Yazmine Nichols, a Stein Scholar at Fordham Law, wrote an op-ed for Blavity about President Trump’s use of his pardon power.
The pardon power is derived from the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, which gave monarchs absolute power to pardon an individual convicted of a crime. Here in the United States, the pardon power has a unique history. It is outlined in the United States Constitution, Article II, Section 2, which gives the Commander-in-Chief power to “grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States” (though not in “cases of impeachment”). It has, of course, been used by a number of presidents, including former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.
But in a departure from tradition, Donald Trump is using the pardon power like an authoritarian figure—as a tool for self-protection and perverse incentive—so that he can further entrench his power to rule. The paradox of Trump’s pardons is that he is using what is supposed to be a tool for mercy in a nefarious manner and with corrupt intent, cloaked in a facade of fairness and justice, all while upholding the system of mass criminalization.
Trump’s pardons re-inscribe fear and confusion while simultaneously creating dependency. They are strategic and manipulative, designed to elicit gratitude and fright at the same time. By asking the NFL players and other celebrities to recommend people to pardon, Trump is reminding the opposition, and specifically, black and brown people not to bite the dictatorial hand that (he believes) feeds them. He is attempting to quell protest by extending withered olive branches in the hopes of dividing and conquering organizers who are seeking legitimate socio-political change.
By pardoning known racists, obstructers of justice, and right-wing militants, Trump is reminding his base that he can set allies free by wielding the pardon power the way that any authoritarian figure would. He is attempting to vest all power in himself while appearing to be merciful. That is the paradox of his pardons.