Donald Trump is reportedly looking into the extent of his presidential pardon powers, including whether he can pardon himself. But Richard Painter, a former ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, shot that idea down in no uncertain terms.
Donald Trump seems to believe that his presidential powers are nearly limitless. But just because he tweets it doesn't make it so.
In a typical early morning post Saturday, Trump insisted that the president "has the complete power to pardon," while implying that he has no need to use it because the "only crime so far is LEAKS against us" — which he characteristically labeled as "FAKE NEWS."
As the New York Times noted, his choice of words indicated that he included potentially pardoning himself within that "complete power."
But Trump is not a legal scholar — to put it mildly — and actual legal scholars are not completely on board with his point of view.
As Georgetown law professor Paul Butler noted to MSNBC's Joy Reid, if Trump did indeed pardon himself, he would be "courting impeachment," as the act would be obstruction of justice.
"One thing we know from the Constitution: The president cannot stop an impeachment," Butler added.
And to the specific question of Trump's supposed "complete power" to pardon anyone up to and including himself, Richard Painter, a former ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, was clear that there is simply no precedent for such a thing.
In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Painter, along with co-authors Constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe and Obama White House ethics lawyer Norman Eisen, called back to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
The Office of Legal Counsel had told Nixon that he could not pardon himself, based on "the fundamental rule that no one may be a judge in his own case."
The authors note that, in all cases of pardons, "the president is acting as a kind of super-judge and making a decision about someone else’s conduct, the justice of someone else’s sentence or whether it is in the national interest to prosecute someone else."
Thus, "self-pardon under this rubric is impossible," something not even the pope does — instead, Pope Francis recently publicly confessed his sins to another priest.
Thus, as Painter expanded on to Reid, to the question of 'self-pardon,' "the answer is categorically 'No'"
"There is not an example that I can find in human history where a person has been able to pardon themselves," he added.
Painter noted that the precedent Trump may be working from is the royal pardon, but not even any kings have successfully used such a maneuver to fully avoid prosecution and punishment. "The concept makes absolutely no sense," Painter declared.
And he offered Trump a bit of advice: "Go join Mr. Snowden over in Moscow or something," because "this 'self-pardon' idea is not going to work."
PAINTER: Because President Trump had already apparently contacted a number of people looking into the question of pardons and whether he could pardon himself. Those questions are being asked in the White House, and the answer is categorically 'No.' There is not an example that I can find in human history where a person has been able to pardon themselves.
And the precedent for this is the royal pardon — I’ve not found a situation where a king has been able to pardon himself and then avoid prosecution by subsequent kings. Many deposed kings have gone off to the chopping block, and would have avoided that if they had been able to pardon themselves. Even the pope says confession to another priest — Pope Francis did so quite recently, in public.
Not a single example of a self-pardon anywhere that I can find; the concept makes absolutely no sense. The Office of Legal Counsel advised in the Nixon administration years that you could not do that, the president could not do that. So that's off the table. He should look into other options. You know, maybe — I don't know, go join Mr. Snowden over in Moscow or something. But this self-pardon idea is not going to work.
Trump is feeling the intense and increasing pressure of his myriad scandals coming down on him, trying to escape into a month of golf and nonsensical tweeting.
It was already rumored that Trump was considering issuing numerous blanket pardons to others in his inner circle caught up in the Russia investigations.
But just because the trouble is self-inflicted doesn't mean the absolution can be, too.