What is a preemptive pardon?

A preemptive pardon is a way for the U.S. president to grant clemency for any potential crimes. Preemptive pardons can be granted at any time and do not require a formal hearing.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Mar 28, 2022

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  • A preemptive pardon is a way for the president of the United States to grant clemency to an individual or group of individuals for any potential crimes
  • Preemptive pardons can be granted at any time and do not require a formal hearing
  • More than 3,000 acts of clemency have been granted by way of preemptive pardons since the beginning of Reagan’s administration in 1981

If you’ve paid much attention to the American political climate over the past few years, you may have heard the term preemptive pardon come up. The definition of a preemptive pardon is straightforward, but what a preemptive pardon means in today’s society is largely up for debate.

The legal definition of a preemptive pardon is a pardon granted by a U.S. president before any formal or legal process has begun. A preemptive pardon is allowed in all contexts for the current president of the United States, and the lack of clear parameters concerning preemptive pardons makes it difficult to effectively define preemptive pardons in a seemingly opportunistic situation.

What does preemptive pardon mean?

If a president issues a preemptive pardon, any individuals who were to be formally prosecuted no longer have to face their potential charges or stand trial. Essentially, a preemptive pardon allows the president of the United States to grant absolute clemency.

Though preemptive pardons are not common, they are not altogether unheard of. Plenty of U.S. presidents have used preemptive pardons while in office, and former President Donald Trump was said to have considered the use of preemptive pardons for himself and his family members while in office.

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Is a preemptive pardon legal?

Yes, preemptive pardons are legal. During the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Edmund Randolph and others attempted to draw clear boundaries around the president’s ability to grant such overwhelming clemency. But all motions to do so were effectively suppressed.

This is why there are many questions today about how far a president should be able to take the use of preemptive pardon and whether the use of preemptive pardons should ultimately be limited to a clear set of rules, regulations, and expectations.

Are there types of presidential pardons?

The president’s power to issue pardons goes deeper than absolute clemency. Its nuances include commutations, remissions, and reprieves.

When it comes to federal convictions, the president has the power to commute (reduce) sentences. This means a president can replace the initial punishment with a lighter sentence. A president may commute a sentence afterward when facts that are unknown during a hearing later surface.

Presidents can also use commutation in circumstances of advanced age, illness, or when the sentence is considered too harsh.

The president’s mercy power also allows for the remission of payments and penalties due to federal violations. This type of acquittal involves the removal of a penalty in which payment would cause undue hardship. In general, the applicant must show that they are making a reasonable effort to pay what they owe. Additionally, the applicant must prove stability in his or her current state.

A reprieve effectively postpones a criminal sentence — which is often a death sentence — for a certain period of time. A presidential reprieve was designed to offer an inmate more time to appeal or give the president additional time to consider a pardon.

Can a president issue a preemptive pardon?

As of today, any current U.S. president can issue a preemptive pardon for any reason. A president can issue a preemptive pardon without proving grounds for doing so, and the president can preemptively pardon anyone at any time without approval or discussion.

Because a president can offer a preemptive pardon with such blatant power and control, many argue that the use of preemptive pardons has the potential to be both harmful and conciliatory in nature — creating a situation that is ethically subjective.

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What is the history of preemptive pardons?

In terms of the past use of preemptive pardons, George Washington — the first U.S. president — exercised his right to grant preemptive pardons by issuing amnesty to everyone involved in the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania. Following in Washington’s footsteps, Thomas Jefferson granted pardons to individuals convicted of crimes under the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Abraham Lincoln’s use of pardons for individuals ultimately led many to desert the Confederate Army, while Andrew Johnson performed what is widely known as the most controversial example of clemency by acquitting Jefferson Davis — the former president of the Confederacy — of all charges.

Gerald Ford’s use of pardon for Richard Nixon after Watergate is often considered the most well-known example of a presidential pardon, and many believe Ford’s actions ultimately demolished his approval ratings and effectively ruined his chances for re-election.

Though some cases of pardons have been made extremely popular, the vast majority of preemptive pardons are essentially anonymous. The public never knows they occur, and the president does not undergo any questioning because of them. And the variation among pardons for U.S. presidents is extremely significant.

While Barack Obama issued nearly 2,000 pardons (1,927) during his two-term presidency, George W. Bush issued a mere 200.

Are preemptive pardons still being used today?

Preemptive presidential pardons are still extremely common in today’s political climate. The most recent discussion of preemptive pardons occurred during Donald Trump’s presidency when chatter surfaced that President Trump might be attempting to use preemptive pardons to acquit his family members, his close allies, and ultimately himself of all potential charges.

While this is a muddy topic, the idea of self-acquittal as a president has been around since Richard Nixon. Trump’s alleged desire to preemptively pardon himself in such a personally opportunistic way has caused many to question the validity of preemptive pardons in general and whether their use should be more strictly monitored.

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