As Donald Trump prepares to leave office, the big question: Can he pardon himself?

  • Video report by ITV News Washington Correspondent Robert Moore

Yesterday afternoon on the South Lawn of the White House, President Donald Trump issued a pardon. The world was watching and the cable news networks carried the announcement live.

This particular pardon, though, was for a turkey named Corn, who alongside another Thanksgiving bird called Cob, will now get to live out his life in Iowa, and not be on an American dinner table tomorrow.

But the good-humoured pardon, part of a long pre-holiday presidential tradition, is about to move on to more serious terrain.

This morning it appears almost certain that the President is planning a raft of pardons for some of his closest associates. It is being widely reported that General Michael Flynn, his first National Security Adviser, will be pardoned.

Flynn admitted lying twice to the FBI, but his trial has since became a legal quagmire that is still being resolved.

Trump has already commuted the sentence of Roger Stone, another close associate.

It raises the ultimate legal question: Will Trump try to pardon himself in a move designed to pre-empt any prosecution after he leaves office on January 20th?

Some experts already see Flynn’s likely pardon as a test case for the much bigger issue.

It’s the sort of issue that lawyers love to debate. Can a president pardon himself? If not, could he step aside for a day (under the 25th Amendment), get an acting President to issue a pardon, and then resume office?

The point is not entirely theoretical. Donald Trump loses much of his legal protection at noon on January 20th. Once he is no longer president, he is far more exposed to being charged with criminal misconduct.

In Trump’s case, he could be investigated on charges of tax fraud. Court documents in New York indicate the Trump Organisation is being probed for "possibly extensive and protracted criminal conduct”, which could include falsifying business records and insurance fraud.

It is also possible that investigators might uncover other crimes related to corruption or nepotism.

  • Biden tells NBC that transition has been 'sincere'

But most lawyers believe that the Supreme Court - even a conservative one - would never let a President pardon himself. That would be an admission that one man is above the law - the President. And America fought a revolutionary war against that concept.

In any case, a presidential pardon would protect Trump only against federal charges. He could still be prosecuted for state crimes.

So as he pardoned Corn yesterday, Trump didn’t extend the clemency to himself. Perhaps he knows it would be a forlorn and desperate move that wouldn’t save him in any case.

Alongside the political theatre of Trump’s non-concession is the parallel drama of the President’s legal battles. And those are only just beginning.