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Comparing Trump's Wave Of Pardons To Those Of Past Administrations

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Trump pardoned or commuted the sentences of dozens of people this week. Many of them are his friends and political allies, like Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, or they are his extended family, like Charles Kushner, his in-law. Joining me now is Kim Wehle, who's a law professor at the University of Baltimore. She wrote the book "How To Read The Constitution - And Why." Good morning, Kim.

KIM WEHLE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: We called upon you because you have some expertise in reading through the Constitution. What does it say about the presidential pardon?

WEHLE: It doesn't say much, actually. Article II says the president shall have the power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States except in cases of impeachment. That's it.

KING: So I was going to ask you, is the president using these pardon powers in the way that the framers intended? But it sounds like there's no real way of knowing that 'cause they really kept it short.

WEHLE: They really kept it short. But we do - we know a bit about the pardon power based on the record of the discussions at the Constitutional Convention. And certainly, in - historically, the pardon power is there to allow the chief executive to extend mercy and also to take actions in the public interest. If a pardon - like, for example, President Ford pardoning Nixon arguably was to sort of quell the stress and anxiety and heartache, basically, around that whole process and close the book on Watergate.

Now, Donald Trump has pardoned some worthy people. A woman, Rebekah Charleston, was a client of the clinic at the UB law school. She was humanly trafficked and convicted of tax crimes. And that - she received a full pardon. On the other hand, we have someone like Paul Manafort, who was convicted of tax fraud, bank fraud, obstruction of justice, witness tampering and also had ties to the pro-Russian former Ukrainian government. So arguably, that's not in the public interest to pardon someone like that.

KING: So some of the president's pardons are arguably or actually evidently about mercy in the case of, you know, the women who were trafficked who ended up in prison. A community leader in Louisville is another one. And yet some of them are very clearly political. You're in the gang. I'm going to let you off the hook. But is President Trump really doing anything that differently than his predecessors did?

WEHLE: Well, no. We've seen prior Presidents George H.W. Bush after Iran-Contra and, of course, Bill Clinton with Marc Rich use the pardon power in ways that were controversial. I don't think the framers anticipated, however, that it would be potentially used as a quid pro quo. I mean, the pardon power and dangling pardons to people like Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, was mentioned 64 times in the Mueller report. And so this is a situation, potentially, where people know if they keep quiet, they will get a pardon.

You know, Alexander Hamilton mentioned in Federalist 74 that the reason to have the pardon power in a single person is that person will exercise it with prudence and good sense. I think the framers anticipated whoever was elevated to the office of the presidency would be someone who acted with integrity and good sense. And I don't think that's Donald Trump.

KING: So in the future, is President Trump opening the door for other presidents to pull this kind of thing, or do you think we're going to return to a kind of normal where the pardon is used in specific types of ways but not, as you said, as a quid pro quo?

WEHLE: Well, you know, only three, I think, of the last 20 pardons actually went through the Department of Justice. There is a process that presidents use. I expect Joe Biden will go back to that. I think the real issue is whether he self-pardons. If - and that's sort of floated around. If that happens, then we really are in dark waters when it comes to the Constitution 'cause recall - can't prosecute a sitting president under internal DOJ guidelines. If he could self-pardon, that's the new norm. Then that's a green light for, you know, federal crimes in the Oval Office with impunity.

And we all just have to cross our fingers that whoever gets elected in the future is someone that's going to act within the scope of the rule of law and do what's best for the country and not out of self-interest. And, you know, that's a big gamble.

KING: Is it only - does it only apply to federal crimes, or would it apply to charges that the president might face in, for example, New York state?

WEHLE: Right. So it says offenses against the United States in the Constitution. So that's just federal crimes. But again, it comes down to motivation when they're in office. So I don't know that the threat of sort of state or local liability would necessarily motivate presidents, you know, to color within the lines, so to speak, if we have, for example, as I said, a self-pardon. I think that's really - that would really be crossing a red line. That would be very, very dangerous. We'll just have to see.

KING: Kim Wehle, law professor at the University of Baltimore, thank you.

WEHLE: Thank you, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.