Article II Section 2 is unambiguous. Barring impeachment, the Chief Executive can pardon anyone, at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all:
The President…shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.
Trump manifestly has the power to pardon himself for past and future treason in connection to the Kremlin’s blackmail tape, or any other federal crimes.
There are only 2 arguments against this.
(1) POTUS cannot judge his own case
In 1974, just days before his resignation, President Richard Nixon’s own Office of Legal Counsel asserted:
[The power to pardon] is vested in the President. This raises the question whether the President can pardon himself. Under the fundamental rule that no one may be a judge in his own case, it would seem that the question should be answered in the negative.
That’s a reasonable argument.
But IRL, the case would undoubtedly go to the Supreme Court, where Trump enjoys a reliable 1-vote margin of victory (and possibly 3, in the near future).
Even if SCOTUS ruled against the Trump regime, the high court has no army or police to enforce their ruling.
(2) POTUS is constrained by impeachment
The President’s power to pardon federal crimes is absolute, except “in Cases of Impeachment”. Therefore, the thinking goes, POTUS cannot:
- Pardon himself.
- Auction off pardons to the highest bidder, such as drug lords or kingpins.
- Order the Secret Service to commit criminal acts, and then pardon them.
- Pardon him or herself for threatening to nuke countries unless they transfer funds to a personal checking account.
Or otherwise legally abuse his or her powers, because doing so would risk impeachment.
If the House were to initiate impeachment proceedings, Trump could simply arrest Paul Ryan and the Judiciary Committee, and either (A) compel their cooperation, or (B) hold them indefinitely without due process– both of which are perfectly pardonable offenses.
The same goes for any attempts to starve the Executive of funding.
Trump can simply arrest uncooperative Congressmen, and have their state legislatures appoint replacements of his choice– by force, if necessary (no one can enforce Posse Comitatus but Trump himself).
But what about all the checks and balances?
I know what you’re thinking:
But, but, but the Founders created a system of checks and balances, and co-equal branches of government! Surely, they devised a way to stop a criminal President!
Uh, they did.
It’s called the erectoral college…
The Founders designed the EC specifically to overturn an erection wherein low-information voters erected a charismatic tyrant:
The immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation…will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations…to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder.
But over the years, the independence of erectors slowly diminished– such that by 2016, the Erectoral College was merely a rubber stamp for popular tyranny.
So yes, Trump has the absolute authority to pardon himself.