Thus far today Donald Trump has pardoned former NYPD Commissioner Bernard Kerik, commuted the sentence of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, and pardoned former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo. There could end up being more names by the time the day is over So what’s Trump doing? He’s creating pardon hysteria, of course, because he’s trying to convince Roger Stone that a pardon is magically coming for him as well.
Here’s the thing, though. Donald Trump does this same thing every time one of his co-conspirators is about to be arrested, or about go to prison. Trump knows that if he pardons some random unrelated people at just the right time, he can count on the media to opportunistically start putting the ratings-friendly narrative that pardons are magic wands and that Trump is about to pardon his co-conspirator as well.
The media has spent three years trying to keep you glued to your television by inaccurately painting pardons as magic wands, and then convincing you that Trump is about to pardon everyone at any moment. The pundits always tell you that the irrelevant pardons are a “trial balloon” and that he’s “laying the groundwork” or “creating cover” for pardoning his co-conspirator. But it never, ever, ever happens – because pardons of co-conspirators are complicated and they don’t work the way they’re portrayed on cable news.
Trump played this same game with Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Michael Cohen when they were going down. Manafort took the bait. Cohen didn’t. Flynn still can’t make up his mind what to believe. But the bottom line is that he’s never once ever pardoned one of his co-conspirators. There’s a chance Trump could pardon Stone, who surely has even worse dirt on Trump than the others do, and could seek ugly revenge. But if it does happen, it’ll be the first time the pundits have ever been right about a Trump pardon in three years – and then only by coincidence.
If Trump pardons a co-conspirator, it’ll trigger a legal battle over the scope of pardon power, which could result in Trump being blocked from trying to pardon himself and his kids on his way out the door. Is Trump so afraid of Stone’s dirt, he’s willing to risk going to prison himself? Trump can also only pardon federal charges. Stone has a secondary residence in NYC, which was raided when he was arrested. If Stone is pardoned, New York can bring state charges against him, even if Florida won’t. So Stone’s pardon might not even keep him out of prison.
And if Stone’s pardon does ultimately leave him with no criminal liability, and then Trump loses the election and is arrested, Stone would be required to testify against him (no 5th amendment). Trump would unwittingly turn Stone into a future witness against him by pardoning him. Pardoning co-conspirators is complicated. High risk, low reward, unpredictable consequences. It’s why Trump has never pardoned any of his co-conspirators over these past three years. Trump would harm himself badly by pardoning Stone. He’ll only do it if he feels he has no choice.
But of course this is all far more esoteric, and far less ratings-friendly, than the simplistic “pardon hysteria” you hear on television – which is why you don’t hear it on television. Yes, Trump could end up pardoning Stone – but it would go against 100% of everything he’s done over the past three years. If you must watch cable news, the segments about pardons are always worth skipping. They’ve been wrong, and full of crap, every single time.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report