Opinion: Mitt Romney Has a Point About Pardoning Trump

William B. Plowman/NBC via Getty Images
William B. Plowman/NBC via Getty Images

Donald Trump poses an existential threat to liberal democracy; therefore, a reasonable reaction to his possible return to power has been to throw everything but the kitchen sink at him.

This ranged from supporting his impeachment and removal, to voting for his adversaries (including Nikki Haley), to charging him with 88 criminal offenses in four criminal cases.

But a new theory has emerged that suggests the latter example of this confrontational approach was unwise and counterproductive. And it is coming from the unlikeliest of sources: Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT).

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During an interview on Wednesday with MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle, Romney said that President Joe Biden should have “immediately pardoned” Trump from federal charges, and that Biden also “made an enormous error” by not pushing New York prosecutors to drop their charges against Trump in the hush money case.

“He should have fought like crazy to keep this prosecution from going forward,” Romney said. “It was a win-win for Donald Trump.”

Regarding whether it would be appropriate for a president to intervene in a co-equal branch of government, Romney cited former President Lyndon Johnson, saying, “If LBJ had been president, and he didn’t want something like this to happen, he’d have been all over that prosecutor saying, ‘You better not bring that forward or I’m gonna drive you out of office.’”

At this point, you’re probably wondering what happened to Mitt Romney, and why he has been replaced by Steve Bannon. But there is a method to his madness. According to Romney, preemptively pardoning Trump would have helped Biden politically, positioning him as “the big guy” who “pardoned a little guy.”

At first blush, this sounds fanciful. Imagine the criticism Biden would have endured if, in the wake of the Big Lie and the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, he threw Trump yet another lifeline.

But in hindsight, Romney’s counterfactual isn’t as crazy as it might sound. By going out of his way to treat Trump with the deference of a political invalid, Biden would have looked like the alpha dog.

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Might Trump have rejected the offer, based on the premise that accepting a pardon is tantamount to admitting guilt? It hardly matters. Merely by offering the pardon, Biden would have deprived Trump of some of his most potent weapons—Trump’s identity as a victim of Biden’s “deep state,” as well as what is both his personal motivation and political organizing principle: retribution.

It is perhaps even conceivable that such an approach would have prevented Trump from winning the Republican primary, or possibly from even running in the first place.

To be sure, this would have been a counterintuitive strategy, tantamount to asymmetric warfare. It could also be viewed as a sort of jiujitsu where you use the opponent’s energy against them.

This tactic flies in the face of our bias for displays of power. The idea that you would let a scofflaw off the hook seems simultaneously unwise, un-American, and unmanly. Yet, it is sometimes prudent and effective.

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I’m reminded of the movie First Blood, when Col. Sam Trautman advises Sheriff Will Teasle on how to handle John Rambo (played by Sylvester Stallone). “Defuse the situation, defuse him. Let him get away. You’ll soon find him in Seattle, working in a car wash. That way no one gets hurt.”

Needless to say, Trautman’s sage advice, like Romney’s, went unheeded.

But here’s where that analogy breaks down. Maybe I missed it at the time, but frankly, I don’t recall Romney clamoring for a Trump pardon prior to this week.

Regardless, Romney (the only Republican senator who voted to convict Trump in both senate impeachment trials) has given us the opportunity to engage in an interesting thought exercise. Would Biden (and the rest of us) have been better off if he had pardoned Trump back in, say, February 2021?

It’s entirely possible. Unfortunately, the validity of his theory is largely contingent on how events play out from here.

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If Trump decisively loses the 2024 election and ends up in jail, then Romney’s take will probably not age well. On the other hand, if Trump wins the election and then uses his power to effectively cancel the remaining three trials, then Romney’s notion will look prophetic in hindsight.

It’s not far-fetched to believe that Biden could have taken the air out of Trump’s sails by doing the unthinkable: killing him with kindness by giving him what he thinks he wants.

Sometimes that is the most brutal thing you can do to a person.

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