The White House signals it is hopeful that President-elect Donald Trump will not prosecute Hillary Clinton, citing a tradition in America of not using the justice system to enact revenge on a political opponent.
“[W]e’ve got a long tradition in this country of people in power not using the criminal justice system to exact political revenge,” spokesman Josh Earnest says. “In fact, we go to great lengths to insulate our criminal justice system from partisan politics.”
When Obama took office, many leftists wanted to see George W. Bush and Dick Cheney prosecuted for what they called “war crimes,” because of the use of enhanced interrogation techniques to question terrorists. But President Obama appeared reluctant to prosecute career law and intelligence officials in the Bush administration, citing in 2009 “a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”
During a press conference, Earnest was reluctant to discuss potential pardons, insisting that it was improper to discuss them in advance. He did not rule out a potential pardon for Clinton but reminded reporters of Obama’s discussion of pardons in August.
When asked to reflect on his decision to commute the sentences of thousands of drug offenders, Obama indicated that he would not issue last-minute political pardons before leaving office. Any presidential pardons, he explained, would go through a rigorous legal process to avoid looking political.
“It’s going to be reviewed by the pardon attorney, it will be reviewed by my White House counsel, and I’m going to, as best as I can, make these decisions based on the merits, as opposed to political considerations,” Obama said during a press conference.
Earnest reasserted that Obama still felt the same way.
“I wouldn’t speculate at this point about what impact that may have on hypothetical pardon requests that he receives,” he said. “I’ll just say that the guidance that President Obama shared with you is still operative.”
But that doesn’t preclude a decision by Obama to protect Clinton from further investigations. If the president views any prosecution of Clinton as politically motivated, he might step in to minimize the damage that she faces. But a political pardon risks tainting Obama’s presidential legacy, something that Bush also avoided.
When Dick Cheney demanded a pardon for his aide Scooter Libby, Bush refused, but commuted his sentence, keeping Cheney’s aide out of jail. Libby still had to pay a $250,000 fine and serve probation for two years.
Cheney vigorously pursued the case, accusing Bush of leaving a wounded soldier on the battlefield.
“It was a hard decision to make,” Bush said in 2010 about the case. “But that’s what you do when you’re president: You make hard decisions.”