What Is a Pardon? Trump's Presidential Power to Forgive Criminals, Explained

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Donald Trump waves as he arrives at Trump International Golf Club in Bedminster Township, New Jersey, for a day of meetings on November 20. Drew Angerer/Getty

President Donald Trump, who's embroiled in investigations as to whether his campaign team colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election, has reportedly begun consulting his legal team about how the presidential pardon process works and who is eligible. The Washington Post broke the news Thursday that the president has been asking about his ability to pardon his family members and even himself, as his attorneys work to discredit the probe.

Presidential pardons are a frequent topic of discussion any time a commander-in-chief or his associates come under fire. And though Trump's questions may be theoretical right now, they raise valid points for Americans who are learning about the process.

Related: Donald Trump and Russia investigation: Can the president pardon himself?

Here's what you need to know to keep up at the watercooler.

What is a pardon?

A pardon is the formal act of forgiving a person for his or her crimes, which "completely wipes out the legal effects of a conviction," as public policy expert James Pfiffner wrote in the Heritage Guide to the Constitution. It applies to offenses that have already been committed, though it can be issued before charges are filed.

Presidents can also reduce convicts' sentences. The overall process of both commutations and pardons is called granting executive clemency.

Who can pardon?

Governors can pardon offenders for state crimes, though it's become increasingly rare, and the president can do it for federal crimes. His authority to do so is laid out in the Constitution, which says: "The President...shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment."

How often does it happen?

It depends on the president. Franklin Roosevelt, in office from 1933 to 1945, pardoned more than 2,800 people, while George H.W. Bush pardoned 74 in four years. Most recently, President Barack Obama granted clemency to 1,927 people, according to Pew Research Center.

Who have previous presidents pardoned?

One of the most well-known cases came in 1974, when Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, essentially clearing him of any charges of wrongdoing a month after he resigned in connection with the Watergate scandal. Another famous case happened decades later, when Bill Clinton pardoned his brother, who had been convicted for cocaine possession.

So can Trump pardon himself, or what?

In the '70s, the Office of Legal Counsel suggested that given "the fundamental rule that no one may be a judge in his own case, the president cannot pardon himself," but other than that, experts don't really know. Constitutional law buff Brian C. Kalt told the Post recently that it's "a fiercely debated but unresolved legal question," in part because no president has ever tried to do so. If Trump did, it would probably go to the Supreme Court.