Washington, DC – The United States president has an extraordinary power to pardon people accused of federal crimes – so much so that some legal scholars argue that sitting presidents can even pre-emptively pardon themselves.
But that wouldn’t matter in the case of former President Donald Trump’s latest legal troubles in the state of Georgia, which are not subject to presidential pardons.
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The state-level charges, formally unveiled late on Monday, also cannot be pardoned by Georgia’s governor under the state’s constitution. Instead, the southern US state has an independent board that issues pardons, but such requests can only be made five years after a sentence is served.
That means that even if Trump or another fellow Republican wins the White House in 2024 – or if a Trump-friendly politician becomes Georgia’s governor – the state case will not be able to go away with the stroke of a pen.
Trump, who is comfortably leading the race for the 2024 Republican US presidential nomination, was indicted on Monday alongside 18 others accused of joining a conspiracy to “unlawfully change the outcome” of the 2020 election in Georgia.
It was the second indictment against the former president this month related to election interference, and the fourth time he has been criminally charged so far this year.
Trump continues to falsely claim that he lost the 2020 vote to President Joe Biden due to widespread fraud.
He was indicted on federal election interference charges in early August, as well as on federal charges of mishandling classified documents in June. He also faces a state-level prosecution in New York linked to a hush-money payment made to a porn star.
Trump has denied wrongdoing in all the cases and portrayed the charges as an effort to derail his 2024 campaign. He pleaded not guilty to the first three indictments and is expected to do the same in the Georgia case.
The Georgia indictment came after a years-long investigation into efforts by Trump and his allies to alter the presidential election results in the state.
The probe was launched in January 2021 after Trump asked Georgia’s top election official to “find 11,780 votes” to turn the election in his favour after Biden had won.
Trump has rejected the charges as a “witch hunt” and said he plans to release a report next week detailing the election fraud that he says marred the vote in Georgia – a claim rejected by experts and politicians in the state.
While the ex-president will not be able to seek a pardon in Georgia, it remains unclear if he will try to get one in the federal indictments against him.
Meanwhile, Trump, 77, can still seek the presidency even if convicted in any of the cases.
However, the law remains unclear on what would happen to the Georgia case if Trump wins the White House next year.
And since no serving or former president has ever been charged with a crime before Trump, there is no legal precedent to go by.
In 1974, former President Richard Nixon received a “full, free and absolute pardon” from his successor Gerald Ford for any crimes he may have committed in office linked to the Watergate scandal.
Congress has the constitutional authority to remove a president from office for criminal behaviour.
Trump was impeached twice by the House of Representatives, including over his effort to overturn the 2020 elections, but the Senate voted against convicting him, which would have barred him from running for office again.
The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel argues against prosecuting presidents while in office.
“The indictment or criminal prosecution of a sitting President would impermissibly undermine the capacity of the executive branch to perform its constitutionally assigned functions,” it says.
But the Justice Department only has control over federal prosecutors, so if Georgia officials were to continue to push the state charges against a future President Trump, the courts would likely have to decide on the permissibility of the prosecution.