Updated May 31, 2024 - Politics & Policy

What to know about whether Trump can pardon himself

Former President Trump after being convicted in New York.

Former President Trump departs the courtroom after being found guilty on all 34 counts in his hush money trial at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 30. Photo: Justin Lane-Pool/Getty Images

With former President Trump's historic felony conviction on Thursday, a longstanding question in American politics is more pertinent than ever: Can a U.S. president pardon himself?

Why it matters: The conviction, which does not bar the presumptive GOP presidential nominee from continuing his 2024 campaign, renews debate on whether he would use the power of his office if elected to absolve himself of criminal liability.

  • A New York jury found Trump guilty on all 34 counts for falsifying business records to hide a hush money payment before the 2016 election. He will be sentenced on July 11.
  • He still faces another 57 felony counts across three open criminal cases.

The big picture: Trump being sentenced for the New York crimes but still winning election, or receiving his sentence while in office, would prompt several other legal quandaries.

How do presidential pardons work?

The pardon is among the strongest unitary powers that the president has. It allows the commander-in-chief to eclipse the federal and military judiciary systems without consulting Congress before doing so.

  • It's granted by Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 of the Constitution, which in part states: "he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment."
  • It means the president can grant a pardon to anyone convicted of a federal crime in a U.S. District Court, the Superior Court of the D.C. or a military court-martial.
  • A president can also commute any sentence imposed by a federal court or the D.C. Superior Court.

While pardons don't equate to innocence, they do, in most cases, signify redemption.

  • They are generally expressions of executive clemency for people who have accepted responsibility for a crime and have displayed good behavior.

Can Trump pardon his state conviction?

Although the power of the pardon is immense, it is not absolute.

  • A president cannot pardon people convicted of state crimes and cannot commute sentences received for state crimes, which is a power generally reserved for governors, though it differs state by state.
  • The founders also ensured that pardons cannot apply to congressional impeachments against federal officials, as that would be a violation of the separation of powers.
  • The pardon, too, is constrained only to "Offences against the United States," implying a president can only grant clemency for crimes committed and not future crimes.

Between the lines: Trump's New York conviction is not eligible for a presidential pardon. In order to receive one, he'd have to turn to New York's governor, a Democrat.

Could Trump pardon himself of federal crimes?

When it comes to federal crimes, the answer is open in part because no president except Trump has ever been charged with a crime.

  • But it's also the result of a failure on Congress's part to prohibit the potential practice through a constitutional amendment, though some members of Congress have tried to do so.

Constitutional scholars disagree on whether the president's pardon power extends to himself, and the Constitution and judicial precedent do not resolve the debate.

  • Generally, scholars who believe the president can pardon himself have expansive views on executive power and point to the fact that the open-endedness of Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 does not explicitly exclude anyone from receiving a pardon.
  • An example is John Yoo, a law professor at Berkeley and former legal adviser in the George W. Bush administration, who argued in a 2017 op-ed that the language does allow a president to pardon himself, but he shouldn't, as it would deeply damage his legitimacy and provoke a political disaster.

On the other hand, scholars who believe a self-pardon would violate the Constitution commonly make etymological arguments about the language in Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 and the intentions of the the framers of the Constitution.

  • For example, Frank Bowman, a scholar of constitutional and criminal law at the University of Missouri, has argued that the words "pardon" and "grant" have traditionally implied a two-party exchange, the grantor of the pardon and its grantee, and one person cannot be both.
  • Further, he said other actions taken by the framers indicate that they never intended to allow self-pardons and an executive that could not be held to account by the judiciary.
  • He pointed to Impeachment Judgment Clause. It in part states that impeachable officials — which includes the president — may "be liable and subject to indictment, trial, judgment and punishment, according to law" if even if they are also subjected to the impeachment process.
  • Bowman says this clause, in addition to others, indicates that the framers explicitly meant for the individual occupant of the office of the presidency to be subjected to federal criminal prosecution through the courts and that a self-pardon would erroneously nullify that intention.

The Department of Justice in the past has waded into the debate.

  • Just four days before President Nixon resigned, then-Acting Assistant Attorney General Mary Lawton wrote in a memorandum that the president cannot pardon himself because it would violate "the fundamental rule that no one may be a judge in his own case."

What has Trump said about a self-pardon?

Trump recently said it's "very unlikely" he would pardon himself if he is convicted of a crime and wins office.

  • He's also noted that he already had the opportunity to pardon himself during the final days of his presidency:
  • "On the last day, I could have had a pardon done that would have saved me all of these lawyers and all of this — these fake charges, these Biden indictments," Trump said in an interview last year.

But he did defend self-pardons while in office.

  • In June 2018, Trump posted to social media that he had been told by "numerous legal scholars" that he has "the absolute right" to pardon himself, though he qualified that statement, saying he has no reason to because he's "done nothing wrong."
  • At the time, he was under investigation as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's as probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
  • He also reportedly asked his advisers about whether he could pardon himself or his family if they were charged or convicted as a result of Mueller's investigation.

How did Trump use the power of the pardon?

While in office, Trump did use the power as other presidents had, by pardoning or commuting the sentences received by people for nonviolent drug offenses or posthumous pardons for historical figures.

  • However, unlike many other presidents, Trump issued several pardons or commutations for his political allies including his former chief strategist Steve Bannon and former campaign chairman Paul Manafortmany of whom were convicted of crimes relating to his 2016 presidential campaign.
  • He also issued extremely controversial pardons for service members and U.S. mercenaries who had been accused or convicted of killing civilians, which is a war crime.

Go deeper: Trump lawyer outlines plan to challenge historic guilty verdict

Editor's note: This story was updated with news of former President Trump's conviction and other developments.

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