Trump’s pardons are a show of weakness to his allies, not solidarity

President Donald Trump with Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

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President Donald Trump with Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
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Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

  • President Donald Trump’s pardons feel like a wink and nudge that he’ll pardon his associates if they’re convicted.
  • But even Trump’s explicit promises are unreliable.
  • Trump has shown time and time again that he won’t spend political capital unless there’s something in it for himself.

President Donald Trump feels he can’t fire the attorney general he hates, so he whines about him on Twitter. And he feels he can’t pardon his associates in legal trouble, so he pardons figures from scandals gone by.

Among other purposes, these pardons serve as a wink and a nudge that he’ll be there with a pardon for his associates if they get convicted. But are those associates likely to believe his implicit promise?

Even Trump’s explicit promises are unreliable.

If the president wanted to send a really strong signal to his associates that they were in the clear, he could do that by pardoning them now. He could pardon Mike Flynn today. He’s not doing that. In fact, he won’t even give Roseanne Barr a certificate of non-racistness on Twitter. Instead, he has used Barr’s troubles to make a point about the way the media has mistreated himme me me me me.

What the Roseanne episode reminds you is Trump won’t expend an ounce of political capital to help his political allies when they’re in trouble unless he sees an advantage for himself. This is consistent with the reputation Trump has developed over decades, as a man for whom loyalty is a one-way street, who will renege on contracts if he sees an advantage.

What we can tell by Trump’s choice, so far, not to pardon Flynn or Paul Manafort or other associates who could conceivably “flip” on him, is that he thinks the costs of pardons for them would exceed the benefits.

Such a move could trigger key resignations at the Department of Justice or in the White House. It could hurt Republican electoral fortunes. Maybe it would even arouse Republican congressional oversight.

Of course, you may not feel like any of those institutions are standing up to Trump, but if Trump wasn’t afraid that they would, wouldn’t he have issued the pardons already? He hates this investigation and feels boxed in. If he felt like he could just pardon his way out, he would do it yesterday.

So, if you were Flynn, would you want to rely on hope that Trump’s political calculus will change in the future?

What if there never comes a time where Trump finds pardoning him to be politically advantageous? Plus, even if you think you’re going to get a pardon eventually, fighting the charges against you can still deplete your life savings in the meantime.

I’m not saying Trump will never pardon his associates. Joe Arpaio, who had been a campaign surrogate, was a Trump associate of sorts. But Trump will do so only if there’s something that’s in it for him, as with the Arpaio pardon that so emboldened hard-right immigration opponents and triggered the libs.

A Flynn or Manafort pardon provides less upside and much more downside.

So Flynn has good reason to believe that he’s going to end up like Trump’s chandelier guy – and therefore good reason to keep talking.