With his term nearing its end, there is speculation and concern that George W Bush might give clemency to some of those former political allies who have fallen foul of the law over the past eight years.
Even the suggestion that Bush would use this power to erase guilt associated with members of his administration has roused public attention.
Jerrold Nadler, a Democratic Representative in the House, introduced a resolution last week to dissuade Bush from taking advantage in the twilight of his presidency.
Nadler wrote the “granting of pre-emptive pardons by the President to senior officials of his administration for acts they may have taken in the course of their official duties is a dangerous abuse of the pardon power”.
Bush has approved only 157 pardons and six commutations, the lowest number of any president since World War II, with exception of his father.
Presidents typically issue pardons around the holiday season and in the final hours of their presidency. Bush’s last day will be 20 January, 2009.
Though the Office of the Pardon Attorney, under the Justice Department, reviews the applications and makes recommendations, the final decision falls entirely to the president. “Pardon power is one of the few powers that the constitution grants the president in an unchecked way – that’s that,” said Andrew Rudalevige professor at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.
In the fiscal year 2008, 2,300 people applied for a pardon or commutation, the largest number for any single year since at least 1900, according to Justice Department Statistics.
Pardons are typically used to heal national divisions and right wrongs such as when Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson forgave Confederate soldiers and Jimmy Carter granted amnesty to Vietnam-era draft evaders.
Some acts of clemency do the opposite – splitting the nation over what people feel is the abuse of an unjust power of the president.
Before Richard Nixon was brought to trial for his role in the Watergate scandal, Gerald Ford pre-emptively pardoned him. The act was so controversial that Ford had to explain his actions before Congress. Though he stated that Nixon’s acceptance of the pardon was tantamount to an admission of guilt, Ford’s ratings fell and the Republicans arguably lost the following election as a result.
Other pardons have seemed to be self-serving, like George H.W. Bush’s forgiveness of people with connections to the Iran-Contra affair including six whose trials might have exposed his own involvement.
Bill Clinton, who in his final hours in office pardoned 140 people, let Marc Rich go free. As the businessman’s former wife had donated large sums to the Democratic party and the Clinton Library, some suggested that money was being exchanged for leniency. “That was a stain on his record. It suggested he’d really abused that power” said Jon Roper, professor of American studies at Swansea University.
There are a few famous names among those who are applying for a pardon this winter: Marion Jones, the Olympic sprinter who lied about steroid use and John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban” who is serving 20 years for providing material support to a terrorist organization.
But one need not apply to have their slate wiped clean and there are some notable absences from the list including the jailed political lobbyist Jack Abramoff, domestic goddess Martha Stewart, recently charged Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens, and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.
Bush commuted Libby’s sentence following his conviction of perjury and obstruction in association with the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame thereby cancelling his 30-month jail sentence. “Pardoning Libby would be like another Nixon” said Rudalevige.
There is speculation that Bush will give a blanket pardon to all CIA officers and others who took part in “enhanced interrogation” techniques in the war on terror. Though their actions are considered legal now, a future administration could redefine the legality of those technique, putting those people at legal risk.
Others with ties to the Bush administration who may receive presidential protection include those involved in the wire-tapping of American citizens and the firing of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006.
The public is waiting to see if Bush will further divide the nation by using the presidential pardon to protect himself and those who worked under him.