"The signal we get is that government officials are above the law, as long as the President’s got their back."
Now that more than 78 million Americans have shown US President Donald Trump the door, speculation has been rife that he will use his substantial power of pardon to get himself, his family members and his close allies off the hook for crimes they committed in office.
US law gives the sitting president a lot of leeway in this regard. President Gerald Ford famously or infamously pardoned his disgraced predecessor Richard Nixon of any crimes he may have committed or participated in while in office. It is not difficult to imagine Trump would use the same considerable power to shield himself and his family from the consequences of their actions. He has, after all, commuted the sentence of his former campaign adviser, Roger Stone, who was convicted on seven felony counts, including witness tampering.
Like his American counterpart, the Philippine President also has broad powers of executive clemency.
This week, however, the Justice Department reminded us that he may only issue a pardon after a person has been found guilty.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra issued the remark after President Rodrigo Duterte said he has forgiven Philippine National Police (PNP) Gen. Debold Sinas for holding a birthday party during Metro Manila’s strict lockdown back in May, in clear violation of quarantine restrictions that he was supposed to enforce.
Two separate complaints—one by the Taguig police and another by the National Bureau of Investigation--have been filed against Sinas over the incident, which was amplified by photos of his indiscretion circulating on social media.
The President is “very much aware” that a case against Sinas remains pending and is “merely indicating his intent to act with liberality, in consideration of General Sinas’ overall performance as a career police officer,” Guevarra said.
Despite that controversy, Duterte chose Sinas as PNP chief when the position opened up.
“This one is on me,” the President said in Filipino Saturday. “If he has committed a crime, he’s pardoned.” He added that he saw nothing wrong with the new police chief’s actions in May because it was a surprise party thrown by his subordinates.
In saying this, the President dismissed the sense of outrage expressed by many ordinary citizens who certainly would not have been allowed to attend such a party during the lockdown—surprise or not. He also disregarded the notion that those in authority must set a good example by following the rules themselves. Even if we grant that Sinas had not organized the party and was merely surprised by his men, he could have shown real leadership by thanking them for their effort, then sending them home in line with the quarantine restrictions.
There is a cost to executive clemency, even though the President does not seem to suffer any political fallout from his defense of erring officials. The real cost is that all this sends the wrong signal, that government officials are above the law, as long as the President’s got their back.