The Presidential Power of Pardoning: An Overview

The President derives the power of pardon from Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, which gives the president "power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment."

A reprieve reduces the severity of a punishment, but the person remains "guilty." A pardon removes both punishment and guilt, which is why pardons are more likely to be controversial.

The process for obtaining a pardons begins with an application to the Department of Justice Office of the Pardon Attorney. The DOJ consults with other lawyers and judges for recommendations; the FBI runs a check on the applicant. After winnowing the applicants, the DOJ provides a list of recommendations to the office of the White House Counsel.

Historical Pardons

Historically, Presidents used the power to pardon to heal rifts in the national psyche. As President Bush said on 24 December 1982, "When earlier wars have ended, Presidents have historically used their power to pardon to put bitterness behind us and look to the future."

For example, George Washington pardoned leaders of the Whiskey Rebellion; James Madison pardoned Lafitte's pirates after the War of 1812; Andrew Johnson pardoned Confederate soldiers after the Civil War; Harry Truman pardoned those who violated World War II Selective Service laws; and Jimmy Carter pardoned Vietnam War draft dodgers.

The modern-day pardon, however, has taken a decidedly more political turn. And it may help its recipient find a job and regain the right to vote.


In modern history, the most controversial pardon is probably the 1974 pardon of former President Richard Nixon, issued by President Gerald Ford. Ford assumed the presidency on 9 August 1974, the day after President Nixon resigned over Watergate, pending impeachment. Ford pardoned Nixon on 8 September 1974. Although Carter made a campaign issue of the Nixon pardon, in retrospect Ford's action was brave (it was political suicide) and helped a divided nation begin to heal.


On 24 December 1992, President George Bush pardoned six Reagan administration officials involved in the Iran-Contra Affair: Elliott Abrams, Duane R. Clarridge, Alan Fiers, Clair George, National Security Adviser Robert C. "Bud" McFarlane and Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger. He compared their actions to those pardoned by Madison, Johnson, Truman and Carter: "In many cases, the offenses pardoned by these Presidents were at least as serious as those I am pardoning today."

Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh was appointed in December 1986 to investigate the Iran/Contra affair; subsequently, Walsh brought charges against 14 people. Eleven were convicted; two convictions were overturned on appeal. Two were pardoned before trial, and one case was dismissed when the Bush Administration declined to declassify information necessary for trial.

President Bush pardoned six Iran/Contra participants on 24 December 1992.

Post-Trial Pardons

Elliott Abrams -- Pleaded guilty October 7, 1991, to two misdemeanor charges of withholding information from Congress about secret government efforts to support the Nicaraguan contra rebels during a ban on such aid. He was sentenced on November 15, 1991 to two years probation and 100 hours community service.

The second President Bush appointed Abrams as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director on the National Security Council for Near East and North African Affairs.

Alan D. Fiers, Jr. -- Pleaded guilty July 9, 1991, to two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress about secret efforts to aid the Nicaraguan contras. He was sentenced on January 31, 1992 to one year probation and 100 hours community service. Pardoned.

Clair E. George -- Indicted September 6, 1991, on 10 counts of perjury, false statements and obstruction in connection with congressional and Grand Jury investigations. George's trial on nine counts ended in a mistrial on August 26, 1992. Following a second trial on seven counts, George was found guilty December 9, 1992, of two felony charges of false statements and perjury before Congress. His sentencing hearing was February 18, 1993. Pardoned before sentencing occurred.

Robert C. McFarlane -- Pleaded guilty March 11, 1988, to four misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress. He was sentenced on March 3, 1989, to two years probation, $20,000 in fines and 200 hours community service. Pardoned.

Pre-trial Pardons

Duane R. Clarridge -- Indicted November 26, 1991, on seven counts of perjury and false statements about a secret shipment of U.S. HAWK missiles to Iran. The maximum penalty for each count was five years in prison and $250,000 in fines. Trial date set for March 15, 1993. Pardoned.

Caspar W. Weinberger -- Indicted June 16, 1992, on five counts of obstruction, perjury and false statements in connection with congressional and Independent Counsel investigations of Iran/ contra. On September 29, the obstruction count was dismissed. On October 30, a second indictment was issued, charging one false statement count. The second indictment was dismissed December 11, leaving four counts remaining. The maximum penalty for each count was five years in prison and $250,000 in fines. Trial date set for January 5, 1993, trial date. Pardoned.


Joseph F. Fernandez -- Indicted June 20, 1988 on five counts of conspiracy to defraud the United States, obstructing the inquiry of the Tower Commission and making false statements to government agencies. The case was dismissed in the District of Columbia for venue reasons on the motion of Independent Counsel. A four-count indictment was issued in the Eastern District of Virginia on April 24, 1989. The four-count case was dismissed November 24, 1989, after Attorney General Richard Thornburgh blocked the disclosure of classified information ruled relevant to the defense. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va., on September 6, 1990 upheld Judge Hilton's rulings under the Classified Information Procedures Act (CIPA). On October 12, 1990, the Attorney General filed a final declaration that he would not disclose the classified information.

From the Walsh Iran/Contra Report.

In addition, Bush pardoned Edwin Cox Jr., "whose family contributed nearly $200,000 to the Bush family's campaigns and to Republican campaign committees from 1980 to 2000, according to documents obtained by CNN." Cox "pleaded guilty to bank fraud in 1988, served six months in prison and paid $250,000 in fines."

In addition, his father (Cox, Sr.) is a Bush Presidential Library trustee who contributed between $100,000 and $250,000 to the Bush Presidential Library.

A complete list of Bush's pardons (1989-1992)

President Clinton's Pardons

President Clinton's most controversial pardon was of billionaire financier Marc Rich. His connection with the political and business elite of both parties demonstrates that the differences among those in power are less distinct than the differences between those in power and those out of power. For example:

  • After hiring prominent Republican lawyers during the Reagan and Bush administrations—Leonard Garment, former Nixon White House counsel, William Bradford Reynolds, once an official of the Reagan Justice Department, and Lewis Libby, now chief of staff to Vice President Richard Cheney—Rich hired a top Democratic lawyer, Jack Quinn, to give him direct access to Clinton.

Quinn, former White House counsel, runs his law practice with Ed Gillespie, a key Bush adviser and former head of the GOP.

In addition, Clinton pardoned Susan McDougal (Whitewater), former Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros (lied to FBI investigators about payments to his mistress) and ex-CIA chief John Deutch ("forced out at the CIA when he contradicted White House claims that U.S. missile strikes on Iraq were effective").

Review the list of Clinton's pardons (1993-2000)

President Bush's Pardons

As the end of President Bush's term drew near, he had pardoned about half as many people as his prior two-term predecessors, Clinton and Ronald Reagan. Bush has issued pardons for many petty crimes committed decades in the past, ranging from possessing marijuana to moonshining.

Just before Thanksgiving 2008, President Bush pardoned 14 and commuted the sentence of another two. This brought his pardon total to 171 and commutations total to eight.

In one of the most high profile cases of his Administration, that of Scooter Libby, President Bush did not grant a pardon. He did, however, commute Libby's sentence.

Another high-profile commuted sentences was that of hip-hop musician John Forte, who was convicted in 2001 on drug smuggling charges. In Texas.

Just before Christmas, Bush pardoned Isaac Toussie who "pleaded guilty in 2001 to using false documents to have mortgages insured by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and in 2002 to mail fraud, admitting that he had persuaded officials in Suffolk County to overpay for land."

Bush rescinded the pardon the next day after press reports revealed that his father, Robert Toussie, "recently donated $30,800 to Republicans.

Bush let stand a pardon issued for Alan Maiss, who had contributed $1,500 to the president's 2004 re-election campaign; he served one year of probation. In 1995, Maiss failed "to report a fellow gaming executive's alleged ties to organized crime."

Bush had pardoned 19 and provided clemency for one.

See a list of pardons and commutations granted by President George W. Bush.

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Gill, Kathy. "The Presidential Power of Pardoning: An Overview." ThoughtCo, Jan. 29, 2020, Gill, Kathy. (2020, January 29). The Presidential Power of Pardoning: An Overview. Retrieved from Gill, Kathy. "The Presidential Power of Pardoning: An Overview." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 24, 2021).