Merry Christmas. Impeach him again.
Trump's criminal pardons could be his most lasting assault on democracy.
Welcome back to The Long Version, a newsletter by Jonathan Myerson Katz. Sign up to get it here:
Happy COVID days! I know it’s been a minute since I’ve written last. The reason is nothing nearly as dramatic as my last unexplained absence: I’m in a hurry to get my book done, and with the election over and everyone busy not traveling to see one another, it seemed like a good moment to bury my head in Smedley Butlernalia and plow toward the goal line. (There will fewer mixed metaphors in the book, I promise.)
But alas, as I noted in my last post before the break, we are not done with America’s experiment in domestic autocracy just yet. The Keystone Koup appears to be failing, as most of us predicted it would. Yet, while America sleeps, Trump is mounting what may prove to be his most durable assault on democracy—a gambit that, if he gets away with it, could allow him to return to power very soon.
The Long Version
Trump is using his last days in office to hand out pardons to his cronies and partners in crime. This is not a new practice for outgoing presidents, and that’s the first problem: We know how destructive this has been in the past.
George H.W. Bush used his last White House Christmas Eve—Dec. 24, 1992—to pardon a former secretary of defense and five others for their crimes in the Iran-Contra Affair. That’s the one where the Reagan administration (including then-Vice President Bush) defied Congress to funnel proceeds from weapons sales to Iran to finance and arm right-wing death squads in Nicaragua. Most of the officials had been convicted not of any of the underlying crimes, but perjury, withholding evidence, and obstruction of justice because, well, that’s how coverups work.
The pardons set the stage for all the conspirators to return to public life. One of them was the death-squad point man Elliot Abrams. The pardon made him available for Bush’s son to appoint him to the National Security Council, where he helped architect the Iraq War, and gave approval to the 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez. Trump made Abrams his State Department special representative for both Venezuela and Iran.
The attorney general who drafted Bush's coverup pardons and lived, professionally, to tell the tale was Bill Barr.
Eight years later, in his last weeks in office, Bill Clinton pardoned Marc Rich, a convicted commodities trader who happened to be married to one of Bill and Hillary’s biggest donors. The New York Times editorial board called it “a shocking abuse of presidential power.” Pardons are meant to “correct an injustice or to further some societal good,” the board wrote; helping “a fugitive accused of evading $48 million in taxes and illegally trading with Iran in oil during the hostage crisis is hardly what the Constitution’s framers had in mind.”
Such last-minute gifts have two equally pernicious effects: They damage Americans’ faith in government, convincing many that deceit and corruption are the best they can expect from their leaders (and thus that their primary job as citizens is to vote for the crooks from “their” side). And at the same time, they help rehabilitate and keep in circulation some of the worst criminals in public life, ensuring that they stay around to continue the downward spiral.
Yet, as ever, what Trump is doing is even worse.
Everything is permitted
Trump has handed pardons or commutations to dozens of people since the election. The list is expected to grow. Among those he has given the ultimate executive sanction are:
Michael Flynn, his former National Security Adviser, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about discussions he had with the Russian ambassador, during a counterintelligence investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
Paul Manafort, Trump’s 2016 campaign chairman, was convicted of financial fraud and obstruction of justice during the Russia investigation.
Roger Stone, a Trump aide who was convicted on seven counts of lying to Congress, witness tampering, and obstructing the Congressional inquiry into whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russia.
George Papadopoulos, a Trump foreign policy advisor who also pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI during the Russia investigation.
Former congressmen Duncan Hunter, Chris Collins, and Steve Stockman, all of whom had pleaded guilty or been convicted of financial crimes, but had shown personal loyalty to the president, including helping him push his lies about nonexistent fraud during the 2020 election.
Four ex-Blackwater security contractors in Iraq—Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, and Dustin Heard—who massacred fourteen innocent people, including a 9-year-old child, and wounded seventeen others because they wanted to get through a traffic jam in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007. Blackwater—since renamed “Academi”—was founded by Erik Prince, who according to the Mueller Report tried (and seemingly failed) to establish a secret Trump administration backchannel to the Russian government in 2017, and funded a covert effort to authenticate what he believed were Hillary Clinton’s stolen emails. (Prince’s sister is Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVoss.)
The message is clear: If you commit a crime to help Donald Trump, he will pardon you. If you help him steal, say, the 2024 election; if you lie, or obstruct justice—even if you or someone who works for you murders an intersection full of innocent people—he will use the power of his office to make sure you get off scot-free.
The only catch is that it only works if he wins. So if you’re in, you better be all in. And God help anyone who tries to stop you.
One more time
There is a solution: Impeachment.
It sounds crazy, I know. The man is almost out of office. And didn’t we try that once?
We did. (And I think it served its purpose, absurdly limited as the scope of the first impeachment was.) But the Constitution not only permits a second impeachment in these waning days, it arguably requires it.
First, Trump’s political pardons are a clear and egregious abuse of power. There are no injustices being corrected, or societal good being furthered by reversing these convictions and guilty pleas. Pardoning Erik Prince’s boys in particular not only spits in the faces of the innocent victims they murdered; it is imperiling U.S. relations with Iraq and other countries in the Middle East—which, believe it or not, can still get even worse. They are High Crimes and Misdemeanors.
But more to the point, removal from office is not the only remedy that impeachment offers. Article I, Section 3, Clause 7 of the Consitution says:
Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States
In other words, if Congress acts now, Trump can be barred under the Constitution from ever holding public office again, period. Moreover, that’s a punishment that even a future president can’t undo—the pardon power under the Constitution does not include the ability to reverse impeachments.
And about that Senate conviction: While a two-thirds vote for removal remains very unlikely, there is precedent from judicial impeachments that shows that disqualification can be achieved by a simple majority vote of the Senate. This would be close, especially with the outcomes of the two Senate races still outstanding in Georgia, but certainly plausible.
Again, it might be a hard sell. His supporters will stay angry. His lawyers will fight it. But if Trump is not impeached and disqualified, we know what he might do next. At the very least, won’t be able to say we weren’t warned.
Twenty-six days to go. Be well.
Jonathan Myerson Katz is a journalist and the author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. His next book will trace the life of Gen. Smedley Butler and the making and breaking of America’s empire. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.