Why Mike Pence Might Not Pardon Donald Trump

Co-Authored by Maclen Zilber, Democratic Strategist and Campaign Consultant based in Hollywood, CA

September 8, 1974. It’s not a date that rings a bell for most of us, but it’s a day that came to define an entire Presidency. President Gerald Ford issued a sweeping pardon to Richard Nixon that day, absolving him of all of his crimes, and ensuring he’d never face the music for his many crimes.

Mention of Watergate is in the air these days, it seems. You can’t throw a stone in Washington without hitting somebody making a comparison between Donald Trump’s Russia misdeeds and Watergate.

The parallels to Watergate are inescapable. Watergate was, after all, about a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, and today’s Russia scandal is, at least partly, about a digital theft from the DNC headquarters. 

There has been, and will be, millions of words of digital ink devoted to the likelihood of Donald Trump being impeached, and we won’t rehash most of it. Instead, we ask, what happens after a potential impeachment? No U.S. President has ever been prosecuted for high crimes and misdemeanors after leaving office. Could President Trump be the first?

Two things are true in regards to a potential Trump impeachment:

  1. There already is enough evidence to impeach President Trump if there is the political will. The emoluments clause alone is likely sufficient.
  2. Impeachment is, as Republicans showed during the impeachment of President Clinton, a fundamentally political act and Republican house members will only impeach Trump if it becomes politically necessary.

Ever since President Ford pardoned Nixon, it has been a widely held assumption in American politics that any Vice President would likely pardon their President in the event of a scandal-based impeachment. Certainly it would have happened if any President since committed similar crimes.

As is the case in so many areas, Donald Trump changes everything.

Mike Pence had little or no relationship with Donald Trump prior to being nominated as Vice President – from the start, they had an arranged marriage. In fact, Pence backed Senator Ted Cruz in the Indiana GOP Presidential primary contest over Trump. That said, this is hardly unprecedented – numerous Presidential tickets have included uneasy bedfellows – but the degree to which Pence and Trump come from different wings of the party and different walks of life can hardly be overstated. Pence is an individual whose principal motivation in public life appears to be social issues, while Trump’s positions on abortion and other issues seem to be little more than a matter of convenience (indeed, he has held every position conceivable on abortion).

With the possible exception of Vice President Dick Cheney, nobody agrees to serve as Vice President unless they have at least some hopes of becoming President. In the case of Pence, that rings especially true; he has been repeatedly publicly humiliated by Trump, and the only plausible reasons that he has stood by Trump are:

  1. He deeply, profoundly wants to become President
  2. He is the ultimate sacrificing loyal soldier on behalf of his party

It’s for these reasons that there is a good chance Vice President Pence will not pardon Donald Trump.

To back up and provide some context, it’s worth noting that if Trump is removed from office, it likely means he will have, by that point, become even more unpopular than he is today. Trump is already more unpopular than any other President has been at this juncture of their Presidency, and there is hardly a whisper of impeachment. This suggests that Republicans won’t seriously consider removing him until Trump’s presence becomes politically untenable even in safe red districts.

Even if Democrats take back the House of Representatives in 2018, conviction on an impeachment proceeding requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate, which necessarily requires Republican votes. Thus, in any world in which Trump is impeached, we can assume that he has become so unpopular, so politically toxic, that his removal is supported by mainstream Republicans, not just Democrats.

Which brings us back to Mike Pence. If all Mike Pence wants to do is to become President of the United States, pardoning a wounded and scandal-ridden President would almost ensure his defeat in 2020. Remember, the only way Trump gets impeached is if he is so unpopular that he’s toxic in red states, not just blue ones.

Alternatively, if Mike Pence’s principal motivation is to be a good soldier for the Republican Party, he also will likely see that pardoning a scandal-ridden President would lead to massive down-ticket losses for Republicans.

We must remember that Pence, for all his loyal posturing in the press, ultimately has no personal loyalty to Trump. The two barely knew each other a year ago. If the political winds become unfavorable, Pence will no doubt save himself.

It is too early to tell whether the revelations from the Russia scandal, or Donald Trump’s personal graft and profiteering, will ever rise to a level of outrage that leads to Trump’s impeachment. However, with new information coming out on Russia every day – including The Guardian reporting that investigators have “concrete and specific” evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia – we can’t rule out impeachment. Nor can we rule out, if an impeachment process is initiated, that the President could resign in disgrace prior to such a process, as was the case with President Nixon.

If either scenario played out, and if Vice President Mike Pence were to be absolved of any potential Russian-related taint, thereby becoming President himself, the question is, might he follow in Ford’s footsteps by pardoning a President? The move ultimately cost Ford in 1976 at the ballot box when he actually ran for President himself.

If all these, of course, speculative events come to fruition, and if Pence were to follow the same Ford playbook, the Vice President might pay the same price that Ford did with the electorate should he have future Presidential aspirations. Given this dynamic, we won’t be surprised if Mike Pence learns from Gerald Ford’s mistake and leaves Trump out to dry.

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