Federal prosecutors at the SDNY have arrested Jeffrey Epstein tonight on charges of sex trafficking of minors. Epstein is a friend of Donald Trump, and there are a number of ways in which the Epstein mess directly or indirectly leads back to Trump. So this has led a number of observers to raise the question of whether Trump can simply pardon Epstein and make all this go away.
To be clear, the SDNY is not the State of New York. Instead, the SDNY is the U.S Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, and it brings federal charges, not state charges. Donald Trump can pardon federal charges. So, in legal terms, yes, Trump can pardon Epstein if he wants. But as a practical matter, the pardon would have the opposite effect intended – and as a political matter, it would blow up in Trump’s face.
You can only invoke the Fifth Amendment to protect yourself from criminal liability. If Trump were to pardon Epstein, it would mean that Epstein would no longer be facing any criminal liability. That would mean that Epstein would be legally required to testify against Donald Trump, Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta, or anyone else who might be involved. That’s the last thing Trump wants. It’s why he never did pardon people like Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort. It’s why he’d be making a mistake by pardoning Epstein.
That’s before getting to the political reality of the situation. If Donald Trump were to pardon his friend on sex trafficking charges, Trump would be marrying himself to Epstein’s alleged crimes in the court of public opinion. It would be the kind of horrifyingly ugly political scandal that could finally take Trump down. It’s not a risk that Trump is likely willing to take – so he’s more or less stuck with sitting back while the Epstein criminal case plays out, no matter where it goes.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report