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A constitutional crisis if Trump chooses to pardon himself: U of T law professor

U.S. President Donald Trump has suggested pardons, including for himself, over probes into Russia's role in last year's election (photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

When U.S. President Donald Trump asserted his “complete power to pardon” on Twitter last week, speculation erupted over whether he planned to pardon relatives, aides or possibly even himself.

Professor David Schneiderman of the Faculty of Law says that while the president does have the power to pardon aides and relatives, the ability to pardon himself is up for debate.

“There is no precedent – indeed, it would likely lead to constitutional crisis – for a president to pardon himself,” says Schneiderman, who is also associate professor of political science in the Faculty of Arts & Science.

Below Schneiderman speaks to U of T News about the constitutional law behind what is already becoming a highly contentious issue.


How broad is the president’s power to pardon?

The president has the constitutional power to "grant reprieves and pardons for offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” The president cannot forestall impeachment proceedings nor can he issue pardons for violation of state law. Otherwise, the power is expansive and seemingly unlimited.  

Under the U.S. constitution, can he pardon relatives and aides close to the investigation? Can he pardon himself?

The president can pardon aides and relatives. The interesting and unresolved constitutional question is whether the president can pardon himself. Constitutional opinion is divided. There is no limitation mentioned in the constitutional text other than “Cases of Impeachment.” If only impeachment is mentioned, can he pardon his own criminal conduct? The better view is that the U.S. Constitution is structured so that no one can be a judge in his or her own cause. This is a power, then, exclusively about pardoning others.

Do you know if there’s a precedent for this? Has any U.S. president ever been in a similar position and considered pardoning close aides or relatives?

There is not a great deal of precedent. The most notorious example of a president wielding the power to absolve a political ally is President Gerald Ford issuing a pardon to his former superior, President Richard Nixon.

Another example is George W. Bush pardoning former defence secretary Caspar Weinberger over the Iran-Contra affair. There is no precedent – indeed, it would likely lead to constitutional crisis – for a president to pardon himself.