When I learned that Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon after he resigned, I was angry. It seemed like a very clear example of the powerful and politically connected getting off without punishment. The Mueller investigation of President Trump has given me an occasion to think more about that decision, and where we find ourselves politically in 2018.
We take the peaceful transition of power completely for granted now. Power changes between Republicans and Democrats quite frequently, and there’s little, if any, violence. However, when Thomas Jefferson won the Presidency as a member of an opposition political party, people didn’t know if power would be peacefully transferred. It was, and it’s a tradition which presidents of all political parties have followed ever since.
The fact that we don’t prosecute former administrations is one of the reasons that we don’t have violence and politicians voluntarily relinquish power. If you thought that leaving power could potentially end up with you in prison, why would you leave power? Presidential administrations have therefore gotten away with a great deal of bad actions, but the alternative isn’t good either- presidents clinging onto power to avoid prosecution.
Which brings us to the Trump administration. There is a very real possibility that the President, or at least people very close to him, broke some laws. While the Mueller team recently informed Trump’s lawyers that they don’t think they can indict a sitting president (according to Rudy Giuliani, so have that grain of salt handy), that says nothing about what they can do after Trump leaves office. Between now and Trump’s presumptive defeat in 2020 (or not, actually; this scenario still holds if Trump needs to leave because he’s reached his constitutionally mandated term limit), Mueller will issue a report, so that Trump and his team will know EXACTLY how the Feds will be coming for him the moment he leaves office. So the question becomes, if you’re Trump, why would you leave office?
Before we discount that possibility as too wild, let’s not forget that there were serious concerns in 2016 that Trump wouldn’t concede if he lost to Hillary. His refusal to concede then would have been about pure ego. It is not outside the realm of possibility that this man, facing indictment and prison, would refuse to give up power. And we have absolutely no mechanisms for dealing with that.
I now understand why Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. As much as it may have been a favor to Nixon, it was also about preventing the American political process from turning down a potentially dark corner of politically motivated prosecutions, and the inevitable response to cling to power. Barring some similarly despicable yet potentially necessary action from the next president, Trump could be looking at criminal prosecution in his 70’s. It’s dangerous to think that we know how he’ll respond to that when the clock on his immunity starts ticking.