President Trump can get away with murder, Republicans seemed to argue Thursday in trying to block a pair of bills aimed at the commander-in-chief after he commuted the sentence of longtime adviser and convicted liar Roger Stone.
Spurred by Trump's commutation -- and the possibility Trump might pardon himself one day -- the House Judiciary Committee marked up bills that would require extensive disclosure of future pardons, remove statutes of limitation for presidential crimes, and prohibit a chief executive from dealing himself a get-out-of-jail free card.
Republicans, though, insisted Congress can place no restrictions on the pardon power that are not already in the Constitution. The only out-right ban on pardons in the founding document is in cases of impeachment.
"The pardon power is a plenary under Article 2 [of the Constitution]. It means it's virtually without limit. There are no constraints on it," said Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs, who led much of the argument for the GOP against the Abuse of the Pardon Prevention Act and the No President is Above the Law Act.
Committee Chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler found Biggs' argument astounding -- and it led to a dark place.
"The president ... could announce on television today that he plans to murder every member of Congress, or every inhabitant of the state of Arizona," Nadler told Biggs, rolling out what "no constraints" really means.
"Jefferson and and Lincoln both said that the Constitution is not a suicide pact. Mr. Biggs thinks the Constitution is not only a suicide pact, but a murder pact," Nadler said. "The President can do anything he wants, pardon himself in advance, and no one can punish him for it. No one can no one can do anything. This is absurd."
Biggs fired back that of course a pardon for murder would not be appropriate, and suggested Nadler was in fantasy territory.
"You're saying President Trump's going to, maybe he's the kind of guy that's going to murder a bunch of people, but he's going to pre-pardon himself. That is, that is ludicrous," Biggs snapped.
Trump has tweeted that he absolutely has the power to pardon himself, and infamously said that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without losing any votes. The Justice Department has long maintained that a president cannot be prosecuted in office.
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) jumped in to say that before Republicans proclaim any hypothetical action of Trump's to be too far-fetched, they should consider what he's already done.
"Before Donald Trump was elected president, most of us would say it would be ludicrous to send federal militarized police into America's cities," Swalwell said. "It would be ludicrous to declare war on Portland, Chicago, or Oakland. Before Donald Trump, most of us would say it would be ludicrous to fight harder for Confederate monuments than to fight a global pandemic."
He listed numerous other items that have infuriated or horrified much of the country, including putting immigrant children in cages, soliciting election interference from Russia and China, profiting off his businesses as president, praising white supremacists and lying about hurricane storm paths.
"We have to plan for the ludicrous, Mr. Biggs, because the president is ludicrous," Swalwell said. "Worse, the conduct at the White House is corrupt."
The future of Nadler's bills is unclear. Based on the nearly party-line votes in the committee, they would likely pass the House and die in the Senate.
The fate of such bills in the courts would also be uncertain. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who is a constitutional law professor, argued that no court would agree that a president can act like a king and get away with murder. But he also noted that the issue of restricting the constituyional pardon power has never been tested.
Nadler said that was another reason to act.
"Although the legal community is virtually unanimous in its opinion that the President may not issue a self pardon, the one person with the power to do so has not gotten the message," Nadler said. "It is therefore incumbent on us to make this point explicit. By speaking firmly on this issue, we may deter the this or any future president from attempting such an unprecedented move, and should this issue ever reach the courts judges and justices will have the benefit of our views."