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The History Of The Presidential Pardon


A follow-up now on President Trump's pardon of former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Arpaio was found guilty of criminal contempt for defying a court order to stop detaining immigrants on suspicion that they were in the country illegally. Now, the pardon has drawn fire across the political spectrum. And one critic, former government ethics officer Walter Shaub, said it departs from procedural norms. So what are the procedural norms for pardons across American history? Well, our next guest has some answers to that question. He's Andrew Rudalevige, professor of government at Bowdoin College in Maine. Professor, welcome.

ANDREW RUDALEVIGE: Thanks for having me. It's a pleasure to be with you.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, President Trump tweeted last month, all agree the U.S. president has the complete power to pardon. So how did the Founding Fathers intended for the presidential pardon to be applied?

RUDALEVIGE: Well, they saw it in several ways. They obviously set up a system with pretty robust checks and balances. And the pardon power was intended to be part of that. Where the justice system had produced a miscarriage of justice, it was possible for the president to step in and provide a check against the judicial branch. Or framers like Alexander Hamilton saw the pardon power as a policy instrument. You know, if you had a rebellion or some kind of insurgency, the offer of clemency might restore tranquility to the Commonwealth, as he put it. So there were both reasons of individual mercy and broader public policy that have motivated the use of the pardon power over time.

MARTÍNEZ: So then how is the pardon of Joe Arpaio different from other presidential pardons?

RUDALEVIGE: Well, there certainly have been controversial pardons in the past. We can think back, really, just to 2001 when President Clinton pardoned Marc Rich, who was on the run outside the U.S., avoiding prosecution for tax evasion. That pardon was particularly controversial because Mr. Rich's ex-wife was a big donor to the Clinton Presidential Library. This pardon is different, I think, because it doesn't fit into our normal categories, right? It's not a question of mercy, especially since the sheriff has not actually even been sentenced yet. He was just convicted last month. On the other hand, as a policy matter, it's a little problematic because what the sheriff was convicted for was failing to obey a court order. You know, as an officer of the law, that is something he should be particularly concerned with.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, Walter Shaub, former U.S. chief ethics officer, called Arpaio's pardon a harbinger of worse to come. What do you think this pardon signals?

RUDALEVIGE: Well, there's certainly been commentary - Mr. Shaub and others who have been concerned that the pardon is meant at least in part as a signal that he's not very worried about using his pardon powers in ways that will be politically controversial. That might come into play, of course, in Mr. Mueller's investigation of potential Russian involvement in the 2016 election and the possible involvement of Trump campaign staff. So if the message is intended to signal to people being investigated by Mr. Mueller that, you know, if they just sit tight, they will be pardoned, that could be a problematic message to send.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, Sheriff Arpaio is much admired by President Trump. A lot of his supporters admire him, as well. Senator John McCain, on the other hand, said that the pardon undermines the president's claim to respect the rule of law. I'm wondering, professor, do you expect long-lasting political fallout from this?

RUDALEVIGE: Well, I mean, the president, I think, from the beginning of his administration, has clearly chosen to appeal to his base voters rather than to try to unite the country more broadly. And this pardon is very much part and parcel of that strategy. So, I mean, it will be popular in some quarters. I don't think that the action is going to live up to what Alexander Hamilton hoped, which is that you would, in fact, restore tranquility to the republic.

MARTÍNEZ: Andrew Rudalevige teaches government at Bowdoin College. Thank you very much.

RUDALEVIGE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILOSH SONG, "HOLD ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.