President Donald Trump recently pardoned more than 20 people, but what exactly is a presidential pardon and how does it work? Who can receive a pardon and who cannot? Is the president the only person who can hand them out?
The Presidential Pardon
American presidents can issue pardons to anyone who has been convicted of a federal crime, even for treason or murder. Article II of the U.S. Constitution gives a president “power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States.” The only real limits on it are that the power cannot be used for immunity to impeachments and a president cannot pardon someone for individual state crimes – those are up to state governors.
There are different types of pardons as well. A full pardon will absolve the person completely as well as any consequences (prison terms, loss of rights, etc.). A partial pardon will only excuse some of the punishments for the person. An absolute pardon means there are conditions upon receiving the pardon, and a conditional pardon means the person will have to first complete certain criteria before it can be issued, and it can also be revoked if the person commits another crime.
History of Presidential Pardons
The idea of a president being able to pardon a prisoner is nothing new. In fact, it has been around since the very first president, George Washington, was in office. During the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Alexander Hamilton suggested the presidential privilege with the thought that it would help “restore the tranquility of the commonwealth.”
Not everyone was on board with the idea, though. Pennsylvania delegate George Mason was so strongly against giving a president such power that he refrained from signing the Constitution. He warned that a president “might make dangerous use of it” by pardoning crimes that he (or she) was a co-conspirator. The commander-in-chief is also not limited to a number they can issue either. Washington, for example, pardoned 16 people. President Trump has had the fewest number of pardons (so far) of any modern leader – Barack Obama pardoned 212 people. Typically, these actions are performed at the end of a presidency since many pardons tend to be controversial and might hurt any re-election chances.
Pardons – Who Gave Them out and Who got Them
Franklin D. Roosevelt currently holds the record of most pardons after issuing 2,819 during his term in office.
After being elected in 1800, Thomas Jefferson pardoned 119 people, many of whom had been convicted under the Sedition Act of 1798 – a law from the previous administration that made it illegal to insult the government. James Monroe and James Madison used their privileges to even pardon pirates. In 1833, Andrew Jackson tried to acquit George Wilson who was facing the death penalty for stealing U.S. mail. For unknown reasons, however, Wilson refused the pardon and was later executed. Since this was the first time anyone had rejected a presidential pardon, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case and ruled that people can refuse to be pardoned.
In more recent history, Gerald Ford made headlines, and not in a good way, when he decided to pardon former President Richard Nixon who had just resigned after the Watergate scandal. The pardon was so unpopular, it has been suggested it had a part in Ford’s 1978 electoral defeat. Bill Clinton was criticized for pardoning Marc Rich in 2001 after it was discovered that Rich’s wife had made large political donations.
President Donald Trump is also receiving backlash for his pardon choices since many of them are former associates; however, as history reveals, this has been the way of presidents since the beginning of America.