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Trump: Pardon Me

June 20th, 2020

4/1 is value that he’ll pardon himself this term

Decorum has never featured highly among Donald Trump’s characteristics. If you view life rather like a computer game where the High Scores are measured in dollars and ratings, and any casulaties along the way can be dismissed as casually as a pixellated image, norms of behaviour are of little consequence. And decorum is certainly not what to expect should Trump lose in November.

And he should lose. RCP give Joe Biden an 8.8% average lead in the polls: his highest this year. Similarly, Trump’s average approval rating sits at -12.1 which is within a point or so of his worst score since the beginning of 2019. He trails in all the swing states he won in 2016 and is perilously close to being behind in Texas and Iowa. If the election was held tomorrow, he could easily lose a third to a half of the Electoral College votes from last time.

But the election won’t be held tomorrow: Trump has around five and a half months to turn things round and he did turn round a similar-sized deficit against Hillary Clinton last time (and of course he doesn’t necessarily need to overturn all of it – he won in 2016 despite polling almost 3m fewer votes). Trump has proven highly adept at negative campaigning and dragging his opponents’ ratings down and Biden is a candidate with vulnerabilities to exploit and he’ll no doubt try to pin economic and Covid-19 failures on Democrat governors to shift the blame for the deaths and downturn.

That said, Trump’s criticisms of Biden are in danger of lowering public expectations of him to such an extent that if the Democrat turns up at the first debate and remembers who and where he is, it’ll be a win for him. In truth, Biden should do a lot better. He’s had plenty of practice at debates these last 12 months. He took part in eleven of them between June 2019 and March this year, and generally did all right – particularly in the later ones with fewer contenders.

By contrast, Trump hasn’t taken part in a debate since 2016 and while he has faced lengthy scrutiny from the press, he’s acted there as his own moderator. He may be in for an uncomfortable awakening when he finds he can’t control the agenda so readily, especially if Biden prepares properly.

Currently, Trump is 11/8 with the bookies to be re-elected. That’s far too short in my opinion. Biden might not be a strong candidate but he’s better than Hillary, while Trump has an unimpressive record in office; he’s not the unstart outsider any more, no matter how much he might try to play the role.

Let’s assume then that Trump loses. What does he do then? He could just retire to Mar-a-Lago and play golf. He is in his mid-70s and most people that age are more than happy to enjoy their retirement. Trump, however, is not most people; nor does he face the problems of most pensioners.

To say that the 45th president has sailed close to the legal wind during his term of office is to be kind. The revelations (or accusations, if you prefer) in John Bolton’s new book of, for example, explicitly seeking favours to aid his re-election campaign just add fuel to the fire of, at best, improper conduct. As mentioned a couple of weeks ago when we looked at the chances of Trump seeking a third term if he can win a second, his actions could leave him fighting off legal cases for the rest of his life.

Unless. After the election, Trump will be in power for another two and a half months whatever the result. That gives him plenty of time to play with his powers and one such power the US Constitution bestows upon the president is “to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States”. Note that this only applies to federal offences. With the exception of not being able to pardon impeachments, this power is not further qualified. As such, there is no reason why he could not grant one to himself.

One moment – doesn’t a pardon require an offence? Not necessarily. Gerald Ford famously pardoned Richard Nixon for “all offences against the United States which he has committed or may have committed or taken part in.” In other words, a pardon can be a pre-emptive strike to halt legal procedings. Some will argue that to accept a pardon is to accept guilt. Perhaps. But such niceties of logic will be of little concern and indeed of little matter if nothing can come of them. “I did it because I could”, would more likely be his reasoning.

So would he? Will he? I asked Shadsy at Ladbrokes what odds he’d offer on Trump pardoning himself before 21 January 2021 (i.e. during his current term) and was quoted 4/1. I think that’s actually quite reasonable. If we work on there being a 70-75% chance of him losing in November (which is what I’d put it at, though the markets have it lower), then that implies about a 26-28% shot on the pardon, assuming he won’t issue one during this term if he wins. Given his shamelessness, his brazen self-protection and his rage when things go against him, I wouldn’t put it so low. Is it worth a punt? Well, I think laying Trump for the election is more value but if you fancy a bit of fun then yes, it it.

David Herdson