This week, Newt Gingrich — you know, the former speaker of the house who really ought to understand the importance of the Constitution given how many times he swore to protect and uphold it — said in an interview with NPR that, once president, Donald Trump could order his subordinates in the executive branch to do some illegal (even unconstitutional) things and then just pardon them later.
“The Constitution gives the president of the United States an extraordinarily wide grant of authority to use the power of the pardon. I’m not saying he should. I’m not saying he will. It also allows a president in a national security moment to say to somebody, ‘Go do X,’ even if it’s technically against the law, and, ‘Here’s your pardon because I am ordering you as commander in chief to go do this.'”
Gingrich’s interpretation of the power of the pardon here is deeply troubling and a blatant loophole to tyranny. If pardon authority means the president can tell any federal employee to do anything without consequence, then the president in practice becomes a dictator.
This suggestion goes well beyond Republicans learning to love big government or reject the free market because their guy is in power. If Gingrich’s idea here becomes mainstream, it would represent a total rejection of anything resembling an originalist, conservative view of the Constitution as well as the rule of law more generally.
In the same interview, Gingrich also addressed Trump’s apparent loss of interest in the “drain the swamp” slogan he used in the latter days of his campaign. While this has been mostly reported as evidence of the president-elect’s fickle nature, the part I find most important is Gingrich’s refusal to hold Trump accountable for a major switch in message (emphasis added):
“I personally have, as a sense of humor, like the alligator and swamp language. … I think it vividly illustrates the problem, because all the people in this city who are the alligators are going to hate the swamp being drained. And there’s going to be constant fighting over it. But, you know, he is my leader and if he decides to drop the swamp and the alligator, I will drop the swamp and the alligator.“
Now, perhaps Gingrich is lackadaisical here because he believes this is merely about a slogan, not policy substance. I hope so, because the alternative is he has explicitly embraced a craven partisanship that brooks no criticism — no matter how friendly — of “my leader” (a phrase with uncomfortably fascist connotations).
That might not be surprising coming from Gingrich at this point, but it is unsettling to see in anyone at his level of influence.