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How Presidential Pardons Work

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 

Michael Flynn
President Donald Trump's former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn pled guilty to lying to the FBI. Trump announced a sweeping full pardon for Flynn in November 2020. Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images

"It is my Great Honor to announce that General Michael T. Flynn has been granted a Full Pardon," President Donald J. Trump announced on Twitter in late November 2020, two weeks after he lost his bid for reelection [source: Lucas].

Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser, had been the only member of the Trump Administration to be charged with a crime as part of the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign and the question of whether there had been links to or coordination with the Trump campaign [sources: Lucas, Mueller Report]. Flynn pled guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador, and cooperated with prosecutors, but then changed his mind and tried to withdraw his plea [source: Lucas].

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Trump's pardon of Flynn drew fire from critics in Congress, who saw it as an effort by Trump to erase the investigation into his campaign's connections with Russia, which Trump angrily had denounced as "a hoax" [source: Panetta]. "Donald Trump has repeatedly abused the pardon power to reward friends and protect those who covered up for him," Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, responded on Twitter [source: Lucas].

The outcry increased after the White House released the specifics of the pardon, which absolved Flynn of not just of the original charges, but also of "any and all possible offenses within the investigatory authority or jurisdiction of the Special Counsel" [source: Clemency notice]. One legal expert, Margaret Love, a former pardon attorney for Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, told Politico that Trump's pardon of Flynn was the most sweeping in history, even more so that President Gerald Ford's 1974 pardon of his predecessor, Richard Nixon, for any crimes he might have committed during Watergate [source: Gerstein and Cheney].

But the critics' concerns didn't make any difference. Trump, like every president before him, had the unique ability to override the federal justice system, release anyone he chose from paying a fine, and return a person to the state of innocence he had before he ever committed a crime.

The president isn't required to explain or justify his actions to you, me, Congress or anyone else for that matter. The power to pardon is left solely to the discretion of the president, and cannot be reviewed or overturned by any of the other branches of government.

Perhaps it's because, in the U.S. government of separated and balanced branches, this unique power stands out like a sore thumb — a president in full-pardon swing more resembles a king than an elected official. In fact, the basis of the presidential pardon can be found in the royal Prerogative of English Kings (more on that later).

So where does this power come from? Why did it make it into the U.S. Constitution? What does it do and how exactly does it work? In this article, we'll answer these questions and look at some noteworthy presidential pardons.

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