The investigations of Donald Trump and his associates, having proceeded deliberately for more than two years, now have intensified dramatically. For only the second time in American history, a former president faces the distinct possibility of criminal indictment and even of imprisonment.
Of course, innocence must be presumed until guilt is determined.
It would be mistaken to claim at this early date that Trump is guilty of any illegality. Beyond this, some might even argue that the stature of the office is such that a former chief executive should automatically be shielded from prosecution.
But history waves a warning flag on this subject.
Having been re-elected to the presidency by a massive majority in 1972, Richard Nixon thereupon was ensnared by the "Watergate" scandal, an umbrella term that encompassed a plethora of blatant criminality and malfeasance. Nixon fought desperately to remain in power, but was forced to resign on Aug. 9, 1974.
Just one month later, on Sept. 8, 1974, the new president, Gerald Ford, granted his predecessor a "full, free and absolute pardon." This decision remains controversial to the present day. Was Ford unduly influenced in reaching this judgment, and, even if he was not, was this judgment proper?
Nixon had nominated Ford to the vice presidency in 1973, shortly after the resignation from the office of Spiro Agnew, who had been ruined by a financial scandal. As Nixon already was chest-deep in Watergate, it was widely assumed that there was a quid pro quo between Nixon and Ford whereby the former would receive a pardon if compelled to leave office.
But while Nixon alone had nominated Ford, it is misleading to state that Ford was "handpicked" and, thereby, a puppet. According to the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, the nomination of Ford, a highly respected, 25-year veteran of the House of Representatives, required confirmation by Congress, both houses of which were controlled by the opposition Democrats.
The Ford nomination breezed through both chambers, passing the Senate by the resounding margin of 93-3. Among the many Democrats supporting Ford were Edward Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and our own Henry Jackson and Warren Magnuson.
Had there been evidence of "collusion" between Nixon and Ford, these Democrats would never have approved Ford. There was no such evidence then, nor has any been unearthed in the years since.
But even if the pardon had honorable intent, did it have honorable effect? Unfortunately, it did not.
Ford had argued that a trial of Nixon would detract attention from more practical issues that required urgent attention, effectively paralyzing the nation. This argument may have had some merit, but was probably an exaggeration.
Having accepted the pardon and its imputation of guilt, furthermore, the nevertheless unrepentant Nixon expressed no remorse — ever. He spent the last 20 years of his life making a fortune by proclaiming his innocence in books and television interviews. The pardon of Richard Nixon was a mockery.
The lesson here is clear: a pardon of Donald Trump, whether preemptive or after the fact, would be out of the question.