On September 8th, 1974, newly-appointed President Gerald Ford pardoned his defamed predecessor, Richard Nixon, for “any crimes he may have committed or participated in while in office.” Nixon had resigned just a month earlier to the day on August 8th, and his vice president had taken the reins. The executive move by the new president was controversial, and in fact widely condemned at the time. But in 2001, Ford received the Profile in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Library for that very act, as recognition that the act “made it possible for us to begin the process of healing and put the tragedy of Watergate behind us.”
The concept of the presidential pardon has been cropping up in the news more and more lately, as Donald Trump floats the idea of pardoning himself, his children, and some of his powerful allies for perhaps the same offenses that Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon for. Another idea floating around is that if Trump does not pardon himself, an act that many have pointed out already is legally dubious, President-Elect Joe Biden should follow in Ford’s footsteps and pardon his predecessor. The idea behind this point of view is the same as Ford’s; America is at an unprecedented time of division. Now, arguably more so than in even Nixon’s day, politics has become a battleground full of screaming matches over morality, opinion, truth, and hatred. If Biden pardoned Trump, it would not stop New York courts from being able to go after him, and he could still be punished for some crimes. Even the fact of accepting the pardon would imply that Trump had done something he had to be pardoned for, and, as Michael Conway argues in his opinion article, “pardoning him may be the only way that Trump even implicitly concedes he did anything wrong.”
However, there is a sort of “when they go low, we go high” mentality to this side of the pardoning debate, a catchphrase attributed to former First Lady Michelle Obama. The Trump administration is one full of criminals and cheats. In a traditional Democratic point of view embodied by the Obamas and the Bidens, we should forgive these people in an attempt to put this whole mess behind us and move forward as a country. National unity is of the utmost importance in times like these; it was the crowning promise of Joe Biden’s candidacy. And while yes, moving into a time of healing is important, it is also important that this healing we do as a nation does not simply gloss over the unprecedented and illegal actions of many a Trump associate in the past four years. National unity is important, but we cannot allow these delusions to continue under the guise of it. These men need to be held accountable, including and especially Donald J. Trump, and we need to be the ones to do it. So no, Joe Biden should not pardon Trump. He has already promised not to do so, citing that “the president must allow the Justice Department to operate without interference,” so he will take a “hands-off” approach to whatever investigations will occur after January 21st. He has no intention of simply letting Trump off the hook. “The Attorney General of the United States is not the president’s lawyer,” he said, “it’s the people’s lawyer.” No one is above the law, including the president, and very purposefully so on the part of the Founding Fathers, as they did not want another king who could make laws that did not apply to himself. But if Trump is pardoned, either by himself or by Biden, that is exactly what will happen. This double-dealing, back-handed nonsense makes a mockery of our justice system, our electoral system, and the very notion of democracy — especially if it is all forgiven and forgotten without a second thought. When “they” go low and “we” go high in response, “they” see it as a success and an invitation to just keep going low. And, all of that being said, it must be recognized that holding the president and his associates responsible for criminal activity committed while in and with the aid of their public servant seats is not “going low;” it is simple American justice.