In the event a President is accused or found guilty of a serious crime while in office, can they pardon themselves for it?


3 Answers 3


It remains unclear if the President can pardon himself.

However, the Constitution gives broad leeway to who a President can pardon.

Article 2, Section 3, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution gives the President the right to pardon:

[The President] shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.

Consequences aside, the Constitution does not explicitly forbid a President to pardon himself, nor does it allow him to do so.

This has never happened before.

Its worth noting that former President Richard Nixon may have considered pardoning himself after the Watergate scandal. His Office of Legal Counsel issued a ruling saying that he couldn't and in the end, he resigned and his successor, Gerald Ford pardoned him. Nixon wasn't indicted for the scandal. This ruling was never challenged in court, so any controversy would eventually end up in the Supreme Court.

More information in these articles:


If one accepts the premise of Antonin Scalia's judicial philosophy of "originalism," the Constitution is to be interpreted in the historical context of the intent of the Framers.

A power of self-pardon would give a President monarchial powers. While the Framers were undoubtedly familiar with the history of wholesale execution of Roman Senators by their Emperors (e.g., by Augustus), which is more likely: the Framers intended to give a President such power by omitting its prohibition in the text or that they couldn't imagine it?

The following scenario illustrates the self-evident absurdity of self-pardons: The President, anticipating Impeachment, calls a Joint Session of Congress. He strides in with his Constitutionally-protected AR15 and proceeds to mow down anyone who might vote to impeach him. Blowing the smoke off the barrel of his weapon, he declares "I pardon myself," the risk of the one exception explicitly stated in the text of The Constitution now eliminated.

  • 3
    He could simply delegate the hard work to someone else and, non controversially, pardon them, so this doesn't add much.
    – WOPR
    Dec 3, 2020 at 1:56
  • Ah, but then that's not a self-pardon, is it? The point is an absolute power of self-pardons (or pardons) gives a President the power to do anything. Do you really claim that pardons to those who executed members of Congress and the Senate would be "non-controversial?" Dec 3, 2020 at 2:02
  • 5
    @Stackoverflower I think they mean "non-controversial" in that no one contests that the President has the right to pardon others, even for murder. Though in that case, even though they didn't pull the trigger, the President could be charged with proxy murder and thus would still need the ability to pardon themselves to avoid jail
    – divibisan
    Dec 3, 2020 at 2:12
  • 2
    Sure. However, some things are self-evident, and this is one of them. Let's alter the example: this occurs at the State of the Union, so he takes down the Supreme Court, too. The Constitutional legality of such actions are obviously so absurd as to be dismissed by @WOPR, but that's my point. (By the way, murder of legislators and judges occur frequently under nominally Constitutional authoritarian regimes.) Dec 3, 2020 at 2:21
  • Since murder is (even in DC, even against federal officials) also a state crime, there would likely be prosecution even if POTUS pardons themselves for the federal crimes. Arguably, because POTUS is the Commander in Chief, a murder by POTUS may fall also under military jurisdiction, especially if one argues that the murder was committed as an act of office. But then, POTUS is able to pardon military crimes as well. Apr 15 at 21:54

There is no single answer

…as it depends on the nature of the crime, the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Constitution, on whether the president is "investigated", "accused", or "found guilty", and other factors.

This question recently (June 2018) became highly debatable after the president Trump's tweet claiming the right to pardon himself.

  • As @Panda's answer says, the Constitution is vague about how to apply this right.
  • Law in the US […] is a game of precedent. When an element of law is vaguely written, as in the presidential pardon power, it remains largely undefined until it is "interpreted" (more accurately, assigned limits and meaning) by the courts. — source

  • This answer has more insight, including links to articles written by prominent legal scholars;
  • No US President has ever pardoned himself yet, so there is no exact precedent to refer to;
  • We also know that the right to pardon is limited to Federal offenses, so the President has no right to pardon himself for breaking a State law;
  • Also, it appears that the presidential pardon does not apply to crimes committed in another country;

One possible interpretation is that, as soon as the president pardons himself, the opponents would most certainly file the case to the Supreme Court.
The Court would review both the letter and the spirit of the Law. Obviously, if Trump declares in advance that he would pardon himself, this would render the entire prosecution a loss of time and taxpayers' money. And chances are, the court would rule that such "pardon in advance" goes against the spirit of the law and is illegal. Again, we don't know before it happens.

Another possible interpretation is based on the difference between pardoning someone who was found guilty and pardoning from investigation. The logic is fairly simple:
A president cannot be indicted while they remain in office. They must be impeached first. As soon as the President gets impeached, he loses the presidential authority to pardon anyone.

In other words:
A person in jail is no longer a President,
hence the President can not release himself from the jail,
hence he can not declare the intent to release himself,
hence there is no practical reason to give him right to void the prosecution.

Again, we don't know before it happens.

  • 3
    And then there is this Spirit of the Law matter: can you be the judge in your own case? Most would say, hell no.
    – Jens
    Jun 8, 2018 at 11:11
  • 2
    A person in jail is no longer a president, is an unfounded statement, and certainly against precedent. Being in jail has not prevented others from holding other political/govermental offices.
    – jmoreno
    Jul 20, 2018 at 9:46
  • 1
    "the opponents would most certainly file the case to the Supreme Court." That would be a request for a declarative judgement, winch SCOTUS does not do. Unless the President or morelikely former president were charged with a crime, there would be no "case or controversy" ripe for court decision. Jan 8, 2021 at 22:45
  • 1
    @DavidSiegel and the proper venue would be a district court, not the supreme court. The case would only come before the supreme court if the justice department actually pursued a prosecution and the judge's ruling on the pardon's validity was appealed and the appeals court's decision was further appealed and the supreme court agreed to accept it.
    – phoog
    2 days ago
  • To nitpick slightly, I'd say the answer can't be known with certainty, but that there probably someday will be, a single answer.
    – ohwilleke
    2 days ago

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