Does the US President Have the Right to Pardon Himself?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The right to pardon is an authority given to the President of the United States (POTUS) by the US Constitution in Article II, Section 2. This section specifically reads that the POTUS “shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.” Essentially, the only way presidential pardon is restricted by the constitution is under the circumstance of the sitting president being impeached. Self-pardon is not restricted by law, and under interpretation by the Supreme Court, a president could have the right to pardon himself not only for crimes he has committed, but also for crimes with which he has not yet been charged. As of yet, no president has actually pardoned himself for committing crimes or from actions that might later be considered crimes.

Technically, President Richard Nixon could have pardoned himself.
Technically, President Richard Nixon could have pardoned himself.

Failure to impeach a president who has been perceived of as having committed crimes, but has not been charged with such crimes means that the US would have no jurisdiction to convict the president of crimes if he exercised the right to pardon himself. However, in circumstances where international laws are broken, a presidential pardon has no bearing. The only possible solution for convicting a president of for example, war crimes, would be for an incoming president to extradite the former president to the country in which war crimes have been believed to be committed. The fact that a particular POTUS would have pardoned himself would not be given much weight in prosecution by the World Court, or by the court of another country.

The Constitution gives the president the right to pardon anyone, except if the president is impeached.
The Constitution gives the president the right to pardon anyone, except if the president is impeached.

There have been suggestions in the past that a specific POTUS would exercise the right to pardon himself. No president has done so at present, even though some presidents were convicted of crimes and could have exercised the right. When President Ford took office he pardoned President Nixon, not exactly a popular move. Since Nixon was not impeached but instead resigned, one of his last acts could have been a self-pardon. Similarly, President Clinton could have pardoned himself for perjury but chose not to do so. If a president commits or is charged with a crime while in office, the succeeding president often grants pardon, though this may not always be a popular decision.

Typically, a president could pardon himself, and according to most interpretations, could pardon himself prior to being charged with a crime. This has led to the argument that the right to pardon should be abridged or rewritten, to prevent a president from acting in this fashion, and thus avoiding prosecution for crimes when he or she leaves office. Others argue that the circumstances under which a pardon would be abused in this manner are so rare it is not worth changing the law, and that presidents given the opportunity to pardon themselves in the past have not done so.

A president can pardon himself according to the interpretation by the Supreme Court.
A president can pardon himself according to the interpretation by the Supreme Court.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


Can he pardon anyone, himself included, for State offenses?


Well, hurry up and impeach him. On the other hand, if he pardons himself, it will be like admitting that he is guilty--but what good would that do?


Presidential pardons only refer to federal offenses (offenses against the United States). Murder and other state offenses may still be prosecuted in state courts.


Don't forget that Capone was nailed for tax evasion. All the other stuff- contract murders, briberies, etc etc.. Not as easy to prove courtesy of intimidation and payoffs, but the Feds got him on tax evasion.

Trump thinks he can sneak through this? BS. He can pardon only on federal charges. NY AG and others are going after him on RICO charges on money laundering. State charges.

Oh- don't forget that Putin is going to win regardless. If Trump continues to show favor for all things Russia, Putin wins. If Trump continues on his destructive and incompetent path, Putin wins.

If we remove trump from office for collusion, Putin still wins.

Thank you, incompetent and uninformed trump voters. You gave Putin a checkmate on our democracy.


I would read the phrase, "...except in cases of impeachment" to include cases in which the impeachment was pending. There is ambiguity in every phrase, no matter how expertly conceived. Article 2, section 2, if expanded to mean "except in cases where the house has already voted to being impeachment proceedings", that creates an absurdity. Namely, a rush between POTUS to pardon him/herself and the House to vote to impeach.

Thus I suggest that the proper interpretation may be that the phrase expands to, "except in matters where the House exercises its right to impeach the president." That means that a POTUS pardon would be invalidated by the action of the House, even if POTUS had taken the preventative step of self-pardon.


I remember Trump wondering out loud about pardoning himself before he was elected. It made me wonder what he had done wrong. I am still not sure that the Russians were the source of his hypothetical exploration. I also realize that would imply careful, strategic planning, a skill that I have yet to see from this president.


Of course the President can pardon himself. He is, after all, the executive, part of whose constitutional duty under Article 2 is to bring prosecutions and punish the guilty. You can't jail the head jailer, and you can't prosecute the head prosecutor's boss, unless he allows it.


It's not pardoning himself for crimes he has committed yet, but crimes that he hasn't been charged with yet.


This sounds like one of those unanswerable thought problems, like "Could God create a rock so big that even He couldn't lift it?". A person given the legal power of forgiveness could theoretically forgive himself, but the deeper question would be who would give someone that much power without any scrutiny? By the time a person reaches the level of a country's leader, he or she has usually been vetted and examined and investigated and checked dozens of times.

People with the authority to keep the president in check wouldn't hesitate to question a decision to self-pardon. I'm sure he or she could get out of a traffic ticket, but if he or she committed a serious felony like mass murder, I don't believe a self-pardon would stand up in a World Court or UN or Supreme Court trial.

I remember hearing that Secret Service agents were once asked by Nixon's chief-of-staff to inform him of any unusual actions by the president during his last few weeks in office. There were apparently some concerns that Nixon would become overwhelmed with emotion and order an unprovoked military action or something equally as irrational. The fact remains that nothing happened. I don't know if another sitting president would ever come close to committing significant criminal acts while in office.

Older white collar crimes may come back to haunt a president, like the Whitewater deal during Clinton's term, but there are too many eyes on a sitting president for him or her to escape notice.


If the POTUS has the legal right to pardon himself for crimes he hasn't yet committed, what's the point of a legal system at all? The President can pardon anyone he feels like, which means he could effectively assassinate the entire cabinet, senate, and House and pardon himself immediately afterwards, and then basically just take over the country, with no legal ramifications. It's basically like saying, "please become a dictator!"


That seems kind of weird. If anyone ever does an update to this really interesting and informative article, I would also wonder if a President can pardon himself for a crime for the purpose of going out and committing it (like if fictional Evil President Ted pardons himself for murder and then strangles his wife's on national TV). If so, I'm surprised I haven't seen any movies with a similar plotline.


1) A president could pardon everyone in his administration including the Vice President.

2) He could then resign

3) the Vice President who would then become the succeeding president could return the favor by pardoning the resigning president.

4) An amendment to the Constitution would also have to take this into account.

5) The president could kill two birds with one stone! The succeeding President (ex Vice President) would be entitled to all the benefits afforded to all retired presidents

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