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Trump’s legal woes will put Gerald Ford’s pardoning metric to the test

For presidents and governors, 38th president's pardon of Nixon is lone precedent

Former President Donald Trump arrives for his arraignment at Manhattan Criminal Court on Tuesday.
Former President Donald Trump arrives for his arraignment at Manhattan Criminal Court on Tuesday. (Getty Images)

Richard Nixon’s legal problems ended on the steps of Marine One, with a double victory signal. Donald Trump’s began Tuesday with the first U.S. presidential perp walk in Manhattan.

The 37th president of the United States was soon pardoned by his successor, President Gerald Ford. For now, there are no pardons in sight for the 45th, who is now both a defendant in a criminal court and the front-runner for the Republican Party’s 2024 presidential nomination.

Trump walked into a Manhattan courthouse at 1:24 p.m. ET and immediately was placed under arrest and into the custody of the New York City’s district attorney’s office. As he exited his black Chevrolet U.S. Secret Service SUV, Trump turned and waved to the many television and still cameras behind a barrier about a block away.

But one thing became clear this week, in the words of one political strategist: “Trump isn’t leaving the stage without a fight.”

Trump, however, did not appear in a fighting mood Tuesday evening when he addressed his arrest and charges during prime-time remarks. He mostly focused on past grievances and other investigations, which could bring even harsher state and federal charges.

He ended his uncharacteristically brief remarks this way: “With a very dark cloud over our beloved country, I have no doubt nevertheless that we will make America great again. Thank you very much.” With that, a visibly upset former president left the stage at his South Florida resort.

Trump had harsh words for New York City District Attorney Alvin Bragg and Fulton County, Ga., District Attorney Fani Willis, who is probing his efforts to flip Georgia in his favor after the 2020 election. Trump griped: “They’ve got a local racist Democrat district attorney in Atlanta who is doing everything in her power to indict me over an absolutely perfect phone call, even more perfect than the one I made with the president of Ukraine. Remember, I kept saying, ‘That’s a perfect call.’ This one was more perfect.”

(Fact check: Trump asked GOP Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes” on a Jan. 2, 2021 phone call, which was recorded and has been made public.)

Nixon’s crimes were federal ones, something Ford told the country in a Sept. 8, 1974, speech announcing his decision to pardon Nixon. That address, delivered around 11 a.m. on a Sunday, provides perhaps the only guidebook for the sitting — and future — U.S. presidents and governors of New York and Georgia to study if Trump is eventually convicted on federal or state charges.

“As president, my primary concern must always be the greatest good of all the people of the United States whose servant I am. As a man, my first consideration is to be true to my own convictions and my own conscience,” Ford said from the Oval Office. “My conscience tells me clearly and certainly that I cannot prolong the bad dreams that continue to reopen a chapter that is closed.

“My conscience tells me that only I, as president, have the Constitutional power to firmly shut and seal this book. My conscience tells me it is my duty, not merely to proclaim domestic tranquility but to use every means that I have to insure it,” he added. “Finally, I feel that Richard Nixon and his loved ones have suffered enough and will continue to suffer, no matter what I do, no matter what we, as a great and good nation, can do together to make his goal of peace come true.”

Trump, with his brash style of nothing-is-off-limits politics, has done as much as — if not more than — any other American figure to create the country’s current toxicity of bitter partisanship. So federal and state executives would have to include in their pardon metrics some consideration of whether such a move would, in Ford’s words, truly “firmly shut and seal this book.”

With a pardoned Trump still able to fire off fiery posts on his social media platform and reach millions of conservative viewers and listeners on right-leaning television and radio programs, would a pardon do much to “use every means that [the executives] have to insure” a domestic tranquility that feels frayed on a quiet news day?

Stress test

It is the final part of Ford’s metric that could be the highest — and perhaps impossible — hurdle for Trump to clear.

Have the New York real estate executive and former reality television host and his family truly “suffered”? Trump himself resides at his palatial Florida resort and reportedly golfs a few times a week at a club he also owns. GOP strategist and Roll Call columnist David Winston wrote this week: “By Sunday, after his precedent-setting arraignment, Donald Trump will likely be at Mar-a-Lago, golfing and enjoying the high life.”

He also spends time at his Bedminster golf club in New Jersey. Both clubs have hosted and will host upcoming LIV Golf Tour events, allowing him to rake in millions from the Saudi Arabian tour.

Trump’s organization blasts out multiple fundraising emails and texts per day, sometimes pushing Trump-themed merchandise and making outlandish claims, raking in small donations by the dozen. He flies to court dates and campaign rallies in his own Boeing 757 airliner — with “TRUMP” painted in giant white letters on both sides of the fuselage.

His son-in-law and former White House adviser, Jared Kushner, reportedly received a $2 billion cash infusion from the Saudis after team Trump reluctantly vacated the White House. Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, his sons, remain popular in conservative circles and are running the family businesses. They make many false and questionable claims on social media and right-leaning television programs — but never gripe about financial hardships.

Hardly a life of agony for any Trump. In their own words, they have been defiant about the NYC charges against the patriarch — collectively claiming a baseless, politically motivated indictment that will show 45 did nothing wrong or illegal.

This likely is not the final time the former president will be referred to as “Defendant Trump.” So those occupying the highest offices in the country and the states investigating Trump — and those seeking those offices — should spend some time with the guidebook Ford left them.

But will Ford’s metric alone prove sufficient? Trump’s alleged wrongdoings go far beyond those alleged of Nixon.

“We’ve never had a former president get indicted. We’ve never had a president get impeached twice. We’ve never had a president accumulate literally thousands of conflicts of interest,” the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington tweeted about Trump. “We’ve never had a president’s inner circle found guilty of so many crimes. We’ve never had a pre-” The list goes on, a point emphasized by CREW letting the word “president” hang in the tweet.

All the mounting legal woes Trump faces will be a stress test for Ford’s guidebook. But it’s the only one we’ve got.

Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-based CQ Senate newsletter.

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