Anticipating the worries of Mr. Trump’s critics today, opponents of the Constitution’s pardon provision argued that the president might misuse the power to protect his co-conspirators in a treason plot. The anti-Federalists demanded that because “the connivance of the chief magistrate ought not to be entirely excluded” in cases of treason, Congress should have a check on the president’s power to pardon.
This critique prompted the framers to articulate a second, more important explanation for vesting the pardoning power in the president: protecting the nation’s security. As Hamilton explained, the benefit of granting this power to the president alone outweighed the costs of possible abuse because pardons could help end civic unrest, even civil war.
Only a single man, Hamilton argued, could act vigorously in times of crisis. “In seasons of insurrection or rebellion, there are often critical moments, when a well-timed offer of pardon to the insurgents or rebels may restore the tranquillity of the commonwealth,” he wrote.
Here, again, the circumstances do not pass the framers’ test. They had in mind the sort of pardons that Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson granted Confederates during the Civil War and Reconstruction to help bring the conflict to a swift end. They never could have imagined pardons being issued to venal Washington lobbyists in peacetime.
Even if Mr. Trump has the constitutional power to pardon Mr. Manafort and his allies, conservatives should vigorously oppose such pardons on the ground that they would do serious damage to the presidency. In the popular mind, pardons imply the commission of a crime. Indeed, a pardon here would grasp defeat from the jaws of victory because the charges against Mr. Manafort show no connection at all between Russia and the 2016 campaign.
This is not to say that the White House may not have grievances with Mr. Mueller’s investigation. Mr. Mueller may have soft-pedaled an inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s approval of the 2010 sale of American uranium assets to the Russians. And some day soon, Mr. Mueller may take his inquiry beyond his initial charge — to uncover “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign” — by investigating the finances of Mr. Trump and his family.
But a blanket pardon is the wrong cure for the wrong disease. If Mr. Mueller is acting improperly, the remedy is to fire him, not to preemptively forgive everyone involved in the crime. A blanket pardon would prompt congressional moves toward impeachment, which is the Constitution’s sole mechanism for disciplining, in Hamilton’s words, “the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust.”
Instead of attacking it at every turn, Mr. Trump should welcome the latest step in the Mueller investigation. Only by cooperating can he credibly prove his innocence.
An earlier version of this essay misstated the given name of the Manafort associate whose indictment was announced on Monday; it is Rick Gates, not Robert.