Narrative and Politics: Pardon Me, Mr. Trump

Rather than getting caught up in whether or not Trump has the power to pardon even himself, step back and see the larger narrative.

In the past controversial pardons would sometimes inflame the public, and when newly minted President Ford pardoned Richard Nixon as his first official act, the tide of controversy rose quite high. Still and all, under normal circumstances no one cares much about the President’s pardon power other than those being pardoned.

So stepping back, look at how much information is pouring out the the Trump administration this week about pardoning power, both in his tweets and through his spokespeople and surrogates.

As a narrative scientist, I ask myself why would an administration go into a full-bore public service campaign to inform the public about a presidential power of such little historic significance?

Of course, the answer is that Trump is guilty and he is trying to send a message to all those who can prove his guilt by testifying against him in exchange for a plea deal.

Why would Trump and company spend all this time talking about pardons otherwise? Why not talk about dog shelters or the honey bees or new uniforms for the military, much less truly important issues that are of real and imperative concern?

In short – pardon power is an obscure, uninspiring, and generally unimportant presidential power in the grand scheme of things. And of all the obscure, uninspiring, and generally unimportant powers to pick to speak about, why THIS one, and more to the point, why NOW?

Look at the pardon last week of man who laundered campaign funds and was investigated, tried, and convicted by the same federal folks in New York who are currently after Michael Cohen.

This man never asked for a pardon – not once. He was surprised as anybody when he heard about it. He pleaded guilty. Trump made the pardon pro-actively because this fellow just happened to come to his attention and, ostensibly, in reviewing his case (with his copious free time), Trump determined that this man had been singled out for prosecution unfairly and based on a political agenda.

Does that ring true to you? If you saw that as the plot of a movie or a television show would you buy it? Of course not! It makes no sense as a narrative, and therefore it makes no sense in the real world either.

Clearly, the Trump team went out looking for someone to pardon – anyone who was prosecuted by the same branch who was also Republican and also pleaded guilty. If they found such a fellow, they could pardon him and send a big message to Michael Cohen to keep his mouth shut because Trump has him covered.

Now THAT narrative makes complete and total sense. It rings true. You’d buy that in a movie or on TV in a heartbeat.

Narratives are like Occam’s Razor – the simplest explanation is (most often) the correct one. Unlike physics, narratives are driven by the nature of human beings. So if a narrative comes across as false, it is because we know that the motivations suggested do not match how real people act and react – how they are driven and in what directions.

Suddenly taking a great interest in pardon power just because, while simultaneously pardoning someone arbitrarily who didn’t even request a pardon simply isn’t a believable narrative.

But hyping up pardon power to prevent folks from testifying and then making an example pardon of a hand-picked obscure felon who was convicted by the same mechanism in the same place as the key potential witness against Trump – well that is as believable a narrative as you can get.

Melanie Anne Phillips

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