Via Noah Feldman from a longer piece on Bloomberg View
Here’s some unsolicited advice for President Donald Trump: Don’t listen to any lawyers who might tell you that you can pardon yourself, or even that it’s a close legal question. You can’t — and no court is going to rule otherwise.
There’s a decent historical argument about why, but it’s beside the point. The bottom line is that if the president could pardon himself, we would no longer have a republic — nor a government of laws rather than men. We would be a dictatorship, not a democracy.
You know that. Americans know it. The Supreme Court knows it. Now let’s move on.
The very idea of self-pardon is the kind of silly technicality that non-lawyers think lawyers engage in all the time. I’m not going to offer a full-throated defense of the legal profession, but we’re not really that dumb or bad — at least not usually.
The idea of the pardon power itself is old, going back at least to medieval England — and the king. It is based, roughly speaking, on the idea that the king is in charge of administering the common law, and therefore has the authority to go around that law and issue a pardon or reprieve when it’s desirable to do so.
Given that worry about the anti-legal nature of the pardon power was already more than 450 years old when the Founding Fathers drafted the U.S. Constitution during the hot summer of 1787, it’s a bit surprising that the pardon power even made it in.
In Philadelphia, the more rights-oriented republicans, like George Mason of Virginia, questioned the whole idea of the pardon power. The more pro-executive participants, like Alexander Hamilton and James Wilson, managed to get it in, albeit without much debate. The idea was that pardons served mercy and could be expedient.
No one so much as hinted that the president could pardon himself.
But frankly, the history isn’t the point. The basic problem with self-pardon is that it would make a mockery of the very idea that the U.S. operates under the rule of law. A president who could self-pardon could violate literally any federal law with impunity, knowing that the only risk was removal from office by impeachment.
We have a name for an elected leader who is outside the law: dictator.