Building on his magnanimous inaugural address, President Biden should reach out to the most alienated Americans: Donald Trump’s supporters. Even if you dismiss Trump’s “Big Lie” that all 74 million people who voted for him act and think as one, millions of Americans are still seething. Words may not be enough. Our reeling, roiling nation needs substantive gestures to change the tone and heal the partisan divide. That’s why Biden should grant “a full, free and absolute pardon” unto Trump, for any and all offenses against the United States that he “may have committed or taken part in.”
Such language differs from Gerald Ford’s 1974 pardon of Richard Nixon only in that Ford pardoned Nixon for offenses committed as president. Trump’s pardon should cover his presidency and pre-presidency. Why? While echoing his usual celebrations of unity and decency, Biden should quote Ford’s rationale. As with Nixon, trying Trump would “cause prolonged and divisive debate,” threatening the nation’s “tranquility.”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m thrilled that Trump is gone from the White House. I joined more than 1,000 historians and constitutional scholars in demanding Trump’s impeachment. I hope the Senate votes to convict him and — most importantly — bar him from holding office ever again.
True, some Democrats will object to a pardon — loudly. But defying them would prove that Biden is no marshmallow moderate, but a muscular moderate. Pushback also could trigger the “Sister Souljah moment” that Biden needs to remind progressives that the centrist coalition that nominated him demands moderation, not retribution, and seeks forward-looking leadership, not vengeance. Politics of payback backfires in democracies, further poisoning the common well of goodwill that we all need to cooperate. National redemption requires reconciliation, not revenge.
Pardoning someone is an intimate act of democratic grace and a sweeping assertion of imperious power — reflecting the contradictory mix of powers great presidents wield effectively. Ultimately, Biden should pardon Trump for Biden’s sake. Joe Biden inherited the visible presidency — the formal presidential powers as detailed in the Constitution — intact; it’s the invisible presidency — the chief executive’s less defined, more symbolic role as the high priest of the American nation — that has been damaged and needs restoration.
Biden’s transition didn’t buoy that invisible presidency enough because of Trump’s destructive attention-getting antics. To lead effectively, Biden must become the focus of attention. Moreover, the only thing worse for Trump than losing is to be ignored.
Biden undoubtedly recalls the fury unleashed when Ford pardoned Nixon on Sept. 8, 1974. The new president explained that “someone must write the end” to this “American tragedy,” noting that “only I can do that.” Putting aside “the ultimate fate of Richard Nixon,” Ford worried about “the immediate future of this great country.”
Ford’s patriotic magnanimity cost him. Many historians believed the pardon caused his 1976 loss to Jimmy Carter. But Ford lived long enough to be vindicated. In 2001, five years before his death, he received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award. “I was one of those who spoke out against his action then,” the late Sen. Edward Kennedy admitted then. “But time has a way of clarifying past events, and now we see that President Ford was right.” Ford, he said, “made it possible for us to begin the process of healing.”
Confident in his decision, Ford carried in his wallet a quotation from a 1915 Supreme Court opinion, Burdick v. United States, that a pardon “carries an imputation of guilt”; acceptance, “a confession of it.” That thought and the ongoing state investigations might help Democrats tolerate a Trump pardon. Presidents can give legal absolution — federally; the moral stains endure.
The presidential transition is a technical act, the orderly transfer of executive power. But this profoundly democratic moment is much more. When handled right, it’s a change of tone, of mood, of trajectory, of national destiny. It takes Americans from Herbert Hoover’s fear to Franklin Roosevelt’s fearlessness, from Jimmy Carter’s malaise to Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America.”
Pardoning Donald Trump would be the perfect way to culminate this painful moment and start healing America’s soul, while expanding President Biden’s power to strengthen America’s body, too. Finally, Trump’s “American carnage” is yielding to Biden’s “American carnival” — dynamic, diverse and, alas, occasionally grotesque. Beyond urging all Americans “to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature” and “stop treating our opponents as our enemies,” Joe Biden would do what great presidents do: restore the invisible presidency to its former glory and lead by example, uniting by healing, not demonizing, others.