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Unprecedented indictment creates opportunity for unprecedented self-pardon

The federal indictment of former President Donald Trump, who is the frontrunner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, raises the unprecedented prospect of Mr. Trump trying to pardon himself if he’s reelected.

No president has ever tried a self-pardon. But there’s nothing to stop Mr. Trump from trying if he wins the election next year, whether or not he has faced a trial by that time.

Legal experts say the uncharted scenario would likely end up in the Supreme Court.

“President Trump could certainly try to pardon himself if he is reelected,” said Jeffrey Crouch, a specialist on presidential pardon power at American University. “Article II of the Constitution does not explicitly forbid a self-pardon, and he could get the ball rolling simply by issuing himself a clemency warrant.”

Mr. Crouch, an assistant professor of American politics, said there’s no precedent for how such a case would play out.

“Where things would go next is unclear, but the question would likely be decided by the Supreme Court,” he said.

The federal indictment unsealed on Friday charges Mr. Trump with more than 30 counts of violating federal law over his alleged mishandling of classified documents after he left office in 2021.

Presidents cannot issue pardons for state crimes, so Mr. Trump would not be able to grant clemency for himself in the New York City prosecution against him related to hush-money payments before the 2016 presidential election.

Article II of the Constitution says a president may “grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.”

“There is no language specifying who may or may not be the subject of a pardon, and presidents have abused the pardon power to protect political allies and even family members,” Jonathan Turley, a professor of public interest law at George Washington University, wrote in a recent column. “There is nothing in the Constitution to exclude presidents alone from pardon eligibility. While a newly elected Trump could only pardon himself for the federal crimes, it is the federal case that likely represents the greatest threat to him.”

Citing Mr. Trump’s alleged abuses of the pardon power while he was in office, Democrats last year introduced legislation that would place more explicit limits on presidential pardons.

“Use of the pardon power to place the president above the law, undermine the constitutional powers of another branch, undermine the Bill of Rights, obstruct justice, or as a bribe is unconstitutional and an abuse of executive power,” said the nonprofit advocacy group Protect Democracy. “President Trump repeatedly floated the possibility of a self-pardon, which would have set a dangerous precedent for presidents attempting to place themselves above the law.”

The question of a pardon also gives Mr. Trump another potent campaign issue, in the view of some of his supporters. Mr. Trump and his allies already are portraying the indictment as an effort by the Biden Justice Department to stop his reelection bid.

“If he has to take his solemn [presidential] oath in a prison cell, the next thing he’ll do is pardon himself. Vote for the pardon!” said Pastor Shane Vaughn of the First Harvest Ministries in Waveland, Mississippi.

The legal peril for the former president “may give Trump a rather novel campaign slogan in promising to pardon himself on the federal charges, if elected,” tweeted Mr. Turley.

“The question is whether voters may not only accept this prospect but some might even invite it,” he wrote. “Elections often raise the politics of crime — but in this election, it may be hard to separate the politics from the crime.”

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