Beyond President Trump’s prolific dishonesty and extensive use of social media, it’s difficult to forecast what his administration’s enduring legacies may be for the presidency. But it’s becoming ever more likely that his innovative use of the pardon power will be one.
On Thursday, President Trump announced (on Twitter, of course) that he will pardon Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative writer convicted in 2014 of campaign-finance fraud. D’Souza illegally pushed donations to a Senate candidate, asking friends to donate and then reimbursing them, contravening limits on giving.
It’s Trump’s fifth pardon of his short presidency, and the third to go to a conservative cause célèbre, after former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Dick Cheney aide Scooter Libby. Other presidents have used pardons to send political messages, as when Jimmy Carter pardoned Vietnam War draft dodgers or Andrew Johnson pardoned Confederates; or to help out cronies, as when Bill Clinton pardoned financier Marc Rich, a major donor who was on the run from prosecution. Other presidents have also tended to wait until the end of their terms to grant high-profile pardons.
Trump’s innovation is to turn the pardon into an everyday tool of culture war, wedding the political messaging of Carter and Johnson to the individualist cronyism of Clinton. As with so many of Trump’s maneuvers, this is entirely within the legal bounds of his power but still largely outside the realm of propriety and precedent. In addition to the possible implications that Trump’s pardons have for the investigation into collusion with Russia—critics worry he’ll use them to obstruct prosecution—his methods of wielding the pardon power are likely to have long-ranging effects. New executive powers, once unsheathed, are seldom and only slowly reversed. That means the pardon could become a workaday tool of political combat in future administrations, too.