No, Chris Christie, Trump wouldn't be impeached if he pardoned himself

Not only wouldn’t he be impeached, but as a Twitter pal said yesterday, all Trump would need to do is give Christie a job and he’d be back on the Sunday shows next weekend arguing the opposite of this position. Watch, then read on:

Have you seen anything from House Republicans in the last 16 months to make you think they’d impeach Trump for anything short of murder? Even murder wouldn’t be enough to get him impeached before the midterms, with GOP incumbents deathly afraid of undermining the base’s presidential hero. Let me give you the Republican talking points right now in case Trump were to pardon himself. It’s an easy two-step dance:

1. The president has the absolute power to pardon anyone of a federal crime. By definition, pardoning himself is legal. And if it’s legal, it’s not properly impeachable.
2. If the public disapproves, they’ll have an opportunity to register their disapproval by voting against Trump in 2020. That’s the only check on the pardon power in our system — the president must account to the people. Not to Congress.

And that’d be that. Christie might counter that voters would be so angry at Trump for a self-pardon that the GOP would get wiped out at the polls. Perhaps, but (a) I wouldn’t overestimate the American public’s civic virtue at this stage in our long national decline and (b) House Republicans would doubtless much prefer to roll the dice on that backlash than invite a certain backlash from the right by impeaching Trump.

But back up a sec. Why the hell is Team Trump talking about a self-pardon at all? Do you fully appreciate how bananas this is?

Lay aside the insanity of a sitting president not just publicly contemplating pardoning himself but farting it out on Twitter over morning coffee. It’s bananas even according to the logic of Trump’s own legal team. The point of that memo his lawyers sent to Mueller and of Rudy Giuliani’s media tour yesterday was to make the case that a sitting president cannot be charged with a federal crime, period. Article II doesn’t allow it. The prosecutorial power resides in the presidency; if you want to charge him, you need to remove him from the presidency first. That’s the point Giuliani was trying to make with his bizarre hypothetical about Trump shooting James Comey. Rudy wasn’t saying that Trump could never be charged for that, only that he couldn’t be charged while still in office. Remove him from office and then you can charge him with whatever you want. Rudy, you see, is also betting correctly that a Republican House would never impeach Trump, even if he blew Comey away on Fifth Avenue.

But now we come to the puzzle. If Team Trump is right that he can’t be charged with a crime, why would POTUS ever need to pardon himself? The Constitution says he’s above the law — but he also might need a get-out-of-jail-free card? What?

The self-pardon makes sense only in a scenario in which Trump is about to leave office. If he’s impeached and about to be removed by the Senate (won’t happen) or if he loses the election in 2020 and suddenly has to contend as a private citizen with findings of probable cause made by Mueller (more likely, although statutes of limitation may limit prosecution at that point) then a pardon would make sense. If there’s even a slim chance that Trump might do that — and there is, because Trump is Trump — then he’s better off doing it much sooner, as one in a group of pardons so that he can claim some sort of principle for his decision rather than raw self-interest. If he issued a blanket pardon to everyone involved in Russiagate claiming that it’s a “witch hunt” and that the country needs to move forward without distractions, and if he happened to toss his own name in among the list of the pardoned, would he pay any real price? Republicans wouldn’t impeach him. I doubt that any of his cabinet cronies would quit on principle. Voters might care for a month or two but a few more good jobs reports would solve that. He might as well do it.