Susannah Colt: What Trump doesn’t get about pardons

  • An original letter about male oppression of women's rights during the Spanish American War handwritten by Susan B. Anthony in 1898 is part of an exhibit "Man's Inhumanity Toward Man" at The Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum, in Buffalo, N.Y. President Donald Trump pardoned Anthony, a leader in the women’s suffrage movement, who was arrested for voting in 1872 in violation of laws permitting only men to vote. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 12/3/2020 6:20:21 AM

President Donald Trump does not understand the concept of the pardon. Last week he pardoned an “innocent” man and on Aug. 18, 2020, he pardoned a dead woman who would never have asked for a pardon.

Trump’s recent pardon of Gen. Michael Flynn is an interesting one. First Flynn got caught lying to the FBI and pleaded guilty for it, twice. As part of the plea deal he agreed to cooperate with the Mueller investigation, which he did.

For some reason he fired his attorneys and hired a new set of attorneys who convinced him to withdraw his guilty plea. He tried to do that but the court denied his request. Then the justice department under Attorney General William Barr filed papers to withdraw the charges against Flynn. The court has still not ruled on Barr’s motion to dismiss the case.

Now Trump has issued him a pardon even though he thinks Flynn is an innocent man who was a victim of a vast left-wing conspiracy against him.

Why would an innocent man accept a pardon? Isn’t accepting a pardon essentially an admission of guilt? That is what the Supreme Court said in Burdick v. U.S. in 1915. In essence the court stated that a pardon “carries an imputation of guilt” and acceptance of a pardon is a “confession” of guilt.

When President Gerald Ford issued a full and unconditional pardon to Richard Nixon he cited Burdick as support for his decision. In fact, he carried the text of that portion of the Burdick decision in his wallet so that when asked about the pardon he could cite the Supreme Court’s language.

In other words, he knew Nixon was guilty of crimes against the United States and Nixon’s acceptance of the pardon was an admission of guilt. Ultimately, Ford decided it was better for the country to avoid a long, drawn-out trial in Nixon’s case in order to begin to bridge the divide that it had caused.

The other pardon that exposes Trump’s ignorance of the concept and shines light on his ignorance of history involves Susan B. Anthony and her conviction in 1873 for voting illegally.

Somebody in Trump’s administration thought it would be a good idea to issue Anthony a posthumous pardon for her conviction on the anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment on Aug. 18, 2020. They thought the optics would appeal to women so they would vote for him. We now know how that turned out.

At the ceremony, where he was surrounded by women, Trump stated, “She was guilty for voting . . . she was never pardoned . . . what took so long?”

What took so long is that Anthony felt she was guaranteed the right to vote under the 14th Amendment, which had been ratified in 1868 and provided “equal protection of the laws” for “any person.” Armed with the Constitution, she and 15 other women were able to register to vote and have their ballots counted in Rochester, N.Y., during the 1872 election when Ulysses S. Grant was running against Horace Greeley for president. She voted for Grant. Two weeks later Anthony was arrested for a violation of an act of Congress.

In June 1873, she stood trial for her charges. During the trial presided over by Judge Ward Hunt, Hunt prohibited her from testifying, stating she was “incompetent” because she was a woman. The judge ran roughshod over her attorney and in the end refused to submit the case to the jury, declaring her guilty on his own. After the trial was over, the all-male jury, when interviewed, declared they would have acquitted Anthony and were annoyed they didn’t get the chance.

Anthony was fined $100 plus costs. Because she was never sentenced to jail, she had no right to appeal. Anthony refused to pay the fine stating she would “never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty” and would continue to “rebel against your manmade unjust, unconstitutional forms of law that tax, fine, imprison and hang women while they deny them the right of representation in the government.”

The arrest and trial of Anthony provided her with a platform to draw attention to the cause for women’s right to vote and she used it skillfully. Unfortunately, it would take 47 more years to pass the 19th Amendment, 15 years after Anthony died.

After Trump announced the pardon, Deborah L. Hughes, president and CEO of the National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House, issued a statement stating that Anthony would never have accepted a pardon as it would have gone against the suffragist’s wishes. Anthony never felt she was guilty of anything.

To add insult to injury, the statement of Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, which provided historical context for the pardon, called Anthony a “suffragette” instead of the preferred term “suffragist.” The suffix “-ette” is used to refer to something small or diminutive and by adding that suffix to the word “suffrage” only served to mock those fighting for women’s right to vote. So in America, the use of “suffragette” was considered offensive. Some women in Britain embraced the term suffragette as a way of reclaiming it from its original derogatory use.

McEnany should have known better. And, if she truly understood the history behind Anthony’s conviction, she would have advised Trump against issuing the pardon.

Keeping in mind what the Supreme Court has said about pardons and the precedent set in the Nixon pardon, if Trump decides to preemptively pardon his family members and himself, that would mean that they are acknowledging they are guilty of something and deserve “an act of grace
. . . which exempts the individual, on whom it is bestowed, from the punishment the law inflicts for a crime he has committed.” Burdick v. U.S., 236 U.S. 89, 90 (1915).

If Trump does not pardon himself, I would urge President Joe Biden to pardon him on day one so that the country does not end up getting bogged down in the swamp of a long, drawn-out criminal trial, which would only serve to fuel the narcissism in Trump and bump up his television ratings. Perhaps that would be an act of grace that could begin to heal the division caused by Trump over the last four years.

(Susannah Colt lives in Whitefield. She can be reached at

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