Editor’s Note: Elliot Williams is a CNN legal analyst. He is a former deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department and a principal at The Raben Group, a national public affairs and strategic communications firm. Follow him on Twitter @elliotcwilliams. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
President Donald Trump can meddle with the criminal justice system, but he can’t do that to history.
His “full pardon” of former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn wipes away Flynn’s guilty plea for lying to the FBI. It closes the book on a prosecution that the President and his allies complained about for years. But it also exposes, perhaps more than any official action Trump has taken, his tragic failures as a leader.
The pardon power laid out by Article II of the Constitution is one of the broadest powers a president enjoys. It is one of the few that rests with him alone. While his predecessors were not immune from controversial uses of their clemency power themselves, President Trump has gone even further than they have in a big respect. Although the President is not legally required to consult the Justice Department’s non-partisan pardon office, the office has traditionally been a guard rail set up to handle pardon petitions via established standards and procedures. However, he has frequently bypassed that process all together.
Of course, given the President’s use of the pardon power on conservative causes célèbre like Dinesh D’Souza (the conservative author and filmmaker who pleaded guilty to violating federal campaign finance laws) and a former Arizona sheriff, Joe Arpaio (found guilty of criminal contempt for ignoring a court order in a racial profiling case), as well as his apparent recent “obsession” with the power, and his years of negative statements about the investigations that led to Flynn’s plea, no one should be shocked about the his decision to pardon Flynn. But the fact that we shouldn’t be shocked doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be disgusted.
In a way, his embrace of the pardon power is emblematic of his presidency. Of course he would cling to one of his few powers that doesn’t require anyone else’s input and isn’t subject to review. Someone so tragically out of his depth for his job likely couldn’t function another way.
Consider that as each minute passes, more people are added to the nearly 13 million others in America who have contracted Covid-19. Instead of showing the public that he is working tirelessly to address the pandemic that every two days now kills about as many people as the terrorist attacks on 9/11 did, the President is spending his time publicly relitigating the Mueller probe. The Flynn pardon settles a score that may comfort the President and his allies; it won’t rewrite the history on the President’s historic mismanagement of the defining issue of his time.
Certainly, the President was free to pardon Flynn. But that doesn’t mean he should have done it. And it doesn’t mean he should do so for other political allies he is reportedly considering blessing in the same way. At this point, we should only expect it. For the next two months, we can likely count on more confirmation of the reasons the President was unfit for the job in the first place: more cronyism, self-dealing, and incompetence, and unwillingness to lean on experts.
It all will be over soon. Then the hard work of rebuilding some of our most important institutions can begin.