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Pardon Our Reporting

How Clinton left the door wide open.


Posted Friday, April 14, 2000

        The New York Times reports:

"President Clinton said today that although he thought his impeachment ordeal had inflicted enough punishment on him, he would not try to escape more by seeking a pardon from his successor if indicted after leaving office."
Terence Hunt of the Associated Press reports:
"President Clinton said today he would not ask for any pardon from his successor for any possible crimes committed while in office."
But of course Clinton said no such thing. Here's what he actually said, followed by kausfiles' analysis:

        "Well, the answer is I have no interest in it."

        One of the oldest lawyers' dodges in the book. Clinton is stating his present intention--that he has no interest in a pardon, which of course is true since he has an interest in not being indicted or charged at all. But as every first-year law student learns, a statement of present intention is different from a promise of future conduct. Just because Clinton has no interest now does not mean he won't have an interest in the future. Since Clinton was presumably not unready for the pardon question, it's significant that he immediately honed in on the hoary "no interest" fudge.

        "I wouldn't ask for it."

        Clinton didn't say, "I won't ask for it." The phrase he chose is qualified by the previous expression of "no interest," and may mean nothing more than "I wouldn't ask for it now." Clinton quite clearly did not say he "would neither request nor accept a pardon," which is what Vice President Gore, the man most likely to grant it to him, had said the day before was Clinton's position.

        "I don't think it would be necessary."

        Yes, but if it becomes necessary? Clinton is here explaining why he "wouldn't ask for it," making it clear that circumstances could change. "I wouldn't ask for it now because I don't think I'll need it," would be the most plausible translation.

        "So I won't be surprised by anything that happens, but I'm not interested in being pardoned."

        Clinton is not even being especially devious. "I won't be surprised by anything that happens" is a red warning light that means, roughly, "all this could change," and that makes everything else Clinton says highly conditional. Clinton follows up with another claim of "no interest," emphasizing that this phrase merely describes his present preference as to the future course of events, which could shift if one of those unsurprising-but-unexpected things, like an indictment, occurs.

        "But the answer is, no, I don't have any interest in that. I don't want one ..."

        Of course Clinton doesn't "want one"! He'd much rather it doesn't become necessary. This follows the third incantation of the obviously-preprogrammed "no-interest" formula--in effect, defining Clinton's lack of "interest" as lack of current "want." Can the man be any clearer?

        "... and I am prepared to stand before any bar of justice I have to stand before."

        Four outs here. 1) He's presently "prepared" to stand trial, but of course that could change. 2) Even if he stands trial, he doesn't rule out asking for or accepting a pardon after whatever tribunal hears his case hands down a negative judgment (one of those things Clinton doesn't "want" but that might still "happen"). 3) Actually, he doesn't say he won't accept a pardon before trial, does he? 4) For that matter, this sentence doesn't even say he won't ask for a pardon before trial. He's just "prepared" to face the trial if the pardon doesn't come through.

        The headline on today's stories should have been: "Clinton Doesn't Rule Out Pardon." The subhead should have made clear that Clinton pointedly did not say what Gore said he'd said--that he "would neither request nor accept a pardon." It wouldn't have been difficult for Clinton to say those words, after all. He didn't. (Even that wouldn't have ruled out a pardon, of course, since many legal scholars think that a person who is pardoned has no power to "accept" or reject it.)

        Clinton might has well have taken out a billboard in Times Square telling voters that if Gore is elected president a blanket exoneration of Gore's predecessor may well ensue. Pardons happen.

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