Andrew Johnson solemnly assured a campaign rally that he was not Judas Iscariot. Lyndon B. Johnson lifted his shirt to show reporters his gallbladder-surgery scar. Jimmy Carter told Playboy that he had lusted in his heart. Bill Clinton shared with federal prosecutors his unusual definition of sexual relations.
But until recently, the gold standard for inappropriate presidential self-revelation was Richard Nixon’s statement, on November 17, 1973, that “I’m not a crook.”
Then, on June 4, 2018, President Donald Trump tweeted, “As has been stated by numerous legal scholars, I have the absolute right to PARDON myself, but why would I do that when I have done nothing wrong?”
A new record had been set.
Does the president really have the power of self-pardon? Is that power really “absolute”? The first question divides legal scholars; leaving aside the definition of numerous, the self-pardon position certainly has its partisans. The historical record shows that days before resigning, Nixon’s aide Alexander Haig quietly floated the idea of self-pardon; no other president apparently has discussed the idea. But even assuming that self-pardon is constitutional, absolute is a bridge too far.
The Constitution doesn’t lodge many absolute powers in anyone.
Trump’s lawyers have certainly argued that his authority is broad. In a January 29, 2018, letter to the special counsel, they claimed that Trump’s apparent attempts to stop an FBI investigation of his former national-security adviser Michael Flynn “could neither constitutionally nor legally constitute obstruction because that would amount to him obstructing himself, and that he could, if he wished, terminate the inquiry, or even exercise his power to pardon if he so desired.”
The letter claims that the president has “power to pardon,” but it doesn’t say “to pardon himself”—much less claim “absolute” authority to do so.
In order to understand why it doesn’t, imagine the following scenario. During a session in the Oval Office, Trump shoots a visitor dead. Then, with his trusty Sharpie, he signs a predrafted self-pardon for the murder—while holding in the other hand what he might call the “smocking gun.”
No court would honor such a pardon, and no sane lawyer would argue that it should. In fact, beyond the murder, the attempted pardon itself would likely be a crime.
But if lawyers and judges don’t embrace “absolute” power, the president’s imagination evidently does. Trump’s statements are thus alarming not for their legal pretension but for their dark psychology. During the campaign, he publicly fantasized that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters.”
Benevolent leaders seldom muse about murdering with impunity. Genuinely innocent people do not obsess about pardoning themselves. Trump’s scenarios evoke a chilling psychic Gehenna—a tenebrous plane of utter solipsism, where Trump himself is the only thing. He himself is “justice”; he himself is “law.” His will be done.