Trump Self-Pardon Could Be Admission of Guilt: Ex-Watergate Prosecutor

A former Watergate lawyer has warned that pardons given by President Donald Trump—including a pre-emptive one for himself—could be considered an admission of guilt in court and pose significant legal problems in the future.

Nick Akerman, who was assistant special Watergate prosecutor in the case that led to the resignation of former president Richard Nixon, criticized the clemency rulings made by Trump, which included his adviser, Roger Stone and his former national security advisor Michael Flynn.

He told CNN that pardons at the end of a presidency would typically come at the recommendation of the pardon of office and the Department of Justice for candidates who "led exemplary lives" and may have been the victim of "some kind of injustice in their conviction."

"The type of people he is pardoning are people like Roger Stone who never served a day in jail but was convicted for covering up the Russia investigation for Donald Trump," Akerman said.

"That is not the purpose of the pardon power," Akerman told anchor Erin Burnett, "I mean, what we're witnessing is a pretty widespread pattern of corruption using this pardon power."

When asked about speculation that Trump might use the pardon power on himself, or his family members, Akerman said that such a move would not provide cover for state-level court cases.

The New York Times reported that Trump has asked advisers about "preemptively" pardoning his three eldest children and in 2018, he said he had the "absolute right" to pardon himself, although legal experts dispute this.

In the segment on Wednesday, Burnett introduced a clip of the attorney general of New York, Letitia James, who is currently pursuing a civil investigation into the president, in which she said would continue when "Trump becomes a private citizen."

Akerman believed that Trump "could be in a lot of trouble... even if he tried to pardon himself, which I don't think he can."

Akerman said that in 1915 the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that to "accept any kind of pardon is basically a confession of guilt."

"So if he or his family want to confess to guilt, they would be accepting pardons, which presumably could even be used against them in the state proceedings.

"So by accepting a federal pardon, they could basically be admitting to guilt that could be used against them in a court of law in the state of New York or New Jersey."

The Supreme Court case Akerman refers to the case Burdick v. United States in which someone wanted to reject a pardon because it made him look guilty of something he said he had not done.

There is some disagreement about this among legal scholars. Michigan State University law professor Brian Kalt last month told Newsweek: "It is incorrect to say, as many, many people do, that accepting a pardon equals an official admission of guilt." Newsweek has contacted the White House for comment.

President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump departs on the South Lawn of the White House, on December 12, in Washington, D.C. He has reportedly considered "preemptively" pardoning himself. Al Drago/Getty Images