The countdown clock is racing toward January 20th. Nothing can stop the inevitable. George W. Bush will give up power. Barack Obama will become the 44th President of the United States. The Republican administration will pass the reins of power to the in-coming Democratic administration. But there will be unfinished business that will carry over into the coming years.
On Monday, Dick Cheney and Alberto Gonzales were indicted in Texas. According to the Los Angeles Times, the vice president is "charged with engaging in an organized criminal activity related to his investment in the Vanguard Group, which holds financial interests in the private prison companies running the federal detention centers." The indictment of the former Attorney General "accuses Gonzales of using his position while in office to stop an investigation in 2006 into abuses at one of the privately run prisons."
The use of political power for personal gain seems consistent with Cheney's support of Halliburton. Gonzales' obstruction of legal investigations also seems consistent with his behavior when he served as the White House Counsel to the president and as attorney general.
Ted Stevens, recently convicted on seven felony conspiracy charges, has said that he would not ask President Bush to pardon him before he left office. Now that Stevens has lost his reelection bid for his Senate seat, he awaits the sentencing phase of his trial. Will he change his mind and, before Barack Obama becomes president, will he ask George W. Bush for a pardon?
President Ford said that President Nixon didn't ask him for a pardon but he thought it was the right thing to do to help the country heal. If President Bush pardons Senator Ted Stevens will he do so for noble sounding reasons, to "honor a great man's four decades' service to his country"?
In Stevens' case, there is a conviction, so a presidential pardon is legally possible. But if there is only an indictment, can a pardon preempt a conviction in the future? Taking a broader view, can a president pardon someone for future indictments for any and all crimes he or she committed while in office?
The Bush Administration and Dick Cheney in particular, have spent the last eight years expanding the Imperial Presidency, claiming powers to Executive Privilege that are still being challenged in court.
Putting aside the question of whether or not it is legal to pardon in advance of a conviction, would President Bush have the stomach to do it? A fire-storm of criticism blasted Presidents Ford and Clinton for their most high-profile pardons. President Bush didn't pardon Scooter Libby but he contrived to release him from prison nonetheless. Would he look to preemptively protect those who have served in his administration from prosecution and punishment before he has to hand over the reins of power?
The Texas indictment of Dick Cheney may prove to be the harbinger of many to follow. Given the way in which the Democratic Congress has pursued cases against Bush loyalists once the Republicans lost control of Congress, Dick Cheney has every reason to believe that he would be the subject of investigations from many quarters.
But if President Bush wavers, would the vice president look for a way to protect himself from zealous prosecutors? Does anyone believe that the vice president will go quietly into the night? Won't he look for a way to cloak himself from scrutiny and prosecution? How far will the vice president go to protect himself?
If a way can be found to justify it, will Dick Cheney pardon himself?