Some people seeking pardons sought to capitalize on Mr. Trump’s obvious grievances.
Within weeks of stepping down as the president’s lawyer in 2018, John M. Dowd, who defended Mr. Trump in the special counsel’s investigation, began marketing himself as a potential conduit for pardons. He told some would-be clients and their representatives that Mr. Trump was likely to look favorably on petitioners who were investigated by federal prosecutors in Manhattan — who regularly took on cases that touched Mr. Trump or his associates — or tarnished by perceived leaks from the F.B.I., which he openly came to distrust and criticize during the Russia investigation.
One of Mr. Dowd’s clients, William T. Walters, a sports gambler convicted of charges related to an insider-trading scheme, had his sentence commuted by Mr. Trump early Wednesday. Mr. Dowd denied that he had boasted to anyone about his ability to obtain pardons and declined to answer questions.
And Karen Giorno, a top adviser to Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign, said that she had worked to help secure a pardon for one of her clients, a former C.I.A. official convicted in 2012 of leaking classified information, by seeking to “connect the dots” between the people and techniques involved in his prosecution and the special counsel’s investigation then dogging Mr. Trump’s presidency.
The argument resonated when Ms. Giorno made it in meetings with senior administration officials, she said.
“It was compelling,” Ms. Giorno said. “We were talking about witch hunts back then, and the abuse of power.” She said she did not speak directly to Mr. Trump or lobby anyone in his administration on behalf of her client, John Kiriakou, and no longer represented him. He did not receive a pardon.
President Trump has discussed potential pardons that could test the boundaries of his constitutional power to nullify criminal liability. Here’s some clarity on his ability to pardon.
- May a president issue prospective pardons before any charges or conviction? Yes. In Ex parte Garland, an 1866 case involving a former Confederate senator who had been pardoned by President Andrew Johnson, the Supreme Court said the pardon power “extends to every offense known to the law, and may be exercised at any time after its commission, either before legal proceedings are taken or during their pendency, or after conviction and judgment.” It is unusual for a president to issue a prospective pardon before any charges are filed, but there are examples, perhaps most famously President Gerald R. Ford’s pardon in 1974 of Richard M. Nixon to prevent him from being prosecuted after the Watergate scandal.
- May a president pardon his relatives and close allies? Yes. The Constitution does not bar pardons that raise the appearance of self-interest or a conflict of interest, even if they may provoke a political backlash and public shaming. In 2000, shortly before leaving office, President Bill Clinton issued a slew of controversial pardons, including to his half brother, Roger Clinton, over a 1985 cocaine conviction for which he had served about a year in prison, and to Susan H. McDougal, a onetime Clinton business partner who had been jailed as part of the Whitewater investigation.
- May a president issue a general pardon? This is unclear. Usually, pardons are written in a way that specifically describes which crimes or sets of activities they apply to. There is little precedent laying out the degree to which a pardon can be used to instead foreclose criminal liability for anything and everything.
- May a president pardon himself? This is unclear. There is no definitive answer because no president has ever tried to pardon himself and then faced prosecution anyway. As a result, there has never been a case which gave the Supreme Court a chance to resolve the question. In the absence of any controlling precedent, legal thinkers are divided about the matter.
- Find more answers here.
Peter Smith, a former Republican House lawmaker from Vermont, said Mr. Trump’s actions show an extraordinary disregard for the integrity of government.
“He does not just distrust the law — he scorns it, he is opposed to it and he sees it as an obstacle to doing whatever he wants,” Mr. Smith said. “He is rewarding his friends. He is rewarding his allies, and he does not care what the implications look like. It is classic strongman behavior.”