Veteran campaign dirty trickster Roger Stone, convicted of lying to Congress and obstructing its investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, won’t see the inside of a federal prison cell — thanks to his benefactor and longtime confidant, President Trump, who commuted Stone’s sentence on Friday. This act of corruption by an administration that has raised it to an art form hardly comes as a surprise, however.
That’s the real danger — that the public will become numb to acts of corruption big and small — actions that make a mockery of the rule of law. Also, that the Stone commutation sends a message that the presidential powers of pardon and commutation can and will be used to shield this and future corrupt presidents from the consequences of their actions, that defendants can lie and cheat and intimidate witnesses with impunity because they’ve got a friend in the Oval Office.
That needs to end, and it’s time Congress found the political will to do so.
Stone was something of a bit player in the 2016 presidential election and Russian efforts to subvert that election in favor of their favorite candidate, Donald Trump. Former special counsel Robert Mueller broke months of public silence on the case in a recent Washington Post op-ed, following Stone’s Friday commutation. This is how Mueller described Stone’s offenses:
“A jury . . . determined he lied repeatedly to members of Congress. He lied about the identity of his intermediary to WikiLeaks. He lied about the existence of written communications with his intermediary. He lied by denying he had communicated with the Trump campaign about the timing of WikiLeaks’ releases. He in fact updated senior campaign officials repeatedly about WikiLeaks. And he tampered with a witness, imploring him to stonewall Congress.”
Throughout the process, Trump himself signaled how he thought Stone was being persecuted. That this was a “witch hunt.” When Stone faced a possible nine-year prison sentence, Trump tweeted, “This is a horrible and very unfair situation.” He added, “Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!”
Within days of the president’s tweet, Bill Barr’s Justice Department changed its sentencing recommendation — even as several prosecutors left the department in protest.
So the message even then was: If you lie, but that lie happens to benefit the president, then he’ll take care of you in the end — a gross perversion of the American system of justice. And one that captured the attention of former Massachusetts governor and current Utah Senator Mitt Romney, who went on Twitter to call Trump’s decision “unprecedented, historic corruption.”
“An American president commutes the sentence of a person convicted by a jury of lying to shield that very president,” he added.
But the power of the presidential pardon is firmly etched into the US Constitution.
It’s past time to revisit that provision and to consider reining in its potential for abuse for personal benefit with a constitutional amendment — after all, Trump is hardly the first president to use it to protect his own interests. (Though of no immediate direct benefit to him, the pardons granted by President Clinton during his closing days in office didn’t exactly enhance his reputation.)
But amending the Constitution is a long and cumbersome process and there are some things that could be done while the nation ponders the rightness of that action. US Representative Adam Schiff, Democrat of California, is proposing legislation that would provide an unprecedented layer of transparency in the event a president pardons someone involved in an investigation that would have an impact on the president or a member of his family. (Separately, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she will introduce legislation to the curb the pardon power itself.)
“The President has a broad power to confer pardons, but not when they are designed to insulate himself, his family, and his associates from criminal investigation. Such an abuse of the pardon power would amount to obstruction of justice and is not countenanced by the Constitution,” Schiff said in a statement.
“The rule of law requires that a president use the pardon power only for reasons separate from his own criminal exposure,” he added.
In the event of a pardon, Schiff’s legislation would force the Justice Department to turn over to Congress all evidence collected in the course of an investigation “in which the president or one of his family members is a target, subject, or witness.”
Schiff predicted a whole “series of post-Watergate reforms” if Trump is ousted from office — of which the pardon reform would be one.
Those who would sell their souls — or sell out their country — to get their candidate elected need to know there will be consequences to breaking the law. But as long as presidential pardons can be dangled like some magic cloak of invisibility that will make it all go away, this nation will never be safe from corrupt leaders.
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