You must be charged and convicted to be pardoned.
Social media discussions about Trump and his pardons are rife with errors, with hundreds of commenters believing that only people convicted of a crime can be pardoned. “Must go to trial & *be convicted* before pardon can be offered,” reads one such tweet. Another taunts, “@realDonaldTrump hey dummy, you have to be CONVICTED OF A CRIME before you can pardon... yourself.” After all, some state governors are limited in this way.
Presidents are not. Most pardons are funneled to the president through the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, which considers applications only from people who have already served their sentences. But presidents can, and do, bypass that process. In Ex parte Garland, the Supreme Court settled the question of preemptive pardons. The justices in that 1866 case decided that while pardons could reach only past acts, the pardon “may be exercised at any time after [the act’s] commission, either before legal proceedings are taken or during their pendency or after conviction and judgment.”
Even before Garland, President Abraham Lincoln (among others) pardoned dozens of people — including alleged traitors — preemptively. More recently, President Jimmy Carter pardoned hundreds of thousands of Vietnam draft evaders, including those who had not been charged or convicted. And, most famously, President Gerald Ford pardoned President Richard Nixon, who had not yet been charged with anything.