Editorial | Pardon me?

Editorial | Pardon me?

Questions — some without answers — are swirling around the Trump impeachment probe.

Think whatever you like about the impeachment probe of President Donald Trump by special counsel Robert Mueller, but it's opening up a slew of new and unexpected issues for public debate.

Just this past week, the talking heads on television and radio, not to mention ordinary people, were discussing the limits of the president's pardon power expressed in Article II, Section I of the U.S. Constitution.

Who'da thunk it?

The debate followed another one of the endless series of news leaks from the Mueller investigation, the latest stemming from a letter to Mueller by Trump lawyers that asserted that whoever is president has the authority under the U.S. Constitution to pardon himself for any federal crime he may have committed.

As a subject of theoretical discussion, it's interesting enough. As a potential action by a real-life president, it's horrifying.

Trump, who apparently has few, if any, unexpressed thoughts, promptly threw some gasoline on the fire of his pardon power by tweeting that he believes he has the "absolute right" to pardon himself.

"But why would I do that when I have done nothing wrong?" he asked.

Trump critics immediately went wild with rage.

"No, he can't," they screamed.

Trump defenders went into similar spasms with their expressions of support for the president's proposition.

So who's right?

The answer to that question is crystal clear — no one knows.

The reason no one knows is that this specific question has never been presented to a court for a ruling. If and when that happens, the court will issue its opinion on the question, a ruling that would almost certainly be appealed to a higher court. Eventually, there would be a final — but not necessarily correct — answer.

Judicial decision-making is often not a matter of who is right but who has the last word.

The relevant section of the U.S. Constitution delineating executive-branch powers states, among other things, that the exeutive "shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases for impeachment."

The broad language that is used appears to indicate that a president can pardon anyone for any federal crime. Its only limiting feature is that it does not extend to impeachment, the constitutionally endorsed political process available to Congress for removing federal government officials charged with committing high crimes and misdemeanors.

What the language states and how it is interpreted by different people often are two different things. Dissenters might note that James Madison, one of those who drafted the Constitution, wrote in the Federalist Papers that "no man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause."

Further, anyone who has ever read the majority and minority opinions in difficult cases of constitutional law must readily acknowledge that it's not unusual for both the majority and minority opinions to make what appears to be perfect and irrefutable sense.

That being the case, people should resign themselves to the fact that, unless and until this question is litigated, there is no correct answer to the question of whether the president has the power to pardon himself.

What's most important about this question is that it not be answered as a consequence of any action Trump might take. That, of course, depends on what course Mueller follows.

It appears that he has a specific destination in mind. Whether he actually gets there is another question that cannot be answered — at least, not now.

Sections (2):Editorials, Opinion
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