WASHINGTON – A House committee voted Thursday to try and rein in President Donald Trump’s clemency powers, approving legislation to discourage pardons for friends and family and prevent presidents from pardoning themselves.
While the bills are unlikely to pass the GOP-led Senate, Democrats say a response is necessary after Trump used his clemency power to come to the aid of allies he says have been mistreated by the justice system, including longtime confidant Roger Stone. Trump this month commuted Stone's prison sentence for crimes related to the Russia investigation.
The move to shield Stone from prison was a dramatic example of Trump's willingness to exert presidential power over criminal cases, including ones prosecuted by his own Justice Department. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the clemency for Stone an "act of staggering corruption,” while Republicans mostly shrugged off the move or criticized the Russia investigation.
The House Judiciary Committee approved legislation to try and dissuade Trump or any future presidents from abusing their pardon powers. The measure, by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., would clarify that promising or providing a pardon in return for a “thing of value” violates bribery laws. It would also require that Congress receive all of the case evidence when a president pardons or commutes in cases involving himself or his family, or those that involve lying to Congress.
The committee adopted an amendment to Schiff's bill that would clarify a president cannot pardon himself or herself. Trump has said in the past that he has the “absolute right” to do that.
“The principle that James Madison placed at the very heart of the Constitution was that ‘No man is allowed to be a judge in his own case,'" said Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, who wrote the amendment. "The whole Constitution was designed to create checks and balances against runaway power and structural prohibitions against corrupt self-dealing.”
Separately, the committee approved a second bill by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler that would suspend the statute of limitations for federal offenses committed by sitting presidents. Nadler says that's necessary because many federal offenses carry a five-year statute, and presidents could evade justice altogether if it runs out before their term is over.
“Allowing complete immunity from criminal prosecution merely because of the office a person holds would make a mockery of the rule of law," Nadler said as he opened the Judiciary panel's meeting.
Republicans were dismissive of both bills and voted against them. They argued that clemency is an essential presidential power and pointed out that many other presidents have made controversial pardons.
“Here you go again,” said Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the panel. “Another day, another Democrat attack on President Trump.”
Stone was sentenced in February to three years and four months in prison for lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstructing the House investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election. Trump commuted the sentence days before Stone was scheduled to begin it.
Trump has used his clemency powers to help other political allies, including Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was awaiting sentencing at the time, conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, who had been convicted on campaign finance violations, and Conrad Black, a newspaper publisher convicted of fraud who had written a flattering book about the president.
And he has granted clemency in a host of other cases, commuting the 14-year prison sentence of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, and pardoning former New York City police commissioner Bernie Kerik, financier Michael Milken and several others.
Trump also commuted the sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, who was serving life in prison for nonviolent drug offenses and who came to Trump’s attention after reality star Kim Kardashian West took up her cause. Her story was featured in a Trump campaign Super Bowl ad.