September 8, 2022
On this day in 1974, President Gerald Ford gave former president Richard M. Nixon “a full, free, and absolute pardon…for all offenses against the United States which he…has committed or may have committed or taken part in” during his time in the presidency.
In the pardon proclamation, Ford said he issued the pardon to help the nation heal from the trauma of the Watergate scandal. A trial would “cause prolonged and divisive debate over the propriety of exposing to further punishment and degradation a man who has already paid the unprecedented penalty of relinquishing the highest elective office of the United States.”
Ford’s pardon of Nixon removed from our democratic system the principle that all of us are accountable to the same laws.
Presidents, it appeared, were in a different category than the rest of us, and that encouraged future executives to push the boundaries of what was acceptable.
Under Ronald Reagan, the next Republican president after Nixon, members of the administration broke the law to sell arms to Iran in order to funnel the proceeds to the Contra insurgents fighting to overthrow the leftist government in Nicaragua. Fourteen administration officials were indicted and eleven convicted in the scandal, but when he became president, George H. W. Bush—himself implicated in the scandal—pardoned them on the advice of his attorney general, William Barr.
Lawrence Walsh, the independent prosecutor in the case, worried that pardoning the officials removed accountability and thus weakened American democracy. It “undermines…the principle…that no man is above the law,” he said. “It demonstrates that powerful people with powerful allies can commit serious crimes in high office, deliberately abusing the public trust without consequences.”
By 2004, President George W. Bush rejected any limitation on “the unitary executive branch.” The concept of the unitary executive said that, as head of his own branch of government, the president did not have to submit to any oversight or check by Congress.
Today we learned that a federal grand jury investigating the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol is now looking into Trump’s political action committee, “Save America,” to understand its fundraising, how its money was received, and how its money was spent. The PAC was organized immediately after the 2020 election and sought donations based on the idea that the election was stolen.
Also today, the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, charged Trump ally Stephen K. Bannon with two felony counts of money laundering, two felony counts of conspiracy, and one felony count of a scheme to defraud, over his role in “We Build the Wall, Inc,” an organization that promised to bring former president Trump’s wall on the southern border of the U.S. into reality.
The organization raised millions of dollars to build the wall but instead funneled money to the organization’s president, Brian Kolfage, and others including Bannon, defrauding those who contributed to the effort.
Bannon was charged by the federal government in 2020, but Trump pardoned him before he went to trial. New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, noted today: “Regular, everyday Americans play by these rules, and yet too often powerful political interests, they ignore these rules. They think they are above the law, and the most : of them take advantage.”