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A Tableau of Impunity
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A Tableau of Impunity

No, Mitt Romney, Trump shouldn’t have been pardoned.

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney walks to the Senate Chambers on February 7, 2024. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

A few days ago an anti-Trump friend assured me that January 6 turned out “just fine.”

Which serves me right. As a devout misanthrope, I should know better than to have as much human interaction as I’ve had lately.

The insurrection in its entirety was a disgrace, my friend and I agreed, but she insisted that the outcome had been satisfactory. Joe Biden was sworn in as scheduled; hundreds of MAGA foot soldiers were successfully prosecuted; populists learned their lesson well enough from the incident to have refrained from smashing up any government buildings in the three years since. All’s well that ends … not “well,” exactly, but just fine.

I don’t think it turned out “just fine.”

Many cops were injured. It was dumb luck that the vice president wasn’t lynched. The Republican base failed miserably to reckon with the depravity Donald Trump had wrought, retreating instead into theories about a false-flag operation orchestrated by the Justice Department and/or left-wing agitators. To this day, many members of the party believe that the insurrectionists’ core grievance was legitimate. The American right is now mobilizing to return the mastermind of the coup plot that precipitated the attack to office, and they’re doing so as he promises openly to grant clemency to the goons who did his dirty work for him at the Capitol.

Not “fine.”

Few conservatives know how un-fine it was better than Sen. Mitt Romney. He was inside the Capitol on January 6, of course, and might not have escaped without consequence if not for good police work and some dumb luck of his own. The following month he became one of seven Republican votes to convict Trump at his Senate impeachment trial, making him the only member of the party in either chamber of Congress to vote against the then-president both times he was impeached.

Romney’s entire career in politics since 2016 has been an exercise in reminding Republicans loudly and often that MAGA populism is not “fine.” No one in the GOP has spent more political capital on holding Trump accountable for his misconduct than he has.

So imagine my surprise on Wednesday upon discovering that Romney no longer wants Trump held accountable for his misconduct.

Not criminally accountable, anyway. “You may disagree with this, but had I been President Biden, when the Justice Department brought on indictments, I would have immediately pardoned him,” the senator told MSNBC in an interview. As for the state prosecution that’s happening right now in New York City, which the president has no official power to thwart, Romney suggested Biden could have thwarted it via unofficial means. “If LBJ had been president, and he didn’t want something like this to happen,” he claimed, “he’d have been all over that prosecutor saying, ‘You better not bring that forward or I’m gonna drive you out of office.’”

This is madness.

Well-meaning madness, for sure, but madness. The tableau of impunity outside the courthouse in lower Manhattan this week helps explain why.

We’ve plowed some of the intellectual ground for a potential Trump pardon before, but it’s been a while. The last time we considered it, it was questionable whether he would win the Republican nomination. As we consider it today, it’s questionable whether anything can stop him from winning the presidency.

So let’s start fresh, from first principles. There are three good arguments for granting executive clemency to someone.

The first is if there’s a strong moral case that the punishment is excessive. Imagine a nonviolent drug offender being sent away to prison for life under a “three strikes” statute. That wouldn’t seem morally just, even though it’s within the letter of the law. The president or the governor might reasonably step in as a matter of fairness and reduce the penalty to make it fit the crime.

The second is if the criminal is sincerely remorseful. Remorse isn’t and shouldn’t be enough if the offense in question is heinous—only a fool would cut a rapist a break for getting teary at a parole hearing—but a repentant criminal is a better bet for clemency than an unrepentant one. Our highest concern in showing mercy is that an offender, once freed, will reoffend. Remorse is circumstantial evidence that they won’t because they’ve seen the error of their ways.

The last argument for a pardon is what we might call “the greater good.” Even if the offender hasn’t been punished unduly and isn’t remorseful, there might be a strong argument that granting him clemency will achieve something important. That was the rationale for Gerald Ford’s infamous pardon of Richard Nixon: Watergate was a wrenching crisis for America and the country needed to move on, whether or not Nixon deserved leniency.

It’s also Mitt Romney’s rationale for pardoning Trump. Asked why, if he were Joe Biden, he would have pardoned Trump, the senator replied, “Because it makes me, President Biden, the big guy and the person I pardoned a little guy.” If he’s right, then granting clemency to Trump last year might have improved Biden’s chances of reelection while diminishing his opponent’s—which certainly qualifies as a “greater good.”

But he isn’t right. None of the three reasons I’ve stated justify a pardon for Trump.

Trump hasn’t been punished excessively. He hasn’t been punished at all! He probably won’t even face a jury before Election Day on the serious criminal charges against him related to his coup plot and concealing classified documents, which means an electoral victory will grant him the power as president to abort those cases before trials are held. And if he’s convicted in Manhattan for the minor offense of falsifying financial records in the Stormy Daniels matter, it’s hard to believe New York will undertake the logistical difficulty of trying to imprison him as a result.

Not only hasn’t Trump been punished for his civic deviancy, it would be accurate to say that he’s been rewarded for it. But for the four indictments against him, Ron DeSantis once argued, this year’s primary would have been more competitive. The martyrdom that Republican voters have granted their nominee for his criminal travails has effectively immunized him from meaningful criticism on the right. The political incentives created by that are so perverse that at this point Trump might rationally wonder whether he should commit another crime before Election Day just to give him a little boost in the home stretch.

“But that’s Romney’s point,” you might say. “We’re playing into Trump’s hands by prosecuting him. Pardoning him would serve the greater good of defeating him by letting the air out of his ‘deep-state martyr’ balloon.”

Would it? Tell me, would Joe Biden gain votes or lose them on balance after pardoning Trump and proving himself to be a “big guy”?

No one who’s leaning toward Trump would switch their vote to Biden because of it, however grateful they might be to see their candidate suddenly freed from criminal jeopardy. But many liberals who have grudgingly stuck with the president this far might be tipped into boycotting the election, I think, by seeing him suddenly crush their dream of accountability for an authoritarian menace. Reaction on the left to Romney’s endorsement of a pardon on Wednesday wasn’t great; if Biden actually took his advice, the outrage would be orders of magnitude worse. It’s plausible that it would cost him the election, as it possibly cost Ford the election in 1976.

Democrats’ last best hope of goosing turnout among disgruntled progressives is reminding them of the revulsion they’ll feel if and when Trump uses presidential authority next year to quash his own prosecutions. Why on earth would Biden forfeit a motivator as potent as that by quashing those prosecutions himself?

“Well, fine, but a pardon would still serve the greater good by bringing about some conciliation between the two parties,” you might reply. Wrong again.

Trump’s movement runs on conspiratorial antagonism toward its political enemies. It won’t be denied that antagonism, especially in an election year. If Biden had pardoned Trump, the reaction from Republicans wouldn’t be gratitude that the president had behaved like a “big guy.” It would be accusatory: What secret development could have led Joe Biden to suddenly abandon his nefarious lawfare strategy against Trump? Does he really expect us to applaud him after he cynically impugned Trump with bogus criminal charges and then exploited the pardon power to pose as some magnanimous monarch? That weasel.

If you doubt that, peruse some of the hot takes from prominent populists on Wednesday after Biden finally acceded to Trump’s demands by agreeing to debate.

Trump himself wouldn’t miss a beat following a pardon, I’m sure, shifting instantly from complaining that the “deep state” is targeting him with false crimes to complaining that the “deep state” will target him with new false crimes if he loses the election. They only pardoned me because the trials were polling badly for them, he’ll insist. They’ll charge me with something else if I lose.

Nothing will be “healed” by granting him clemency. No “greater good” will be achieved. Rather the opposite: If you yearn for a system of justice in which a coup-plotting psycho is placed beyond the reach of law enforcement simply because many Americans prefer to be governed by a coup-plotting psycho, our definitions of the word “good” are too incompatible to be reconciled.

Which brings us to the remaining theoretical argument for a pardon: remorse.

Not all cults require members to dress the same way. But some do.

The members of Heaven’s Gate famously wore all black and Nike sneakers when they headed off to the big spaceship in the sky. The Rajneeshees in Oregon favored red and orange as they went about their daily activities, like poisoning local salad bars.

Dressing alike signals commitment to the movement by advertising the fact of one’s membership in it. Not only am I not ashamed to espouse these embarrassing beliefs, it says, I’m so proud that I want everyone who sees me to know that I’m involved. It also symbolizes the subordination of one’s individual will to the will of the leader. Dress is a matter of choice and personal expression; in a cult, you forfeit that choice in order to communicate your faith that one person should rightly make choices for everyone.


That was the scene outside the criminal court in Manhattan on Tuesday, which has lately become a see-and-be-seen venue for the most pitiful Trump bootlickers in the party. Not everyone who’s made a cameo this week has donned the signature navy suit and red tie of the cult leader, but most have:

Mitt Romney was shrewder on that topic during his Wednesday interview than he was about pardoning Trump, calling the parade of minions outside the courthouse “very difficult to watch.” I agree—but I don’t think he put his finger on precisely why it’s so bothersome.

“There is a level of dignity and decorum that you expect of people who are running for the highest station in the land,” he complained, rightly enough, “and going out and prostrating themselves in front of the public to try and apparently curry favor with the person who’s our nominee, it’s a little embarrassing.” Even for Trump-era Republicans, a cattle call outside a criminal courthouse for the purpose of helping Trump evade his gag order is so tremendously undignified that one feels a physical urge to turn away from it.

“The GOP has adopted the Chinese model of governance,” economist Patrick Chovanec said of the spectacle. “One divine ruler surrounded by a bunch of eunuchs.” I won’t belabor this column with another ramble about the emasculation of Republican men under Trump except to say that watching them put on daddy’s clothes for their big-boy outing in the city is an unusually garish example.

Another reason it’s been hard to watch is because it amounts to the wider leadership of the Republican Party ratifying Trump’s project to delegitimize the American justice system. Admittedly, it’s a little silly to worry about that after the party’s base reacted to 91 criminal charges being filed against him by crowning him their nominee via near-acclamation. The soulless clods like Rep. Matt Gaetz and Sen. J.D. Vance who descended on Manhattan this week are only doing what their constituents want them to do. Ain’t democracy grand?

Yet the crony parade feels significant as a portent of how far the new Republican establishment will be willing to go to serve Trump in a second term as president. If you’re willing to denigrate a court for making his life difficult in a personal capacity, chances are you’re willing to denigrate it for making his life difficult in a presidential capacity. And if you’re willing to do that, maybe you’re also willing to condone him simply ignoring court rulings once he regains the executive power to do so.

This isn’t just a show of devotion to Trump personally, in other words; it’s a show of devotion to the authoritarian project and what it routinely entails.

Still, I think the real significance of the tableau of impunity in Manhattan is how it celebrates Trump’s ethic of remorselessness.

Perhaps the gang would have been more reluctant to show up to Trump’s federal trials, as they involve grave offenses and the Stormy Daniels case does not. But I doubt it: The point of this show of solidarity isn’t to draw fine distinctions between the various charges against Trump, but rather to endorse his posture of relentless defiance and demagoguery toward anyone who would accuse him of wrongdoing, however credibly.

Remorselessness is the essence of his persona. That was clear within a month of him entering politics in 2015 and became clearer in time when defiance during the Access Hollywood episode became a “litmus test” inside his campaign for who could and should be trusted. To this day, vice presidential hopefuls aim to earn his favor by parading their remorselessness before him, up to and including boasting about their willingness to shoot a puppy in the face for misbehaving.

To apologize, to show remorse, to seek forgiveness is the essence of weakness: That’s Trump, and Trumpism. That a person who treats remorse as a failing of character would become the great political idol of conservative Christians, whose faith sacralizes remorse and repentance, is one of the most disgusting political developments in modern American history. And it helps explain why Speaker Mike Johnson’s cameo outside the courthouse this week felt especially loathsome. It’s not (just) that Johnson is the highest-ranking Republican in government. It’s that he purports to be a serious Christian and yet there he was, extolling Trump’s remorselessness—in a matter involving adultery with a porn star, no less.

The starkest expression of remorselessness came from (who else?) Matt Gaetz, who posted a photo of himself behind Trump at the courthouse on Thursday with the caption, “Standing back and standing by, Mr. President.” That phrasing echoed a notorious comment made by Trump during a 2020 presidential debate about the extremist Proud Boys, who ended up becoming key players in the January 6 riot. Gaetz understands that the GOP is now a party by and for insurrectionists, unrepentantly.

And that’s the whole problem with a pardon. Where there is no repentance, there can be no absolution.

So, no, the remaining argument for clemency for Trump doesn’t work either. Because he feels no remorse for what he’s done, and because the leadership of his party feels no remorse for continuing to empower him to do it, it would be a moral horror to reward him and them with mercy. If, as I’ve said, we seek evidence of remorse from offenders before granting them mercy to reassure us that they won’t reoffend, the idea of a Trump pardon is farcically ridiculous. He will reoffend.

He can’t stop talking about how eager he is to do so, frankly.

I realize that Mitt Romney meant well with his proposal, but I’ll end this newsletter the same way I ended the last one that broached this subject by noting how the pardon idea unfairly makes Democrats responsible for Republicans’ catastrophic civic failures. Biden didn’t acquit Trump at his second impeachment trial; the GOP did. Biden didn’t nominate him again either; the GOP did that as well. If you’re mad at the president for not easing a crisis that the right has foisted on America because he refuses to grant clemency that Trump plainly doesn’t deserve, you’re wittingly or unwittingly enabling the “hostage crisis” that I’m forever writing about. End it already, for cripes sake.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.