An AP/NORC poll, conducted June 13-18, and reported last week, presents pretty convincing numbers that Americans in principle believe that presidents should not be able to pardon themselves.
The poll reports that 85% of the sample believe it would be unacceptable “for presidents to pardon themselves if charged with a crime,” while only 13% say acceptable.
Furthermore, if a president decides to pardon himself/herself, 76% say Congress should take steps to remove the president from office, while only 20% disagree.
Even among Republican respondents, 75% say it’s unacceptable for a president to self-pardon, and 56% say the Congress should take action to impeach a president who attempts to do so.
Despite these lopsided figures, it’s not clear how the public would actually react if President Trump did issue a pardon for himself.
Caveats about the Poll Findings
It’s worthwhile noting, as does the AP/NORC report, that the poll question did not specifically mention Donald Trump. The question was more theoretical about presidents in general.
Nor did the poll give any justification that a president might use in issuing a self-pardon. Should Trump grant himself a pardon, however, it’s certain that he would justify such a move by alleging unfairness, or even illegality, of the Mueller investigation. In fact, he has already done so.
In directing a full-court offensive against the Mueller investigation and what he refers to as the “deep state,” Trump would almost certainly rally many of his base to support him. In a poll situation, his supporters may agree in principle, as did one who was quoted in the report, that “no one’s above the law.” But if Trump claims that the law itself is being thwarted to charge him with crimes that he did not commit, the dynamics of public opinion will be different from what a poll finds.
Then ultimately, much of public opinion will be affected by how two groups react to any charge of criminal conduct against the president and the subsequent self-pardon: the Trump-supportive media (like Fox News and Sinclair Broadcast Group), and the GOP representatives in Congress.
Thus far, both Fox and Sinclair opinion hosts have been quite supportive of Trump on virtually all controversial issues, and there is good reason to doubt that this trend will necessarily change in the event of a self-pardon.
More important will be how Republicans in the House and Senate react. So far, the House – and especially the House Intelligence Committee under the leadership of Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) – has been strongly supportive of Trump’s efforts to undermine the Mueller investigation. It is a real question as to whether a self-pardon would cause GOP leaders in the House to start impeachment proceedings, as the poll suggests the public would support.
While the AP/NORC poll provides some interesting information, the results are actually quite speculative. The poll results were obtained in a kind of pristine context, where respondents are reacting to a contained hypothetical situation. In the real world, much of public opinion would depend on the actual context in which the self-pardon occurs – how Trump might justify his actions, and how the news media and political leaders react.
To know how the public really will react under those circumstances, we’ll have to wait to see if any self-pardon will take place. We can’t expect any poll to predict the outcome.