“I, Michael Richard Pence, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States…” It’s not so outlandish a vista, is it? Especially now.
Every Vice President, no matter how modest or unlikely a figure, knows that he is “only a heartbeat away” from the highest office, as the phrase goes, should some tragedy overtake the chief executive. In the case of Mike Pence, he might feel that he is only a tweet away from assuming the presidency, such have been the mishaps, missteps and much worse of what we should probably call the Trump Maladministration.
The last time it happened, in 1974, President Richard Nixon was in so much trouble over Watergate that he had to go – because, as he carefully put it in his resignation speech on 8 August 1974: “I have concluded that because of the Watergate matter I might not have the support of the Congress that I would consider necessary to back the very difficult decisions and carry out the duties of this office in the way the interests of the nation would require.” In other words, there was no “admission” of any guilt, but an open admission that he couldn't beat an impeachment and forced removal, and would rather spare the country (and himself and his family) further pointless anguish by chucking it in before America was further torn apart by the affair. He was right.
That could quite conceivably befall President Trump, and even more so because of the already visible signs of unrest among those in his own party about what has been happening in his brief presidential reign; but also because Trump hasn't much of a political base in Congress, being more of an insurgent than a Republican. On the other hand, he sure has a base in the country. Maybe subliminally (or maybe not), this is why Trump likes to get away from DC and go and speak and be adored at some great Trump rally every so often – to remind the professional politicians in their bubble that he is a power in the land.
The Trumpites, many so personally devoted, will make their views known if and when the time comes for a Götterdämmerung struggle, but still the senators and congress members may well calculate that they have more to lose by sticking with Trump than by replacing him with a clean skin. Pence, by contrast to Trump, is cautious, conservative and conventional, and plainly “one of us” to the Republican elite.
Though still loved by his supporters, like Nixon before him, Trump may decide not to risk certain impeachment and punishment by resigning before what Nixon called a “deliberately difficult process” becomes inevitable. Admittedly Bill Clinton toughed it out for rather longer during the Lewinsky business in the mid-1990s, but that was, in truth, basically a trivial offence by comparison with the stuff Nixon or Trump face: obstruction of justice and all the rest.
The very threat of impeachment could be sufficient to deliver us President Pence. In which case, like Gerald Ford, the VP who succeeded Nixon, the question arises as to whether President Pence should grant an unconditional presidential pardon to his predecessor for any crimes and misdemeanours that might have been committed in office (or before…). Again you’d think that likely, on political rather than judicial grounds.
The title of Ford’s memoirs, A Time to Heal, summed up his and the national mood, and Ford went on TV to explain his decision.
The following is a version of such a national address if delivered by President Pence sometime in 2018 (after the mid-term elections might have further removed Trump’s support in Congress) or in 2019. Ford’s was quite a majestic and historic text, formally a Presidential Proclamation, so I hope you’ll excuse the length of this “modernised” version:
“As a result of certain acts or omissions occurring before his resignation from the Office of President, Donald Trump has become liable to possible indictment and trial for offences against the United States. Whether or not he shall be so prosecuted depends on findings of the appropriate grand jury and on the discretion of the authorised prosecutor. Should an indictment ensue, the accused shall then be entitled to a fair trial by an impartial jury, as guaranteed to every individual by the Constitution.
“It is believed that a trial of Donald Trump, if it became necessary, could not fairly begin until a year or more has elapsed. In the meantime, the tranquillity to which this nation has been restored by the events of recent weeks could be irreparably lost by the prospects of bringing to trial a former President of the United States. The prospects of such a trial will cause prolonged and divisive debate over the propriety of exposing to further punishment and degradation a man who has already paid the unprecedented penalty of relinquishing the highest elective office of the United States.
“Now, therefore, I, Michael R Pence, President of the United States, pursuant to the pardon power conferred upon me by Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution, have granted and by these presents do grant a full, free and absolute pardon unto Donald Trump for all offences against the United States which he, Donald Trump, has committed or may have committed or taken part in during the period from 1 January 2016 through 9 August 2019.”
Would it be bad for America, all of this? No, at least not necessarily.
Watergate and Nixon left scars. The ramifications are still felt today, not least in Mr Trump’s strange allusion to tape recordings and the frequent comparisons with the Watergate era’s sacking of the Special Prosecutor and White House interference in the work of the CIA and FBI, and of course the arguments about impeachment. Yet America did recover from Watergate, and Ford himself, though neglected, proved perfectly effective as well as a healing figure.
Gerald Ford so recovered his party’s position that he went on to almost win the 1976 presidential election against Democrat Jimmy Carter (Ford also saw off a radical right winger named Governor Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination). With Henry Kissinger as continuing Secretary of State, Nelson Rockefeller as Vice President and, lest we forget, Donald Rumsfeld as Defence Secretary, he picked up the pieces of the Vietnam defeat and pursued detente with Russia and China, including finishing the important Helsinki Accords, which sowed the seeds of human rights in the Communist Bloc that eventually helped bring down the Soviet Union.
So, not a bad president. And some of the others who came to power "accidentally" were also truly great political figures: Teddy Roosevelt, Harry S Truman and Lyndon Johnson, for example.
President Pence would no doubt carry on with much of Trump’s agenda, but you get the feeling he might quietly shelve the Mexican wall and some of the more eccentric stuff, and he would certainly not send out ill-tempered tweets before he’s settled in for his morning coffee. He and prospective First Lady Karen Pence would make a more homely couple than the glamorous Donald and Ivanka show, but no matter. The Republicans might well prefer that, and maybe it would be in America’s interests to have a man as president who very deliberately told his party when accepting their nomination, “I'm a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.”
The 46th president, and “the Man who Pardoned Trump”, perhaps too, before that much longer.
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