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David McGrath: Hold nose, pardon Trump — for the sake of our nation

From the column: "I crave justice. And prosecution would provide the catharsis for which many of us yearn. But at what cost?"

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump boards Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, July 20, 2018. (Al Drago/The New York Times)
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Among my earliest attempts at fiction was “The Misfit,” a short story about a brilliant, competitive, though antisocial and paranoid college student.

The writing was amateurish, but the story was centered around a gimmicky surprise that enabled me to sell it to Aim magazine in 1978: After a climactic confrontation at the end, the principal character is identified as the young Richard M. Nixon.

In real life, Nixon was the only U.S. president to resign, following the Watergate scandal. And Americans my age remember the outrage triggered when President Gerald Ford granted him a pardon in 1974. Ford’s press secretary, Jerald terHorst, resigned in protest, and public demonstrations denouncing Ford were staged throughout the country.

The Watergate hearings revealed that Nixon had abused his power by authorizing the burglary of Democratic headquarters and that he subsequently oversaw a cover-up. But before Nixon could even be indicted, Ford issued a full, preemptive pardon.

Voters, including yours truly, smelled a rat. Critics credibly claimed that Ford was a party to a backroom deal — that Nixon had handed him the vice presidency (to succeed disgraced VP Spiro Agnew) on the condition that Ford grant a pardon when Nixon resigned.

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And Ford’s loss in his bid for reelection in 1976 has been generally attributed to the lingering stench of the pardon.

But for all the national disgust at Ford’s placing Nixon above the law, today’s historians give five stars to the decision, because it brought an end to the agonizingly long Watergate saga, helped heal and unify the country after the Vietnam War, and enabled us as a nation to move on.

Readers, by now, suspect my reason for citing this historical precedent: Namely, that the time for President Joe Biden to pardon former President Donald Trump is now, in the powerfully reverberating aftermath of the Jan. 6 hearings.

Already, I hear the howls of opposition and anger.

After all, the only president who was twice impeached, who likely cost the lives of thousands of American by lying about and mishandling the pandemic, and whom the Jan. 6 House hearings have convincingly identified as the perpetrator of a violent attack to overturn a legitimate election and usurp American democracy deserves neither forgiveness nor a pardon. Rather, he needs to be held accountable for damage done to America.

Frankly, it’s hard for me to disagree. I crave justice. And prosecution would provide the catharsis for which many of us yearn.

But at what cost? If you think the country is divided now, what would happen were Trump hauled into court? If members of his base were motivated to violently storm the Capitol to keep him in office, to what lengths would they be willing to go to keep their martyred hero out of jail? Would it lead to a civil war fought in the streets?

Indeed, in a New York Times op-ed, Jack Goldsmith, an assistant attorney general under President George W. Bush, predicts that prosecution of Trump “would be a cataclysmic event from which the nation would not soon recover.”

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Instead, Biden can prevent the worst from happening.

In Nixon’s case, Ford saved our country from what would have been a similar “cataclysmic event,” by holding his nose to give a pass to a crook, risking his own political career.

Biden could similarly save and unify our country, with less to lose than Ford, since his political career is already in its twilight years.

A pardon, of course, must be contingent on Trump publicly accepting the results of the 2020 election and assuming responsibility for the Jan. 6 insurrection. He can make whatever excuses he wants. But his admission of these two truths, while disappointing the most rabid of his disciples, would defuse the time bomb set to blow with a criminal trial.

While many may doubt that the former president who believes himself perfect and invincible would accede to such a deal, others, including me, perceive that his drive for self-preservation would compel him to accept.

Nixon did so, and he spent the rest of his life trying to spin his reputation. Historians, however, assessed his legacy correctly — much like the historians who had Trump pegged years ago.

For the sake of the country, therefore, Biden should hold his nose and pardon Trump.

I held mine writing this op-ed.

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And for everyone else, putting up with the stink is the smaller price to pay for healing our nation.

David McGrath is formerly of Hayward, is an emeritus professor of Native American literature at the College of DuPage in Illinois, and is a frequent contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page. He can be reached at profmcgrath2004@yahoo.com. This was published originally in the Chicago Tribune.

David McGrath.JPG
David McGrath

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