President Donald Trump uses his pardon power as an instrument of personal ambition. He pardons people who have lied to protect him, and people who have expressed loyalty to him. Yesterday, he pardoned Charles Kushner, whose son is married to one of Trump’s daughters. More Trump-family pardons may soon be coming.
Public-spirited citizens are understandably angry about these abuses. As the former federal prosecutor Andrew Weissmann, once a leading member of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team, wrote, “The pardons from this President are what you would expect to get if you gave the pardon power to a mob boss.”
Trump used the pardon power as a tool of self-defense against a criminal investigation. Potential witnesses were induced to keep silent—or to lie outright. To quote Weissmann again, Mueller had to structure his plea-bargain agreements with former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort “in anticipation of a pardon” by President Trump.
In partial consequence of Trump’s pardon power, the most important questions assigned to Mueller remain unanswered:
What exactly was the relationship between Russian intelligence, Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks, and the Trump campaign?
Was the proprietary Trump-campaign polling data shared by Manafort with a man the Senate Intelligence Committee identified as a “Russian intelligence officer,” with a request that it be passed on to a Russian oligarch, ever put to use?
How did Manafort get hired by Trump in the first place?
Why has Trump remained so curiously deferential to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and so reluctant to ever criticize him?
If public-spirited citizens rightly feel fierce anger against the abuse of office that Trump’s pardons represent, the story need not end here.
The prospect of Trump’s pardons hindered the prosecution of his associates—and their arrival has now overturned some of the convictions. But the country has much less need to punish the Trump associates than to know exactly what happened.
The pardon power was not the only limit on the Trump-Russia investigation. A more serious limit was the early decision to define the investigation as a hunt for crimes. Not all bad things are crimes—and not all crimes can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. What the country needed was the truth, and that truth is still waiting to be told.
After Trump leaves office, the country will need more than ever an independent investigation that can document the corruption of the Trump era. The truth is needed especially because Trump’s manufacturing of lies will not end with his presidency.
WikiLeaks began posting hacked Democratic Party communications in the summer of 2016. Computer experts quickly traced the hack to Russian spy agencies. The Trump campaign and its allies denied the expert assessment. They insisted that there had been no hack. The emails had been stolen and leaked by a Democratic insider, they suggested—a young campaign aide named Seth Rich, who was tragically murdered in a Washington, D.C., mugging. Assange lent credence to the lie. He gave an interview to Dutch TV in August 2016 in which he falsely insinuated that this conspiracy theory was real: “We have to understand how high the stakes are in the United States and that our sources are, you know, our sources face serious risks. That is why they come to us, so we can protect their anonymity.” Former Representative Dana Rohrabacher of California told Yahoo’s Michael Isikoff that he had taken it upon himself in 2017 to broker a deal with Assange, offering Assange a Trump pardon in exchange for his formal confirmation of the Rich falsehood.
The defamatory fantasy about Rich was promoted by Trump’s media allies to the point that Rich’s family decided to sue. Fox News issued a rare retraction of the story in May 2017 and reached a financial settlement with the Rich family this November.
The Mueller investigation definitively debunked that libel of a dead man who could not speak for himself. Assange’s sources for his U.S. election material were Russian state intelligence officers. Yet the effort to exonerate Russia for helping Trump in 2016 will continue, and possibly accelerate with Trump out of office. With Trump and the pro-Trump media, it’s never enough to prove the truth once. The truth needs to be as persistent as the lie. Even now, Trump defenders continue to describe the proven fact of Russian assistance as a “hoax,” and the guilty pleas of Trump associates as them being “framed.” The imperative to defend reality against Trumpism will not cease with the Trump presidency.
And so it will be with all the other mythological elements of the Trump dreamworld. They will continue to propagate in ways that poison the American mindscape. The massive corruption of the Trump family will be obscured by false accusations against everybody else—a job of obfuscation that Trump allies may find easier once the Trump family is no longer subject to any kind of official disclosure requirements.
Trump attempted to pervert the 2020 election by sabotaging mail-in voting—so essential amid a pandemic.
When that failed, Trump tried to overturn the outcome of the election in courts he had staffed for that very purpose.
When the courts balked, Trump demanded that Republican state legislators discard the wishes of their voters.
When the legislators refused, he turned to plots for a military coup to seize voting records.
The pardons are the next phase—and one more reminder that simply turning the page on Trumpism will not be possible. The challenge to democratic values and institutions from Trump and his supporters is a page that will not turn. It will have to be read and reread in detail until it is fully understood, so as to be fully defeated.
What’s needed post-Trump is a fact-finding commission that can engrave this history on the national conscience. It cannot be a truly bipartisan commission, because one of the two parties is so tragically complicit in Trump’s misdeeds. But it can be nonpartisan: its chairpersons and staff chosen from among those with eminent legal and national-security backgrounds outside the party system.
The commission could be granted access to government records and whatever private records are produced by congressional subpoena. Its job would be to report, not prosecute. Congress can enact new laws, if those seem called for. The executive branch can adopt new rules too. But what America needs is a definitive record, backed by all the prestige of the most trusted American institutions, in order to stand strong, firm, and clear against the coming tidal wave of deceit.