President Pence's First and Worst Choice
Donald Trump will probably finish out this term, although those odds have dropped significantly in the past week. But what would happen if he actually left office? One of the main legacies would be that Mike Pence would face a horrible choice over whether to pardon Trump.
Let’s just imagine a scenario in which Trump resigns or is removed from office within the next few months. If this happens, Mike Pence automatically ascends to the presidency. He likely becomes the Republican nominee for president in 2020 (although this is not a guarantee).
And he then faces a choice: whether to pardon Donald Trump for any federal crimes. Trump, once removed from office, could very well spend the rest of his life fighting charges related to campaign finance, witness tampering, obstruction of justice, violations of the emoluments clause, tax evasion, and more. The Mueller report cited numerous avenues for prosecuting Trump, and while Mueller fell back on the Justice Department’s guideline against prosecuting a sitting president, he notably said these did not preclude prosecution of a former president.
Even if Trump is stripped of his office, he would not be stripped of his megaphone. A deposed Trump would be on Twitter (and probably several news outlets) multiple times a day complaining that the corrupt Democrats and the Deep State railroaded him and making extremely blunt demands that Pence pardon him. (He’s not known for subtlety.) Trump’s enthusiastic base of supporters, meanwhile, while probably somewhat smaller with him out of office, would still retain some loyalty to him and would consider a pardon the least Pence should be doing. Pence could even face a primary challenger from among the Trump loyalists if he doesn’t follow through with a pardon. The pressure to do this would be overwhelming.
So why wouldn’t Pence pardon him? Because this would be devastating to any general goodwill Pence would hope to create, and to his reelection chances.
Gerald Ford assumed the presidency after Richard Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, vowing that America’s “long national nightmare” was over. His early approval ratings were very high -- in the high 60s to low 70s. Then, a month into his presidency, Ford granted Nixon a full and unconditional pardon for any crimes he might have committed during his presidency, claiming it would help heal the nation. Ford’s approval ratings dropped by nearly 20 points after that. He spent the rest of his presidency in the 40s and low 50s, and was defeated in his election attempt in 1976.
Pence surely knows this history and the dangers a pardon holds for him. And he wouldn’t have the two years Ford had to try to generate some other legacy -- the pardon would be fresh in voters' minds in November 2020.
It’s possible the polls wouldn’t move as much under these circumstances as they did in the 1970s, when Americans’ partisan loyalties were more fluid. It’s also possible Trump would quickly become less popular once he’s out of office and Fox News, the White House Communications Office, the Senate Majority Leader’s Office, and other institutions devoted to protecting him are less interested in doing so.
But at least initially, Pence’s administration would be defined by a single decision, one option that could easily cost him his party’s nomination, and the other that could easily deprive him of a November election.