WASHINGTON — President Trump has said he learned lessons from President Richard M. Nixon’s fall from grace, but in using the power of his office to keep his friend and adviser Roger J. Stone Jr. out of prison he has now crossed a line that even Mr. Nixon in the depths of Watergate dared not cross.
For months, some of Mr. Trump’s senior White House advisers warned him that it would be politically self-destructive if not ethically inappropriate to use his clemency power to help Mr. Stone, who was convicted of lying to protect the president. But in casting aside their counsel on Friday, Mr. Trump indulged his own sense of grievance over precedent and restraint to reward an ally for his silence.
Democrats immediately condemned the commutation of Mr. Stone’s 40-month prison term and vowed to investigate, just as Mr. Trump’s advisers had predicted they would. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, calling the move an act of “staggering corruption,” said she would pursue legislation to prevent the president from using his power to protect those convicted of a cover-up on his own behalf, although that would face serious constitutional hurdles and presumably would never be signed into law by Mr. Trump.
Still, Mr. Trump’s action was too much even for some Republican critics of the president, who called it an abuse of power intended to subvert justice on his own behalf. “Unprecedented, historic corruption: an American president commutes the sentence of a person convicted by a jury of lying to shield that very president,” Senator Mitt Romney of Utah wrote on Twitter.
Mr. Trump had long publicly floated the possibility of clemency for a variety of his associates caught in the cross hairs of prosecutors, including Mr. Stone, his former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. That by itself was interpreted by some critics as an act of witness tampering, in effect promising intervention to allies as long as they did not cooperate with investigators against Mr. Trump.
By contrast, one former associate who did cooperate, Michael D. Cohen, his former lawyer who arranged to pay hush money to women claiming extramarital affairs with Mr. Trump, was locked up again on Thursday after federal authorities demanded that he agree not to publish a tell-all book in September, shortly before the election, deeming it a violation of the terms of his early release.
While Mr. Trump has enthusiastically used his clemency power to help political allies and others with connections to his White House, he had until now deferred to advisers urging him not to use it for Mr. Stone or others caught up in investigations of the president’s campaign ties to Russia, recognizing that it would be politically explosive.
But with Mr. Stone due to report to prison in the next few days, Mr. Trump opted not to wait any longer and the commutation could be a test case for what he could do next. If he judges that the political cost was not too high, he may be emboldened to help out others, although it may not be necessary since Mr. Manafort has now been released to home confinement and Attorney General William P. Barr moved to drop the case against Mr. Flynn even though he pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I.
While most elected Republicans remained silent about Mr. Stone’s commutation on Saturday, some of the president’s staunch supporters who have attacked the legitimacy of the underlying investigations into Mr. Trump and his associates cheered him on.
“In my view it would be justified if President @realDonaldTrump decided to commute Roger Stone’s prison sentence,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote on Twitter. “Mr. Stone is in his 70s and this was a nonviolent, first-time offense.” (Mr. Stone is actually 67.)
Under the Constitution, the president’s pardon power is expansive, explicitly limited only in that it applies to federal criminal cases, not to state prosecutions or impeachments. As far back as the 19th century, the Supreme Court ruled that “Congress can neither limit the effect of his pardon nor exclude from its exercise any class of offenders” and as recently as 1974 said the president had “unfettered executive discretion” in granting clemency.
While House Democratic leaders quickly vowed to investigate Mr. Trump’s decision, some lawyers said Congress had no authority to do so. “I understand the implications for the justice system, but just as a matter of constitutional law, I don’t see how they get into this,” said Stanley M. Brand, a former House counsel under a Democratic speaker.
Still, Mr. Brand and other lawyers said that Mr. Stone’s commutation could theoretically be interpreted as an impeachable offense if it was granted out of corrupt self-interest even if it seemed unlikely that the House would move to impeach Mr. Trump a second time.
“The president’s pardon power does not extend to nullifying the rule of law for his own cronies to shield from public scrutiny his own obstruction of justice,” said Harold Hongju Koh, a Yale Law School professor and former top lawyer in President Barack Obama’s administration.
The history of presidential clemency is replete with disputes and politics over the propriety of relief from the nation’s highest office.
Just days before the 1992 election, Lawrence E. Walsh, the independent counsel investigating the Iran-contra affair, filed a new indictment against former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger that made public notes contradicting President George Bush’s account of his involvement. Mr. Bush’s team considered that a dirty trick by Mr. Walsh intended to influence the election and indeed the president was defeated days later.
Mr. Bush responded the next month to what he considered an illegitimate prosecution by pardoning Mr. Weinberger and five others in the investigation on Christmas Eve, prompting Mr. Walsh to complain that “the Iran-contra cover-up, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed.”
His successor, President Bill Clinton, waited until the final hours of his tenure in January 2001 to issue a raft of more than 175 pardons or commutations, including for his own half brother Roger Clinton, the financier Marc Rich and several former administration officials.
Among those Mr. Clinton pardoned on his last day in office was Susan H. McDougal, a friend and former business partner from his Arkansas days who spent 21 months behind bars for refusing to cooperate with the independent counsel Ken Starr’s investigation of the Whitewater land venture.
Unlike the case with Mr. Stone, Mr. Clinton acted only after Ms. McDougal had already served her sentence and been released. With Mr. Starr no longer in office and the Whitewater investigation wrapped up, Mr. Clinton faced no additional legal risk at that point.
The bigger furor at the time was over his pardon of Mr. Rich, who had fled the country to avoid charges of evading $48 million in taxes and obtained his clemency after his ex-wife, Denise Rich, a prominent Democratic donor, contributed money to Mr. Clinton’s presidential library. Democrats joined Republicans in roundly condemning the pardon and Mr. Clinton later expressed regret because of “the terrible politics.”
Jack L. Goldsmith, a Harvard Law School professor and former top Justice Department official under President George W. Bush, said those cases could be seen as parallels to Mr. Stone’s commutation but pointed to the larger pattern under Mr. Trump. In 31 of 36 pardons or commutations Mr. Trump has issued, he noted, the act advanced the president’s political goals or benefited someone he had a personal connection to, whose case had been brought to his attention by television or was someone he admired for their celebrity.
“This has happened before in a way,” Mr. Goldsmith said. “But there has been nothing like Trump from a systematic perspective.”
One president who dared not use his pardon power to help his friends was Mr. Nixon, although not for lack of considering it. Mr. Nixon’s associates paid hush money and dangled the prospect of clemency to the Watergate burglars to buy their silence but that was off the table once the Watergate story broke open.
Likewise, Mr. Nixon secretly promised to pardon three top lieutenants, H.R. Haldeman, John D. Ehrlichman and John N. Mitchell, on the day after Senate Watergate hearings opened in May 1973. “I don’t give a shit what comes out on you or John, even that poor, damn, dumb John Mitchell,” he told Mr. Haldeman in a conversation captured on his Oval Office taping system. “There is going to be a total pardon.”
Mr. Haldeman sensed danger. “Don’t even say that,” he warned.
“Forget you ever heard it,” Mr. Nixon replied.
He never followed through. Mr. Haldeman, Mr. Ehrlichman and Mr. Mitchell were indicted in 1974 and accused of making “offers of leniency, executive clemency, and other benefits” to obstruct justice. All three eventually went to prison.
Mr. Nixon was made an unindicted co-conspirator and resigned that August without using his pardon pen. But he received one himself a month later from President Gerald R. Ford, who wanted to spare the country the spectacle of a former president put on trial, but triggered a backlash that helped cost him the 1976 election.
“I think Nixon understood the power of the public and did his crimes in private, not in public, to avoid political consequences,” said Jill Wine-Banks, a Watergate prosecutor. “He was right then. Look what happened to Ford. But Trump sees no consequences.”
Sharon LaFraniere contributed reporting.