House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) suggested that the House may introduce a bill to limit presidential pardon power following President Donald Trump’s decision to commute the sentence of his longtime associate and former adviser Roger Stone.
Pelosi, along with many of her Democrat colleagues, excoriated the president for providing clemency for Stone, who had been scheduled to report to prison on July 14. She called the decision “an act of staggering corruption,” while vowing Congress would take steps to prevent similar actions in the future.
“Legislation is needed to ensure that no President can pardon or commute the sentence of an individual who is engaged in a cover-up campaign to shield that President from criminal prosecution,” Pelosi said in a July 11 statement.
Stone, 67, was sentenced on Feb. 20 to three years and four months in prison. He was convicted in November 2019 on all seven counts he was charged with, including obstruction, witness tampering, and making false statements to Congress, in connection with an investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The political consultant and lobbyist had recently escalated his bid to delay the start of his prison sentence by filing an emergency request that asked an appeals court to push back the date of his self-surrender. He argued that his age and undisclosed medical issues would leave him vulnerable in the prison system to COVID-19.
The appeals court rejected the request, saying that Stone is “not legally eligible for further postponement of his reporting date” under the law he used to request his delay.
“Because Stone has failed to show, as a matter of law, that he is eligible for release under Section 3145(c), the motion must be denied,” the judges wrote (pdf).
The ruling was quickly mooted as Trump signed an Executive Grant of Clemency commuting Stone’s sentence later in the day. The White House said in a statement that Stone was “a victim of the Russia Hoax” that had been perpetuated for years by “the Left and its allies in the media” in an effort to undermine the Trump presidency.
“The collusion delusion spawned endless and farcical investigations, conducted at great taxpayer expense, looking for evidence that did not exist,” the statement said.
Once the prosecutors from the special counsel’s office were aware that the investigations would not bear fruit, the prosecutors then turned to probe alleged wrongdoing by Trump associates, the White House claims.
“These charges were the product of recklessness borne of frustration and malice. This is why the out-of-control Mueller prosecutors, desperate for splashy headlines to compensate for a failed investigation, set their sights on Mr. Stone,” the statement said.
Then-special counsel Robert Mueller spent about two years investigating allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections. His report concluded that while Russia did attempt to interfere in the election, there was no evidence to establish that any members of the Trump campaign “conspired or coordinated” with Russia ahead of the election.
Trump defended his decision to grant clemency to Stone in a statement on July 11, saying that the 67-year-old was targeted in “an illegal Witch Hunt that never should have taken place.”
“It is the other side that are criminals, including Biden and Obama, who spied on my campaign—AND GOT CAUGHT!” the president wrote.
The president’s power of executive clemency is granted by the U.S. Constitution and allows him to pardon sentences for federal criminal convictions or grant clemency in the form of commutation, amnesty, remission, and reprieve, except in cases of impeachment. A presidential pardon sets aside the punishment for a federal conviction, while a commutation of a sentence could reduce a sentence either totally or partially without wiping out the felony convictions.
Presidential pardons have long been a subject of debate, and presidents using this power in the past have attracted criticism and accusations of misconduct. President Gerald Ford’s controversial decision, for example, to pardon former President Richard Nixon for involvement in the Watergate scandal was unpopular at the time and resulted in allegations that Ford had made a secret deal for Nixon’s resignation.
Similarly, the 140 pardons and 36 commutations issued by President Bill Clinton during his final hours in office triggered a criminal investigation.
Congress has previously made attempts to amend presidential pardon power in an effort to prevent self-serving pardons. Some proposals include limiting the pardon power during a lame-duck period, and allowing Congress to vote by resolution to disapprove the granting of a pardon within 180 days of its issue, according to legal scholars (pdf).
More recently, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) introduced the Abuse of the Pardon Prevention Bill in 2019 to prevent presidents from “abusing the pardon power for their own personal benefit or to obstruct justice.”
Schiff’s proposal requires the attorney general to submit material of an investigation related to any individual who is pardoned if the individual was convicted on a charge that arose from an investigation in which the president or a member of his or her family is the target, subject, or witness.
A bill that limits the presidential power of clemency is expected to face an uphill battle, given that Republicans hold a majority in the Senate.