To date, Trump has issued just 29 total pardons, fewer than
any other presidential term in modern history. George H.W. Bush, the previous one-term record holder for fewest pardons, granted 74.
That pattern may change soon. As the end of his presidency approaches, pardon season
is officially upon us. Perhaps most worrisome, speculation has run rampant that Trump may even try to pardon himself (something he likely can't
Since the turn of the 20th century, presidents have granted
more than 21,000 pardons and commutations of sentences. More good than bad, presidential pardons have the power to undo
past injustice and clear the name of those who were unfairly prosecuted for federal crimes (state-level offenses are tried separately). Overall, good pardons quell rough political waters and correct previous wrongdoings, while bad pardons diminish the prestige of the presidency and undermine the strength of American democracy.
As Trump prepares to leave office, his pardon power may well be a defining part of his legacy. Rather than merely serving partisan ends, he can and should use the pardon power for good. By doing so, he can help to unify the country after this year's contentious presidential election.
Let's start with the positive examples of pardons and commutations.
President Warren Harding
In 1921, President Warren Harding commuted
the prison sentence of Eugene V. Debs, a perennial presidential candidate for the Socialist Party. He had been arrested
in 1918 after delivering a speech in Canton, Ohio, that encouraged resistance to American involvement in World War I. He was sentenced
to 10 years in prison for violating the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and deprived of his citizenship rights, including the ability to vote. Incredibly, Debs received nearly 1 million votes for president in 1920, even though he was still imprisoned.
Although Harding did not give
a full pardon to Debs, the decision to commute the sentence helped the country to move beyond politically divisive rhetoric. Harding ably justified
his decision in a letter to his close friend Malcolm Jennings: "I thought the spirit of clemency was quite in harmony with the things we were trying to do in Washington; that Debs had never been guilty of any overt act; that he never countenanced destruction of government by force, and probably I could persuade him to become a factor in contributing to tranquility throughout the land."
Even as criticism surfaced from both the right and the left, the move safeguarded freedom of speech across the political spectrum. "We cannot punish men in America for the exercise of their freedom in political and religious belief," Harding said
Debs' legacy lived on. In July 1976, Congress voted
to restore posthumously his rights of citizenship. Debs remains a hero to many on the left, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who made a documentary
about him in 1979.
President Jimmy Carter
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter offered pardons to the tens of thousands of young men who had resisted the draft. Set against the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Carter ordered Proclamation 4483
for those men who had resisted the Military Selective Service Act between 1964 and 1973. The proclamation encouraged
as many as 100,000 Americans who had fled the country, primarily to Canada, to return home. By affording widespread amnesty, Carter hoped to provide much needed reconciliation for a divided country
Widespread anti-war protests had rocked
the nation, including the killing of four university students at Kent State in 1970. And while President Gerald Ford had begun the process of reconciliation in 1974 by offering
partial amnesty to draft resisters who performed public service, two years later, the question of full amnesty hinged
on the outcome of the presidential election.
While Carter had made widespread amnesty a campaign promise
, the backlash against the order was swift. Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater called it
the "most disgraceful thing that a president has ever done." Similarly, veterans' organizations opposed
In the end, many American ex-pats chose
to stay in Canada. Nevertheless, Carter's sweeping offer of pardons represented
the essential humanity of a President who wanted to heal the country after a long and grueling war. Historians now look back on the decision as a defining moment
of Carter's presidency.
By contrast, these presidential pardons stirred further division and hurt the country in the long run.
President Gerald Ford
On September 8, 1974, President Gerald Ford pardoned
former President Richard Nixon for any crimes that he may have committed as part of the Watergate scandal. The announcement came on the heels of Ford's inaugural remarks of in August 1974, in which he declared
the country's "long national nightmare" to be over.
The Nixon pardon shocked
the nation, and the public outcry was palpable. Most Americans polled on the subject wanted
Nixon to be punished. At the very least, they wanted the judicial process to run its course. Some in Congress also decried that a deal had been cut between Nixon and Ford, though historians generally doubt
While it tore apart
his administration, Ford maintained that pardoning Nixon was the right thing
to do for the nation. In time, the view became more widely accepted, with even Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts expressing his support
of the decision.
But Ford also set a very troubling precedent. By not prosecuting the crimes of a public leader, a certain degree of accountability
was lost and democracy itself weakened. Ford's pardon of Nixon remains the only such exoneration of a former President of the United States.
President Bill Clinton
On January 20, 2001, President Bill Clinton pardoned
Marc Rich, a political supporter and financial backer. Rich, who had been indicted for tax evasion and wire fraud, among other charges, had been a target
of federal investigation since the early 1980s. At one point, he stood at No. 6 on the most wanted list of fugitives. By issuing the pardon, Rich, who lived in exile in Switzerland, was cleared to return to the United States.
The pardon proved so controversial -- the New York Times editorial board declared
it "indefensible" -- that Clinton penned
an op-ed defending his actions. For their part, Republicans initiated
a congressional investigation, with Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania even moving
to enact a constitutional amendment to allow Congress to overturn presidential pardons. Congressional efforts went nowhere, however.
The Rich pardon remains
a hot-button topic, as evidenced by new information surfacing during the 2016 presidential campaign. Though containing heavily redacted information
, the FBI report released that year reminded voters of the shameful episode from Clinton's time in office. Clinton's defense notwithstanding, it may well be the worst pardon
given by a president in the 21st century and has forever stained
The history of pardons and commutations reveals the broad powers granted to the president under Article II of the Constitution. The power to transform a person's life should be a cherished part of American democracy. However, presidential pardons do not always serve the best interests of the people, even when presidents intend to do so. Whether Trump will act for the good of the American people -- and not just in self-interest -- will be a closely watched aspect of his lame-duck presidency.