On Wednesday night, Donald Trump hinted to Sean Hannity that he hadn’t ruled out pardons for those caught up in process crimes in the Robert Mueller investigation. “I don’t want to talk about pardons now,” Trump said in a 45-minute interview aired live on Fox News Channel, “but I can say it’s so sad on so many levels.”
A new poll from Marist on behalf of NPR should give the White House some reason to reconsider the idea. Republicans have suddenly embraced Mueller after the end of the probe, and a majority of them oppose pardons for those prosecuted by Mueller — at least in general:
At the same time, 56 percent said Mueller conducted a fair investigation, and 51 percent said they were satisfied with it. That included 52 percent of independents who said they were satisfied with the investigation. It’s one of the rare questions in the first two years of the Trump presidency in which a majority of independents sided with Republicans instead of Democrats on a subject. …
Mueller enjoys an overall positive rating among Americans, with 38 percent favorable, 25 percent unfavorable and roughly a third (37 percent) unsure or never heard of him. That’s a big change from December, when Mueller was viewed more negatively (33 percent) than positively (29 percent).
That change is largely due to Republicans viewing him far more favorably now, after Barr’s letter was released. In December, just 8 percent of Republicans viewed him favorably, while 58 percent viewed him negatively. After the Barr letter, the proportion of Republicans viewing Mueller positively jumped to 32 percent.
The response data on the issue of pardons reflects that newfound affection for Mueller, which even the president shares to some extent. Among registered voters asked if Trump “should or should not pardon his administration and campaign associates who have been convicted of crimes” by Mueller, only 20% supported pardons with 68% opposed. It wasn’t much more popular among Republicans, 33/53, with Republican men the most inclined toward support — but still opposed by a plurality, 36/48. Even among self-identified 2016 Trump voters, pardons only garner 34/47 support. No other demographic gets to 30% support, not even white evangelical Christians (28/58). It’s an utter loser, politically speaking.
Bear in mind that the survey polled on pardons in general. It’s possible that there could be some play when it comes to specific pardons. Only a hardy few would support a pardon for Paul Manafort, for instance, but there might be more sympathy for clemency when it comes to Michael Flynn. The circumstances of his conviction look questionable, especially since the first take by investigators was that he hadn’t knowingly lied about his contacts with Sergei Kislyak during the transition. Still, with numbers like these overall on pardons, it’s a stretch to think that a Flynn pardon would be wildly popular.
Aaron Blake points to these numbers when challenging Trump to make good on his “witch hunt” claims to let his associates off the hook:
Ever since Attorney General William P. Barr reported that Robert S. Mueller III had decided not to accuse President Trump of crimes, Trump has been telling anyone who would listen about the vast, failed conspiracy to take him down. He has decried the entire investigation as an attempted “illegal takeover” of American government. His party has started to go after the Democrats who continue to investigate him, like House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.). And he has even suggested loyalists convicted of crimes were railroaded.
Trump has branded this whole thing was a “witch hunt.” Even so, Republicans are not on board with Trump pardoning the alleged witches. …
t made sense for him to hint at pardons for these people when they were at risk of cooperating with investigators against him. But that ship has largely sailed. And yet Trump is still pressing the idea that they were wronged and perhaps worthy of pardons.
It continues to feed his larger narrative of persecution, sure, but the logic flows from there: If they were so badly mistreated, why wouldn’t they be worthy of pardons? If Trump and Republicans truly believe this was a witch hunt and a complete ruse of an investigation, why wouldn’t you seek to clear the names of people who had their reputations sullied in the process?
Er, who says he won’t? This may be more a matter of timing than a matter of choice. Pardons are always a bit controversial even under the best of circumstances, and they carry enormous political risk. Barack Obama knew this, which is why he was stingy with clemency actions in his first term and really didn’t start getting enthusiastic with pardons and commutations until after the 2014 midterms. Trump has been even stingier, but his pardons have been more controversially aimed at vocal supporters (Joe Arpaio and Dinesh D’Souza have two of the seven so far).
If Trump’s inclined to use his pardon power in the Mueller investigations, he’s probably looking at a target date no sooner than the second week of November 2020. In the first place, Trump won’t want to refuel obstruction allegations with pardons that could arguably interfere with congressional investigations, but more importantly, he won’t want to do anything broadly unpopular before his re-election bid without having very good reason for doing so. Pardons to Mueller defendants aren’t even popular among Republicans, as this poll shows, let alone the general public. If the defendants aren’t sitting in prison, then clemency can wait until polls don’t matter much.