Democrats probe whether Trump violated bribery statute by promising pardons

September 10, 2019 by Ben Marquis

There have recently been anonymously sourced rumors circulating in the media that President Donald Trump offered the possibility of presidential pardons to border and immigration officials in order to assuage their concerns that the implementation of his immigration policies or border wall construction might get them in legal trouble.

House Democrats, always intent on finding grounds for an impeachment effort, have launched an investigation into Trump’s alleged pardon offers in the hope that claims of bribery statute violations, if true, could be enough to remove the president from office.

Pardon rumors

Writing for The Washington Post, a law professor named Randall Eliason referenced a report from the same outlet that Trump offered pardons to administration officials who expressed worry that his orders to quickly complete construction of the border wall could be in violation of the law.

Trump has denied the pardon accusations, and an unnamed White House official suggested that even if he made such an offer, it would have been done in a joking manner. However, all jocularity aside, Eliason wrote that such an offer of pardons in advance of legal violations “would be more than a flagrant abuse of the pardon power — it could also violate federal bribery law. That has implications not only for impeachment inquiries, but also for potential future criminal proceedings.”

Eliason noted that Trump’s prior pardon-granting history was procedurally “unconventional” and included “controversial” figures, but was nonetheless technically done by the book.

“But it’s one thing to flout normal procedures for granting pardons to those already convicted of past crimes unrelated to the president. It’s quite another for a president to use the promise of future pardons to encourage unlawful behavior by members of his own administration,” the professor wrote. “The latter is truly corrupt: signaling to aides that they may freely disregard the nation’s laws because the rules don’t apply to those who do the president’s bidding.”

Bribery statute implicated?

It was noted in the Post piece that this is not the first time it has been claimed that Trump preemptively offered the possibility of pardons. He was accused— though it was never actually proven — of obstructing justice by offering a pardon to former campaign manager Paul Manafort in exchange for his silence, even though Manafort was tried and convicted for crimes entirely unrelated to his time in the Trump campaign.

While these new allegations, if true, wouldn’t be considered obstruction of justice, they could be viewed as a violation of 18 U.S.C. 201, the federal bribery statute. That statute makes it a felony to “give, offer, or promise ‘anything of value’ to a federal public official to influence the official in the performance of an official act or induce the official to violate his or her lawful duty.”

Eliason asserted that the “anything of value” clause encompasses certain intangible benefits such as a “get out of jail free” card such as a guaranteed pardon. He further argued that even if an official never did commit a crime and no pardon was ever actually extended as a result, the offer itself would still be evidence of corruption if Trump’s intent to circumvent existing laws could be established.

It really all comes down to whether Trump was joking or not.

Mountain out of a molehill?

Given that bribery is one of the few specific crimes mentioned in the Constitution as a justifiable reason for impeachment, there is little doubt that Democrats will pursue such if evidence of a pardon offer is ever obtained. Furthermore, even if such proof is found but an impeachment is never launched or fails to achieve a conviction, Trump could perhaps be subject to potential criminal prosecution once he leaves the White House.

It remains to be seen if anything further comes of these allegations, and in light of the absurdity of the Democrats’ and media’s obsession with framing virtually everything Trump says and does as being worthy of impeachment, this could simply be the latest meaningless molehill transformed into a mountain.

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