A report this week by The New York Times cited sources close to former President Donspanld Trump who said he is ready for a “perp walk” and musing about smiling for the throngs of cameras should he be arrested.
The story was just one of a slew of frenzied news coverage and social media posts, all sparked by Trump’s spanrbitrspanry clspanim thspant he would be “arrested” this past Tuesday. No arrest took place, however.
But speculation remains rampant. On Twitter, one posting, which received millions of views, put a messianic twist on the drspanmspan, noting Trump’s spanrrest would tspanke plspance during the season of Lent — “a time of suffering and purification for the followers of Jesus Christ.”
Others have scoffed at Trump’s postings on social media attacking Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, including saying he is doing the “work of Anarchists and the Devil.” And they pointed out that Trump campaign officials this week boasted to Fox News that they have raised $1.5 million in contributions since Trump first fueled talk of his arrest.
Legal scholars and historians point out that Trump’s reported quips about a perp walk and fundraising mock a nearly 50-year precedent, designed by a Florida man, to spare the country the political trauma of seeing a presidential mugshot and finger-printing.
The lone pardon of a president in American history: Nearly 50 years ago
On Sept. 8, 1974, just before the country settled into an afternoon of professional football games, TV stations broke into scheduled programming so that former President Gerald Ford could make a brief announcement — that he had granted his disgraced predecessor, Richard Nixon, a “full, free and absolute pardon.”
Nixon had resigned a month earlier over his role in leading a cover-up of the Watergate scandal. The investigations of the Nixon White House had begun more than two years before when five men were arrested after breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters to install wiretapping equipment in the Watergate building.
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Ford’s was an explosive announcement that unleashed a torrent of criticism and likely cost him the election of 1976 and any semblance of a meaningful presidential legacy. Why did he do it?
Throughout the years, Ford explained the various reasons. One, he said, it was impossible to govern, and in fact his first presidential news conferences were dominated with questions about Nixon, Watergate and presidential wrongdoing amid an economic crisis, inflation and a recession, and the ongoing Vietnam War.
Ford worried, too, as he had been told by Watergate prosecutors that legal proceedings against Nixon could take a year or more. Ford, an attorney, was concerned Nixon could be acquitted in a trial, or courts could decide on an appeal that he’d been deprived of a fair trial, and then the “verdict of history would be even more inconclusive.”
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In the meantime, the divisions and resentments stoked by Watergate would again fire up “ugly passions” among the public. The presidential oath he had taken a month before required that he maintain domestic tranquility, he noted.
He also said he felt sorry for Nixon, who was ill, a “sick man.” As a man of faith, Ford also felt, as he told the nation that day, that he would “receive justice without mercy if I fail to show mercy.”
And then there was what he told then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill: “I don’t want to see a former president go to jail.”
After Watergate, sentiment changed on Ford and the Nixon pardon
The immediate condemnation of Ford’s action was swift and widespread.
Watergate reporter Bob Woodward of The Washington Post recalled during a talk in South Florida in 2018 how he was awakened that morning by a phone call from colleague Carl Bernstein who sniped: “The son of a bitch pardoned the son of a bitch.”
But over the years, Ford’s action drew praise.
In 2001, Ford was honored with a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award precisely “for his courage in making a controversial decision of conscience to pardon former President Richard M. Nixon.”
He was presented the award by the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, who was one of Ford’s harshest critics at the time. But 17 years later, Kennedy conceded Ford had acted correctly.
“I was one of those who spoke out against his action then,” Kennedy said that evening. “But time has a way of clarifying past events, and now we see that President Ford was right. His courage and dedication to our country made it possible for us to begin the process of healing and put the tragedy of Watergate behind us.”
The staunchest defender of the pardon was a Boynton Beach attorney and law professor Benton Becker. It was Becker, who in late summer 1974, was hired by Ford to research a pardon for Nixon and who then went to the former president’s San Clemente estate to negotiate the pardon in secret.
Becker ultimately moved to South Florida, where he taught law at the University of Miami and St. Thomas University. He then settled in Palm Beach County but occasionally spoke about the pardon at legal and constitutional law seminars until his death in 2015.
“Watergate was something that had to be put behind so we could move forward on other matters,” Becker said in a 2010 speech. “Watergate was a strong weight that was holding back any real movement in the administration’s forward thrust, diplomatically, internationally and domestically.”
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Now, though, historians and others are again second-guessing Nixon pardon
Former Watergate investigator Jill Wine-Banks said in an interview with The Palm Beach Post in 2019 that she and the other lawyers on her team believed they had enough evidence to indict and convict Nixon. But once the pardon was issued, a criminal charge against Nixon was off the table.
“Yes, of course I was disappointed, that the leader of the cover-up had gotten away scot-free,” she said. “A pardon is absolute. If you’re pardoned, you’re pardoned, and there is nothing you can do about it. That was the end of being able to indict Richard Nixon.”
She’s not the only one who felt let down.
“I believe the timing of the pardon was a mistake,” said Timothy Naftali, a historian at New York University and former director of the Richard Nixon presidential library. “But for the sake of the country, it would have been better to wait and at least indict the former president. I think it would have been a very good precedent.”
A Nixon indictment would have resolved any questions about the constitutionality of criminal charges against an ex-commander in chief, Naftali added. Plus, he said, an indictment would have “provided one clear summation” of all the allegations against Nixon.
“And President Trump would have known for sure that he’d be indictable,” said Naftali, who was in Boca Raton last month to moderate a discussion with former first lady Laura Bush. “We’ll never know what kind of restraint that knowledge might have had on Donald Trump, but it might have been helpful for the country as a whole had President Trump known in advance, because of Nixon’s experience, that he could be indicted. But of course, given the Ford pardon of President Nixon, that precedent had not been established.”
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Another notable historian, Michael Beschloss, said this week in a television interview that he also feels the timing of the pardon was a mistake. And that it has likely emboldened others, including Trump, to believe they are immune from prosecution.
“In retrospect, was that the right thing to do? I’m not so sure,” Beschloss said, adding presidents know they can retire to their “seaside mansions” regardless of lawless actions. “That’s not a very big punishment.”