President Donald Trump had been asking about the extent of his pardon power as it related to his aides and family members in light of special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s expanding investigation, the Washington Post reported Thursday. It turns out this isn’t the first time people in Trump’s orbit have discussed his abilities to pardon aides from unspecified wrongdoing.
Trump surrogate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich discussed potential ethics violations in a December 2016 interview with Diane Rehm in light of Trump’s many domestic and foreign business interests. In the interview, Gingrich suggested that the president would have virtually unlimited ability to pardon aides:
[Trump] also has, frankly, the power of the pardon. I mean, it is a totally open power, and he could simply say, “Look, I want them to be my advisers, I pardon them if anybody finds them to have behaved against the rules, period.” And technically under the Constitution, he has that level of authority.
As Vox’s Andrew Prokop wrote Friday on the Post report, Gingrich wasn’t wrong about the lack of limitations on the pardon power:
The pardon power is incredibly wide-ranging. A president can pardon essentially all federal crimes at any point after they’ve been committed — even if they haven’t yet been charged or convicted.
What’s prevented past presidents, including Richard Nixon at the height of Watergate, from doing something like this has been the fear of political backlash. And that may yet restrain Trump too — this, for the moment, seems to fall into the category of brainstorming rather than concrete planning.
But of course, Trump has frequently proven himself willing to flout the norms and traditions of American politics with glee, regardless of the backlash that may ensue. And he may yet do so again, calculating that his voters will stick with him regardless.
These new questions from Trump come as Mueller’s probe into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government has expanded into investigations of potential obstruction of justice in the firing of former FBI Director James Comey as well as potential financial crimes by Trump, his family, and his campaign associates.
Discussion of pardons for theoretical crimes before a president even takes office are more than a little unusual, but recent developments in the investigation might show why early discussions of the pardon power were not simple flukes.