Donald Trump is incapable of reflection, regret, or admitting a mistake. He doesn’t learn. Or at least, he doesn’t learn the way other people do. When Trump puts his hand on a hot burner, his reaction is to press harder. And when he sees that something he has done is causing immense damage and generating widespread criticism, his response is to do it again. Only more so.
Still, Trump isn’t so oblivious that he doesn’t realize that he has done many, many terrible things. None may be more terrible than spending weeks encouraging his already delusional, lied-to followers to come to Washington, D.C. so that he could lie to them more, get their blood at full boil, and unleash them in an insurrection designed to overturn the outcome of a lawful election. But that’s not certain, because frankly, we don’t know what’s been in all the Trump phone calls and no-translators-allowed discussions that he’s had.
So it’s absolutely unsurprising that one of the hot topics for Trump at the moment is the discussion over whether he can pardon himself.
As The New York Times reports, Trump has been talking to his staffers about whether or not he can perform autopardonica. Trump’s ability to get masturbatory with his pardon pen remains a subject of open debate, and obvious distaste. Apparently, Trump’s pardon lust was previously at the “idle musings” level, but in recent days he’s been chatting up the idea. That’s especially the case as Trump has become convinced that “his perceived enemies will use the levers of law enforcement to target him after he leaves office.”
That is, of course, not true. It’s Trump’s real enemies who will attempt to sue, indict, and prosecute the holy hell out of him for the rest of his days.
No past executive has ever tried to pull this move. Not even Nixon. In some past conversations, there has been an idea put forward that Trump could resign in the days leading up to Joe Biden’s inauguration and let Mike Pence apply a coat of white-as-snow innocence to all Trump’s crimes. However, it now seems a fair bet that, as Trump has spent the last few weeks turning Pence into enemy #1 on this most radical followers hit list, his wing man may not feel that waving the Sharpie of forgiveness would be the best idea.
If Trump can’t count on Pence to pardon him, and he knows Joe Biden isn’t going to pardon him, then Trump may be forced to just do it for himself. Considering how long Melania spent in New York after Trump took office, he’s probably had practice.
Trump’s reaction to the storming of the Capitol by his hopped-up-on-hate supporters would seem to indicate that he might be feeling that pressure a bit greater at this point. At any moment, Trump could pop back onto Twitter or call in to Sean Hannity to declare he’s going to have another rally, and they’ll all get that overturning the country right this time … but he hasn’t done so to this point. he seems to realize that, for the moment at least, a good portion of the public is not so happy with his behavior. Even he is still the center of Matt Gaetz’s universe.
And there could be a time limit on Trump’s magic pardon finger that doesn’t extend all the way to January 20. After all, there are efforts underway to both impeach him for a second time, and to convince Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment. Trump may be feeling extra pressure to get this thing done, while he can still do it.
However, as The Washington Post reports, should Trump decide to bless himself before Biden takes office, it could turn out to be a big mistake. Trump might be able to forgive himself for attempting to interfere in a federal election by calling Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and pressuring him to “recalculate” some votes. He might be able to forgive himself for incitement to riot and other charges related to sending his Proud Boys off to storm the castle. He might even remember to forgive himself for being an unnamed co-conspirator in Michael Cohen’s federal election fraud. Oh, and the multiple instances of obstruction that Robert Mueller noted. And the other federal election charges and … Hell. Trump might as well just write a note forgiving himself for everything from the Big Bang until the last cold iron star. Or at least, he can give it a try.
Except, of course, none of this will protect Trump from all the state charges that New York seems to have been laying up like a winter supply of cordwood. It wouldn’t even protect Trump against future charges leveled by incoming Attorney General Guy Who Mitch McConnell Stiffed Out of His Dream Job. Merrick Garland might well decide to let Trump spend his time fighting tax fraud charges in Manhattan. On the other hand, Garland could determine that the public really needs to see Trump modeling orange in a federal courtroom. And there’s little Trump can actually do to forgive himself on charges that have yet to be determined.
But there’s an even bigger trap. All of the above would apply if Trump was the recipient of a pardon from someone else. If he decides to self-pardon, Trump will almost guarantee that he will be immediately dragged into court if for no other reason than to test the validity of that pardon. After all, the idea that someone could do anything at all while in office, then simply forgive themselves, is extraordinarily dangerous. It’s the ultimate expression of “above the law” and exactly the kind of thing that federal judges and a reasonable Department of Justice are guaranteed to hate.
If Trump doesn’t pardon himself, there are pretty good odds that Garland, or anyone else in that A.G. role, will decide they’re better off letting Trump be taken apart by every state he has screwed, rather than getting into knotty legal problems involved in dealing with a former executive. On the other hand, if Trump self-pardons, he will guarantee that Garland and the full weight of the DOJ will come for him. Because they simply have to.
On the other hand, there’s a solid chance that Trump has done something unspeakably awful. Maybe something in his discussions with Vladimir Putin. Or his deals with Mohammed bin Salman. Trump may literally have bodies buried out there.
In that case, fighting the DOJ over whether or not he can self pardon may be Trump’s best move. Because by the time all the challenges and delaying tactics are exhausted, he’ll probably be dead.