Tuesday, September 26, 2023

#269 / Pardon Me


Heather Cox Richardson, a history professor at Boston College, writes a daily blog that I consider to be "must read" material. She calls her blog, "Letters from an American." If you click that link, you can subscribe to Richardson's blog - if you don't already do that. The New York Times, which I also read on a daily basis, has said that Richardson is, "more or less by accident, the most successful independent journalist in America." Apparently, over one million people subscribe to Richardson's blog

On August 9, 2023, Richardson wrote on the events surrounding Richard Nixon's 1974 resignation from the presidency. This resignation came after the Watergate break-ins, part of the president's efforts to "rig" the 1972 presidential election. As she usually does, Richardson placed the "events of today" into a framework supplied by our national history. While there are significant differences between what Nixon did in 1972, and what former president Trump did in 2020, the conduct of Nixon and the conduct of former president Trump were not really that different, if both efforts are seen as an attempt, by a sitting president, to ensure that he would remain in power, despite what the voters might wish.

When President Nixon broke the law, and got caught doing it, the leading politicians in his own party told him that he would either have to resign, or be impeached by the House of Representatives and then convicted by the Senate. Nixon resigned. In resigning, of course, Nixon did not admit any guilt or wrongdoing, and he was subsequently pardoned by his former Vice President, Gerald Ford. Richardson quotes Ford on the pardon, Ford claiming that "the trial of a former president would 'cause prolonged and divisive debate over the propriety of exposing to further punishment and degradation a man who has already paid the unprecedented penalty of relinquishing the highest elective office of the United States.'”

Richardson's August 9th blog posting is focused on the idea that what Ford did - and what he said - set a precedent that is with us to this day. As Richardson observed, presidents and other high office occupants now expect that they will not be prosecuted, or punished, should they be caught breaking the law:

Only fifteen years [after Nixon's resignation], the expectation that a president would not be prosecuted came into play ... when members of President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council ignored Congress’s 1985 prohibition on aid to the Nicaraguan Contras who were fighting against the socialist Nicaraguan government. The administration illegally sold arms to Iran and funneled the profits to the Contras. 
When the story of the Iran-Contra affair broke in November 1986, government officials continued to break the law, shredding documents that Congress had subpoenaed. After fourteen administration officials were indicted and eleven convicted, the next president, George H. W. Bush, who had been Reagan’s vice president, pardoned them on the advice of his attorney general William Barr. (Yes, that William Barr.) 
The independent prosecutor in the case, Lawrence Walsh, worried that the pardons weakened American democracy. They “undermine…the principle…that no man is above the law,” he said. Pardoning high-ranking officials “demonstrates that powerful people with powerful allies can commit serious crimes in high office, deliberately abusing the public trust without consequences” (emphasis added).

It seems to me (and I think Richardson would agree) that Walsh was right to worry. "Powerful people, with powerful allies" do believe that they can commit serious crimes without any significant consequences - witness how former president Trump has conducted himself.

The upcoming trial(s) of Donald Trump, and perhaps some of those who suggested and facilitated his conduct, provide us with an opportunity to reset our expectations. Those who are currently just "observers," with no formal role to play in the upcoming legal proceedings - which I think includes almost all of us - should make clear that we do expect the Nixon-Reagan precedent to be repudiated. We should, and do, expect that Walsh's warning will now be taken into account.

Any expectation that those holding high office will never be punished, if they break the law, is an expectation that needs to be reset. Past actions have set an obnoxious and dangerous precedent. An opportunity to reset our expectations about our nation's willingness and ability to punish high officials who violate the law (including even the president, when the president does it) is certainly going to be available to the jury, or juries, who will make the final decisions on these matters in the upcoming trial(s).

Let's have some faith in that jury system!

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