A Pardon Is Not the Answer This Time

The circumstances of the Ford/Nixon pardon don’t apply to President Trump.

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives voted 232-197—including 10 Republicans—to impeach President Donald Trump on one article of inciting insurrection. Prosecutors are lining up to charge Trump with a plethora of crimes and infractions once he becomes a private citizen again. 

President-elect Joe Biden has expressed concern that a trial could delay the confirmation of his nominees and asked if the Senate could “bifurcate” its schedule to accommodate both pressing needs.  

With an impeachment battle and prosecutions an unlikely recipe for the “unity and healing” Biden says he wants to bring to the country, many news outlets have suggested that the president-elect should pardon Trump so the country can begin to move on. 

Recent articles in the Independent, the Baltimore Sun, the Arizona Republic, and NBC News have called such a pardon a “return to a sense of decency,” tension-calming, and “the only path forward.”

Each article invariably brings up the time President Nixon was similarly facing both impeachment and prosecution as fallout from the Watergate scandal in 1974 and President Ford made the controversial decision to pardon him. 

While Ford’s pardon was incredibly unpopular at the time and almost certainly cost him reelection, most historians have come to agree that Ford made the right decision for the good of the country. 

Even the legendary journalists responsible for breaking the Watergate scandal,  Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who initially saw Ford’s pardon as the “final corruption “of Watergate,” eventually came to view it as “an act of courage.”

In 2014, Woodward told a Washington Post-hosted panel that Ford had himself been the one to change his mind more than two decades later. In an interview with Woodward 25 years after the controversial pardon, Ford told Woodward that Nixon’s chief of staff, Alexander Haig, had indeed offered him the presidency in exchange for his promise to pardon Nixon. However, Ford turned the offer down right away. “It was a deal,” Ford said in Woodward’s book, Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate, “but it never became a deal because I never accepted.” 

The only reason Ford eventually decided to pardon Nixon anyway, he told Woodward, was “not for Nixon, not for myself, but for the good of the country.” In his testimony before Congress on October 17, 1974, Ford said: “I was absolutely convinced as I am now that if we had had this serious indictment and trial, conviction, and anything else that transpired after that, that the attention of the presidency, the Congress, and the American people would have been diverted from the problems that we had to solve and that was the principle for reason for granting the pardon.”

In Shadow, Woodward praised Ford’s decision. “I have become more and more convinced that Ford made the correct decision in pardoning Nixon. Nixon had already paid the political death penalty of resignation, and for Ford a pardon was the only way of ending the public and media obsession with his predecessor’s future,” he wrote. 

While America is now facing similar challenges to the challenges Americans were facing in 1974, historians say the circumstances of the Ford/Nixon pardon aren't the same and don’t apply to President Trump. 

“The situation today is utterly different,” said Sean Wilentz, a history professor at Princeton University, because Nixon was pardoned solely for his role in the Watergate scandal. By contrast, a pardon of President Trump “would be halting further investigation and possible prosecution concerning the serious violation of several important federal laws arising from several distinct episodes dating back to the 2016 campaign,” Wilentz said.

The severity of the alleged crimes and infractions matter, too. “There was no violence associated with Richard Nixon or Watergate,” said Mary Stuckey, a communication arts and sciences professor at Penn State, contrasting Nixon’s role in Watergate with Trump’s role in the insurrection of the attack on the Capitol.

 “It seems remarkable to say,” Wilentz said, “but comparing Trump's acts to what Nixon did is like comparing a mountain to, well, something more than a molehill but much less than a mountain.” 

One other key difference is that Republicans united to condemn Nixon’s behavior in 1974. “Republicans were the ones who told Nixon he had to resign; there was no question of them supporting him—disapproval was clear and was bipartisan,” Stuckey said. 

Wilentz also referenced the role unification played in Nixon's resignation, especially among staunch Nixon supporters. “Leading Republicans, including those who had supported Nixon through most of the investigations, finally broke ranks with the president, choosing the nation over their party. That decision at last compelled Nixon to resign rather than face almost certain impeachment by the House and likely removal by the Senate,” he said. 

The stakes are also much higher this time. “President Trump has attacked many of our most sacred institutions of democracy throughout his presidency,” said Randall Woods, a professor of history at the University of Arkansas. He adds that “those very institutions now need to hold him accountable. It’s vital they do so to ensure their own survival.”  

Such accountability could take many forms, but many historians agree something must be done. “The world and the country need to know that when the president initiates an insurrection against the government of the United States, he’ll be held accountable,” said Shirley Anne Warshaw, a political science professor at Gettysburg College.

As for concerns that further action will only divide an already divided nation, historians say President Trump and some Republicans have left lawmakers with few options. 

“For there to be reconciliation, there has to be a willingness to reconcile from both sides,” Woods said, adding: “one side is still struggling to acknowledge that Trump has done anything wrong.” A position echoed by Stuckey: “Truth and reconciliation has to begin with truth.” 

Daryl Austin is a journalist based in Utah. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Newsweek, and National Review.