As speculation continues about whether President Trump will try to pardon himself, New York Attorney General Letitia James and other prosecutors are ready and waiting. James is leading a civil fraud investigation into the outgoing president, and his businesses, while Manhattan district attorney Cy Vance is pursuing a criminal investigation.
Questions about pardons before the end of Trump’s time in office include whether the sitting president will attempt to pardon himself. In a December 8 interview with The View, James described a scenario wherein Trump would resign or temporarily step down, permitting Vice President Pence to become the acting President and be able to issue a pardon. “What he could do is step down and allow the vice president — Vice President Pence — to pardon him,” she said.
On December 11, constitutional law scholar Erwin Chemerinsky wrote an op-ed for the Sacramento Bee, in which he echoed James’ hypothetical. He argued that it would be unconstitutional for a president to grant a self-pardon, noting that pardoning oneself would be a tremendous benefit of the office in violation of Article II of the Constitution. The article forbids a president from benefiting from service in office, except for drawing a salary. Pointing to the limitations of the pardon power, Chemerinsky explained that it only applied to federal crimes and violations of federal law. So, even if Trump could orchestrate his own pardon, it would not prevent the New York investigations from proceeding.
In 2019, the New York State Legislature passed legislation to protect investigations and prosecutions that could involve Trump. James applauded the move, saying that no one is above the law. “This critical new law closes a gaping loophole that could have allowed any president to abuse the presidential pardon power by unfairly granting a pardon to a family member or close associate and possibly allow that individual to evade justice altogether,” she said in a statement last year.
While President-elect Joe Biden has expressed a desire to avoid an investigation, saying it could divide the country, he has acknowledged the independence of the Justice Department and other agencies that could pursue charges.
James remains unfazed by Trump’s baseless attacks about the ongoing investigation and will move forward. “Last year, after Michael Cohen’s testimony, our office opened an investigation into the financial dealings of the Trump Organization,” James said in a recent press release. “That investigation continues today,” she added. “Unlike the president and [his] unfounded accusations…we are guided by the facts and the law, and the politics stop at the door. Period.”