Palmer Report has spent all year explaining why, for various legal and jurisdictional reasons, Donald Trump cannot magically pardon his way out of his criminal scandals. It’s why he hasn’t bothered trying to pardon anyone in the Trump-Russia scandal. Sure enough, now that Paul Manafort has been convicted, there is still no pardon. But now there are reports that Trump is indeed considering pardoning Manafort when this is all said and done. So how does that all square up? Simple: Trump is manipulating an already-obsessive media narrative.
Now that Manafort has been convicted of eight felonies and is facing de facto life in prison, the mainstream media has spent the past few days focused on the question of whether Trump will imminently try to pardon him, even though there has been no evidence that any such thing was in the works. This has allowed Trump to manipulate this narrative to his advantage, by leaking a story about him discussing a Manafort pardon with his legal team, which could only have been leaked by him.
The mainstream media is desperate to talk about the doomsday fantasy in which Trump pardons everyone and it all magically works out, even though pardons don’t work that way, and Trump is adding fuel to the fire. But this is more than just Trump playing up a distraction. It’s also Trump’s way of trying to con his own people into believing that they’re all going to get pardoned at some unspecified future date if they keep suffering for his greater glory in the meantime.
Paul Manafort is many things, but he’s not naive. He hasn’t cut a plea deal because he’s in the somewhat unique position of having committed too many crimes to get a lenient plea deal, and being too old to want to serve out a several-year prison sentence as part of a deal. If you were sixty-nine years old, would you see five years in prison as being much different than fifty years in prison? So Manafort has little to gain by cutting a deal; he might as well take his remote chances at trial and on appeal.
But this isn’t about Manafort. By putting it out there that he’s supposedly going to pardon Manafort somewhere down the road, Trump is telling his younger and more naive underlings that there will be magically be a pardon waiting for them someday as well, so long as they don’t cooperate. Several of Trump’s people have seen through this. Michael Flynn, Rick Gates, and now Michael Cohen have all cut deals, because they’re young enough to have a life after their multi-year plea deal prison sentences are over, and because they know Trump is bluffing.
On the other hand, how many of Donald Trump’s other underlings are refusing to cooperate because they’ve fallen for Trump’s pardon bluff? We don’t know, because we have no way yet of putting together a full list of which underlings are cooperating with Robert Mueller and which ones aren’t. For that matter even Trump doesn’t know, as evidenced the fact that White House Counsel Don McGahn has been selling him out for ten months, and Trump didn’t know it until he read about it in the newspaper this past week.
For reference, there are several reasons why pardons are not a relevant part of the Trump-Russia scandal. First, many legal experts expect the courts would strike down any attempt by Donald Trump at pardoning his alleged co-conspirators. Even if the pardons did stand, Trump can’t pardon anyone on state level charges, which they would all surely face – and no, there isn’t any “loophole” preventing state charges, despite some of sensationally misleading reporting on the matter by the mainstream media. Third, even if the state charges somehow fell apart, Trump’s people would then face no criminal jeopardy – meaning they’d be required to testify against him.
Even Donald Trump understands he can’t magically pardon his way out of this. It’s why he didn’t bother to try pardoning Michael Flynn last year, before Flynn went on to give his testimony and evidence to Robert Mueller. Pardoning Flynn would accomplish zero now. For that matter, Michael Cohen is already spilling his guts, making it too late to try to pardon him. But the mainstream media will continue beating the ratings-friendly magic pardon drum for as long as people keep tuning in for it.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report