The law on self-pardons is clear.
Trump announced on Twitter that “I have the absolute right to PARDON myself,” prompting a raft of legal scholars to confidently weigh in. Laurence Tribe, Richard Painter and Norman Eisen wrote in The Post, “The Constitution specifically bars the president from using the pardon power to prevent his own impeachment and removal.” On the other side, scholars like Jonathan Turley and Richard Posner have agreed with Trump, noting the Constitution’s seeming lack of limits when it gives the president “Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.”
But the law simply is indeterminate here. This is an unsettled legal question with colorable arguments on both sides; all we can say is that a president could try to pardon himself, and that it might or might not work.
In my opinion, the best reading of the Constitution suggests that a self-pardon would be invalid. (I first wrote against self-pardons in the Yale Law Journal in 1996 and have returned frequently to the subject since then.) But saying what you think a judge should do is very different from knowing what a judge will do, even if you think you can see a unanimous Supreme Court decision in your crystal ball.
Brian C. Kalt, a law professor and the Harold Norris faculty scholar at Michigan State University, is the author of “Constitutional Cliffhangers: A Legal Guide for Presidents and Their Enemies.”