Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III (R-AL), who offered his own theory of the case to ABC News: “If a person takes a thing of value for themself [sic] or for another person that influences their decision in a matter of their official capacity, then that could be a criminal offense.” And in principle, any criminal motive for a pardon could leave the president equally culpable.

Perhaps someone should ask Sessions on the record whether he still believes a pardon can be a criminal act — before Trump fires him.

Joe Conason

A highly experienced journalist, author and editor, Joe Conason is the editor-in-chief of The National Memo, founded in July 2011. He was formerly the executive editor of the New York Observer, where he wrote a popular political column for many years. His columns are distributed by Creators Syndicate and his reporting and writing have appeared in many publications around the world, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Nation, and Harpers.

Since November 2006, he has served as editor of The Investigative Fund, a nonprofit journalism center, where he has assigned and edited dozens of award-winning articles and broadcasts. He is also the author of two New York Times bestselling books, The Hunting of the President (St. Martins Press, 2000) and Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth (St. Martins Press, 2003).

Currently he is working on a new book about former President Bill Clinton's life and work since leaving the White House in 2001. He is a frequent guest on radio and television, including MSNBC's Morning Joe, and lives in New York City with his wife and two children.

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  1. ORAXX July 27, 2017

    Donald Trump is even further out of his mind than he appears to be if he thinks he can fire and pardon his way out of the Russia mess.

    1. dbtheonly July 27, 2017


      First off SCOTUS has limited, to the point of extinction, the prosecution of Public Officials for bribery.

      Second, pardons can completely stymie the Mueller investigation. Mueller subpoenas. Jared ignores or lies like a rug. Mueller prosecutes. Trump pardons. Repeat as necessary.

      Legal ramifications would require Federal Courts to get involved. Notice how many Judges Trump’s appointed?

      Impeachment would require Republicans in Congress to stand up to Trump. My friend, Andy Jackson, says that ain’t happening.

      Political ramifications would require the Democrats to turn out in volumes large enough to overcome the blatant gerrymandering of the last 7 years. Andy says that ain’t happening either.

      1. Eleanore Whitaker July 27, 2017

        Actually, it isn’t the SC Trump needs to worry about. The reality is he has to worry about the CFR laws (Code of Federal Regulations). (Ref. https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/criminal/legacy/2013/09/30/electbook-0507.pdf). These are federal regulations under which all government officials are required to adhere according to their oaths of office.

        As to Trump’s number of federal judges, there are already enough state Attorneys General to do what the federal AG won’t. States rights are equal to federal laws unless those states rights are incorporated in some way into federal laws.

        It’s why states have the right to exceed EPA rules as needed to protect state residents from other states’ that pollute past the state line and endanger a states’ water, air or soil.

        It’s always those pesky states rights that get in Trump’s way. It’s why states’ rights supercede Trump’s Executive order to hand over voting histories and registrations.

        1. dbtheonly July 27, 2017

          Ms. E, a States Rightsist?

          Whooda thunk it?

          And more seriously, doesn’t it go to show how insane politics has become?

          1. Eleanore Whitaker July 28, 2017

            When Americans are faced with the possibility of NO federal government. All we have are our states’ rights. Look what Trump is doing…First, he gets the House and Senate to bribe Republicans voting against healthcare with promises of billions in federal tax dollars to their states and now he is threatening Collins, McCain and Murkowski because they voted against the hideous healthcare reform bill.

            This is government? Yes. It is. The kind of government that keeps Putin in control of Russians.

            Here in NJ, we’ve had to use states’ rights more recently because of what Trump is doing to the EPA, infrastructure bills, demand for our voting histories and that ridiculous travel ban…refer back to states rights.

            If there is one thing I am certain of it is that the federal government cannot supercede states’ rights unless it is now a dictatorship.

            Now that the House “20” have demanded a 2nd investigation into Hillary Clinton, Comey and AG Lynch, at least we have visible proof of who got in on that Russian hacking. Love how these dolts incriminate themselves while trying to “Lock her up.”

      2. plc97477 July 27, 2017

        Does your friend Andy explain how t rump is going to save his a$$ from state crimes which the president does not have pardon power over?

        1. dbtheonly July 27, 2017

          Off the bat you’ve got a jurisdictional problem. A State Court claiming jurisdiction over actions in a Federal Election. Federal Courts would decide the removal question. See my third point, Federal Judges.

          1. plc97477 July 27, 2017

            The thing is though is that NY at least it investigating him for state crimes. He is not allowed to pardon state crimes.

          2. rvn_sgt6768 July 28, 2017


      3. PrecipitousDrop July 28, 2017

        It’s no so dire, db.
        Impeach Trump first, then he’ll no longer have the authority to pardon culpable kids and minions.

        1. dbtheonly July 28, 2017

          That’s my third point, PD. Impeachment would require Republicans to stand up to Trump, in a very public way. A fairly sizable number of Republicans. My thumbnail has it as about half the House Republicans and 19 Senators.

          You see that happening?

          1. PrecipitousDrop July 28, 2017

            If the impeachment choice for the US House and Senate is simply Trump/No Trump — no, I can’t “see that happening”.
            But, if the choice becomes Trump/Pence — and there is iron-clad evidence of repeated deliberate criminal activity by Trump — then, yes, I can “see that happening”.

          2. dbtheonly July 28, 2017

            That’s why God made horse races.

            The Republicans spent years energizing their base and gerrymandering to insure its success.

            I don’t see them dissing the Trumpistas.

          3. PrecipitousDrop July 28, 2017

            The GOP doesn’t have to dis Trump to the base.
            All they have to do is redirect their attention to the calmer, “more capable” (less toxic) alternative.
            The handwriting is on The Wall, so to speak…

          4. dbtheonly July 28, 2017

            “You have been tried and found wanting”? There are times I wish I’d paid more attention in Sunday School. Or were you talking about Trumps transparent, beautiful, tall, deep, solar-powered, wall?

            Look at the trolls here. What would it take to get them to dump Trump, or would they view any attempt to remove him as, yet another, attack by “the establishment”?

          5. PrecipitousDrop July 28, 2017

            The diehards who idolize Trump have been convinced they’re under attack by “the establishment” ever since Jackie Robinson suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers. They have viewed every civil rights landmark since then as a personal, implacable offense. Women’s rights, gay rights, allowing crazy people to live outside institutions, flag burning, kneeling during the national anthem — Trump raised a middle finger to the demanding parts of civility, and validated the bigots’ aggrievement.
            Pence does the same thing. He just couches it in scripture, and trades long-suffering sighs for Trump’s vitriol.
            Pence is more pious and less bumptious, but the Mantra is exactly the same.

    2. FireBaron July 27, 2017

      The problem is everyone knows, at this point, that he is totally unbalanced and will do anything to maintain whatever tenuous hold he still has on power. Especially if the Democrats take a playbook from the GOP and instead of running against the individual opponents they face, they should say they are running against President Teflon Donnie and all the damage he has done to the country. Paint them with the same brush the way the GOP did so against Presidents Clinton and Obama

    3. Sand_Cat August 12, 2017

      He may well succeed. I thionk you give the GOP, Sessions, and the US as a whole too much credit. He wouldn’t be sitting in the Oval Office now if I’m wrong.

  2. Eleanore Whitaker July 27, 2017

    The point is Sessions won’t tell Trump anything. In southern culture, if you publicly humiliate or dishonor a man his cronies believe is “honorable,” you sign your death warrant. For Trump, he’s signed his political death warrant.

    Sessions is smart and sly enough to do what southerners call, “letting the fox fall into the fox hole and die.” First, they dig a deep hole, cover it with leaves and twigs to look innocent and innocuous. Along comes the sly fox thinking he can outrun the chickens and in he goes. (With great thanks to my southern relatives)…lol.

    1. FireBaron July 27, 2017

      Eleanore, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions abandoned any vestige of honor he had decades ago when he used every tool in his disposal to prevent equal education opportunities for school children in Alabama. How did he do so? They had the State Constitution amended to officially remove the State’s responsibility for education of Children, resulting in a major imbalance in education funding of school districts.

      1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth July 27, 2017

        One of countless black marks on Beauregard’s ledger.

  3. Aaron_of_Portsmouth July 27, 2017

    Don’t tell Trump anything. He has already determined to hell with ethics, morality, and doing what’s right.
    Donald regards himself as an Emperor with a divine right to do as he pleases. So, let him charge on to his destruction—it’s the Karma he has willingly decided for himself, thinking he is immune to any retribution, from God or from society.

  4. gmccpa July 27, 2017

    Sessions can tell Trump every single thing about pardons. Including the risk of being impeached. And Trump will laugh…and say, no way will the Republicans impeach him. Haven’t seen any indication Trump would be wrong on that.

    1. Thoughtopsy July 28, 2017

      Probably true… alas.

  5. ivory69690@yahoo.com July 28, 2017

    this DUMPSTER DONNY CLOWN is talking his BULLSHIfTING now so much about pardons sounds like he in on a plan . being the deranged mentally ill clown he is pushing over the line of having a form of mentally retardation mode . he’s plan could be that he might have people do crazy things for him as in breaking the law BIG TIME and telling them not to worry he will pardon them after thy do the crime . knowing the DUMPSTER DONNY being the pathological liar he is he very well could be lying to the ones that think he will pardon them . this deranged clown could tell them ok you will get pardoned and after thy do the crime and break the law he will tell them ill pardon you for a price now it will cost you big $$$ money now . them saying BTW thanks sucker

  6. ivory69690@yahoo.com July 28, 2017

    no one in office should worry about anything thy need to be signed by DUMPSTER DONNY for what ever that has to be sighed with the vote being 48 to 2 or 400 something to 3 or what ever the numbers are if DONNY dose not sigh them its ok for that’s just more AMO for Mueller to use to dump the DUMPSTER DONNY and impeach the clown .bottom line the DONNY DUMP’S EGO is just playing his own stupid clown game . its all just to see how much BULLSHIfTING HE CAN GET AWAY WITH

  7. ivory69690@yahoo.com July 28, 2017

    there’s a lot more here then meets the eye on how the clown can love this Russian PUTTHEAD even if most of the USA and world hates . has to be something pretty big KGB clown has holding over DONNY’S head . how do the brain dead DUMPSTER followers feel today ? knowing that all the money thy have given to his and his campaign he is using today to pay for lawyer for him his cult , KLAN and brain washed staff to keep them all out of jail where thy belong ? 100’s of million before he is done . and now he will be asking for more money from every one and the pathological liar will tell the brain dead that the money is for him to run for a 2nd term . (if he even makes it that far ) by that time all the money will be gone paying for lawyers to keep his cult out of jail . knowing DUMPSTER DONNY so how some way he will be taking a lot of that money and putting it in his pocket the greedy piece of dirt

  8. ivory69690@yahoo.com July 28, 2017

    Mueller should take what he has now and should be putting it out there in the media . for if he was to be posting some of it now it could slow down a little of DUMPSTER DONNY and all his BULLSHIfT he is doing with his child tweeter account . all the DUMPSTER DONNY tweets he dose now is just to throw off all the investigations that is going on . or could very well be his playing his card now for being mentally deranged unfit for his job and or anything for that point . he is very mentally unstable and its going right into the form and field of mental retardation .. the boy scout speech the LGBT tweet all just him playing his being mentally deranged . same he is doing with Sessions he trying to throw every one he can off what is really going on with him and all his BULLSHIfTING that’s it . any and all the things DUMPSTER DONNY dose these day by child tweeting or any other way is just smoke screens ./

  9. ivory69690@yahoo.com July 28, 2017

    the ACA mostly dose not need to be dumped it just needs to be made better . if the GOP gang of pinheads get their way it would be gone and then thy would do nothing and more then likely let years pass with out doing nothing if thy can get away with it as for Ditch McConnell . he is a poster child to be wearing a pointed dunce cap in a white dress burning crosses in the woods the ACA health care bill plan was the first of its kind ever in the use . is it perfect ? no not at all . but the Democrats got that bill into law on their own no help from the GOP gang of pinheads . and wen it was done it was done the right way all kinds of debates all was welcome from both sides to talk about it on the floor . still no votes from the GOP on trying to help the people of the country that put them in office to do just that help and work for the people of the USA . Obama being the first president to do something like this ACA in history now DUMPSTER DONNY wants to try to make it with his own name on it the DUMPSTER DONT CARE HC PLAN . (as it is today the DUMPS name is losing every thing today its turning into like a stock market crash coming up worthless . there are more people that want and are taking down the DUMPSTER DONNY’S name and that im sure will be growing every day WAY OVER RATTED NAME TRUMP ( MIGHT GET MORE ACTION IF HE CHANGES IT TO TRUMP DUMPS )

  10. ivory69690@yahoo.com July 28, 2017

    if be it the DUMPSTER DONNY CLOWN was to ever get so far as to get the health care plan to a point of being called TRUMP CARE ( more like TRUMP DONT CARE PLAN ) in the future wouldn’t take long for people to be taking down the clown’s name and going back to where it belongs and who should have the credit for it OBAMA CARE & ACA . if be it and more reasons in the future the name would change would be simple and common sense for DUMPSTER DONNY DONT CARE HC PLAN would be throwing off millions from a Health Care plan . and wound be know why this was to happen would be to give the 1 & 2 % percent of the greedy rich dirt bag $$ billions in taxes breaks closer and closer to the $$$$TRILLION dollar mark

  11. ivory69690@yahoo.com July 28, 2017

    again I state that Mueller has to put some of what he already has from investigations out there for 2 reasons 1 it could help put a slow down or stop to DUMPSTER DONNY soap opera addicted junky seeking his fix of attention to take away the addiction shakes he is getting because he’s not getting enough attention .(only he would feel this way ) and 2nd reason why is with putting out what Mueller has up to date will show more reason why the government and the people cant let DUMPSTER DONNY pull all his BULLSHIfT trying to get Mueller fired . with even some of what he has will surly show its not a waste of time and it is leading to getting the CROOKED DUMPSTER DONNY IMPEACHED with more out there from Mueller would show just why DONNY wants him fired . heck by that ever the GOP might have to see the light beaming in their eyes

  12. Dapper Dan July 28, 2017

    DT is too stupid to listen to sound advice. Once he’s made up his mind to do something incredibly bad he’s going to do it damn the consequences. If he decides to start issuing blanket pardons for those currently under investigation he’s going to find himself in court trying to defend his illegal actions

    1. Sand_Cat August 12, 2017

      Don’t count on it. Do you seriously think any Republicans will attempt to do anything about it?

    2. old_blu August 27, 2017

      That’s because he’s had no negative consequences, he still has the support of the same people that put him in office. Sad really.

  13. Sand_Cat August 12, 2017

    Sounds comforting, but since when do Republicans apply the same judgments to their own thaat they apply to Democrats? I’m sure Sessions would have no problem at all forgetting his previous words, just as most other Republicans regularly do.

  14. FireBaron August 26, 2017

    Sorry, Joe, but it is now officially too late. Now that Teflon Donnie has pardoned the most morally corrupt sheriff in the country, the floodgates have been opened.

  15. old_blu August 27, 2017

    All we need to know about Trump’s idea of law and order is that he fired James Comey and pardoned Joe Arpaio.
    Let that sink in for a moment.


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