The contentious history of U.S. presidential pardons—from the Whiskey Rebellion to Watergate

A U.S. president’s pardon authority is as old as the office itself, but controversy over whether and how the chief executive should exercise the privilege has persisted since the nation’s founding. When it comes to presidential pardons, self-pardoning is the only remaining truly untested territory. The issue is hotly contested among legal scholars. There isn’t anything in the Constitution that explicitly bars a president from self-pardoning—or prevents a president from temporarily stepping down so that his vice president can pardon him while serving as acting president.


To date, Trump has pardoned or commuted the sentences of fewer than 50 people, several of which are his own friends and supporters. While he has been criticized for that, it’s not without precedent, and even if Trump ultimately does grant some form of clemency to his children or himself, the presidential pardon is not a blanket protection against prosecution. Since the power only applies to federal crimes, states can still bring criminal charges against someone who has been pardoned—no matter who that person might be.


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