Explainer: Can Trump pardon his associates — or himself?

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U.S. President Donald Trump could issue a flurry of pardons during his final days in power.

Trump has granted clemency to supporters before, most notably earlier this year when he commuted the criminal sentence of Roger Stone, who was sentenced to prison after being convicted of lying under oath to lawmakers.

In 2018, Trump even said he had the "absolute right" to pardon himself - a claim many constitutional law scholars dispute.

Here is an overview of Trump's pardon power, which is sweeping but not absolute.

ARE THERE LIMITS ON TRUMP'S PARDON POWER?

The pardon power, which comes from the U.S. Constitution, is one of the broadest available to a president. The nation's founders saw the pardon power as a way to show mercy and serve the public good.

While pardons are typically given to people who have been prosecuted, pardons can cover conduct that has not yet resulted in legal proceedings.

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A pardon is not reviewable by other branches of government and the president does not have to give a reason for issuing one.

A pardon wipes out a criminal conviction. A different form of executive clemency, known as a commutation, leaves the conviction intact but wipes out the punishment.

But the pardon power is not absolute. Crucially, a pardon only applies to federal crimes. That means pardons would not, for example, protect Trump associates from the criminal investigation being conducted by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, a state prosecutor.

Vance's probe, which began more than two years ago, stemmed from hush money payments that the president's former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen paid before the 2016 election to two women - an adult-film star and a former Playboy model - who said they had sexual encounters with Trump. Trump has denied the encounters and has said the probe is politically motivated.

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US Rep. Brenda Lawrence (C) hugs supporters as they celebrate the President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris at Michigan's 14th Congressional District office on November 8, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan. - One of the most prominent Republicans in the US Congress on Sunday urged Donald Trump to "fight hard" and not concede his loss to Joe Biden in the race for the White House, saying unfounded allegations of fraud by the president must be investigated. Other Republicans sought to walk a finer line, saying legal challenges must be allowed to play out."We will work with Biden if he wins, but Trump has not lost," Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said on Fox News. (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP) (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)
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People smash a Donald Trump pinata as they celebrate the President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris at Michigan's 14th Congressional District office on November 8, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan. - One of the most prominent Republicans in the US Congress on Sunday urged Donald Trump to "fight hard" and not concede his loss to Joe Biden in the race for the White House, saying unfounded allegations of fraud by the president must be investigated. Other Republicans sought to walk a finer line, saying legal challenges must be allowed to play out."We will work with Biden if he wins, but Trump has not lost," Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said on Fox News. (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP) (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)
US President-elect Joe Biden delivers remarks in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 7, 2020, after being declared the winner of the US presidential election. (Photo by Andrew Harnik / POOL / AFP) (Photo by ANDREW HARNIK/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
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Thousands of New Yorkers gathered in Times Square shortly after new outlets called the presidential election for Joe Biden, Saturday, November 7, 2020. Times Square Election 2020 (Photo by John Meore/The Journal News/USA Today Network/Sipa USA)
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WASHINGTON, USA - NOVEMBER 07: US President-elect Joe Bidenâs supporters gather to celebrate the victory around the White House in Washington, United States on November 07, 2020. (Photo by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, USA - NOVEMBER 07: US President-elect Joe Bidenâs supporters gather to celebrate the victory around the White House in Washington, United States on November 07, 2020. (Photo by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
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People celebrate at Times Square in New York after Joe Biden was declared winner of the 2020 presidential election on November 7, 2020. - Democrat Joe Biden has won the White House, US media said November 7, defeating Donald Trump and ending a presidency that convulsed American politics, shocked the world and left the United States more divided than at any time in decades. (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP) (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/Afp/AFP via Getty Images)
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Biden supporters celebrate outside City Hall after Joe Biden is declared the next President on November 7, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. - Democrat Joe Biden has won the White House, US media said November 7, defeating Donald Trump and ending a presidency that convulsed American politics, shocked the world and left the United States more divided than at any time in decades. (Photo by Bryan R. Smith / AFP) (Photo by BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 07: People celebrate in the streets after it was announced that Democratic nominee Joe Biden would be the next U.S. President, in Times Square on November 7, 2020 in New York City. According to several news outlets presidential nominee Joe Biden has defeated incumbent U.S. President Donald Trump to become the 46th President of the United States. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
Madison Buffardi (L) and Madison Little celebrate outside the Pennsylvania Convention Center after Joe Biden was declared winner of the 2020 presidential election on November 7, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. - Democrat Joe Biden has won the White House, US media said November 7, defeating Donald Trump and ending a presidency that convulsed American politics, shocked the world and left the United States more divided than at any time in decades. (Photo by Bryan R. Smith / AFP) (Photo by BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP via Getty Images)
People celebrate on Black Lives Matter plaza across from the White House in Washington, DC on November 7, 2020, after Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election. - Joyous celebrations erupted in Washington on Saturday after Joe Biden was declared winner of the US presidency, as several people poured into the streets of the US capital -- some of them chanting, cheering and singing in front of the White House. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 07: People celebrate in the streets after it was announced that Democratic nominee Joe Biden would be the next U.S. President, in Times Square on November 7, 2020 in New York City. According to several news outlets presidential nominee Joe Biden has defeated incumbent U.S. President Donald Trump to become the 46th President of the United States. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C., USA - NOVEMBER 7, 2020: A man holds a sign in a street after the media announcement that Democratic Party nominee Joe Biden has won the 2020 US presidential election. CNN, NBC and AP project Democratic Party nominee Joe Biden to win the US presidential election as he has surpassed the 270 electoral votes. Yegor Aleyev/TASS (Photo by Yegor Aleyev\TASS via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 07: People celebrate in the streets after it was announced that Democratic nominee Joe Biden would be the next U.S. President, in Times Square on November 7, 2020 in New York City. According to several news outlets presidential nominee Joe Biden has defeated incumbent U.S. President Donald Trump to become the 46th President of the United States. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
People celebrate on Black Lives Matter plaza across from the White House in Washington, DC on November 7, 2020, after Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election. - Joyous celebrations erupted in Washington on Saturday after Joe Biden was declared winner of the US presidency, as several people poured into the streets of the US capital -- some of them chanting, cheering and singing in front of the White House. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 07: People celebrate in the streets after it was announced that Democratic nominee Joe Biden would be the next U.S. President, in Times Square on November 7, 2020 in New York City. According to several news outlets presidential nominee Joe Biden has defeated incumbent U.S. President Donald Trump to become the 46th President of the United States. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
People dance on Black Lives Matter plaza across from the White House in Washington, DC on November 7, 2020, after Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election. - Democrat Joe Biden has won the White House, US media said November 7, defeating Donald Trump and ending a presidency that convulsed American politics, shocked the world and left the United States more divided than at any time in decades. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
People celebrate on Black Lives Matter plaza across from the White House in Washington, DC on November 7, 2020, after Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election. - Joyous celebrations erupted in Washington on Saturday after Joe Biden was declared winner of the US presidency, as several people poured into the streets of the US capital -- some of them chanting, cheering and singing in front of the White House. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
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The district attorney has suggested in court filings that the probe is now broader and could focus on potential bank, tax and insurance fraud, as well as falsification of business records. It is unclear what stage the investigation is at. No one has been charged with criminal wrongdoing.

COULD TRUMP PARDON HIS FAMILY MEMBERS?

Yes. It is legal for Trump to pardon his inner circle, including members of his family.

In 2001, former President Bill Clinton pardoned his own brother, Roger, who was convicted for cocaine possession in Arkansas.

Clinton pardoned about 450 people, including a Democratic Party donor, Marc Rich, who fled the country because of tax evasion charges.

WHO ELSE COULD TRUMP PARDON?

Trump has said he could pardon Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about discussions he had with a Russian official before Trump took office in 2017.

While awaiting sentencing, Flynn sought to withdraw his plea, claiming he was set up the FBI.

The Justice Department has been seeking a judge's permission to drop the case.

There has also been speculation that Trump would preemptively pardon his personal lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are investigating whether Giuliani broke lobbying laws in his dealings in Ukraine.

The investigation into Giuliani is tied to the case against two of his associates, who are accused of campaign finance-related violations. Giuliani has denied breaking any laws and has not been accused of criminal wrongdoing by prosecutors.

CAN TRUMP PARDON HIMSELF?

There is not a definitive answer to this question. No president has tried it before, so the courts have not weighed in.

"When people ask me if a president can pardon himself, my answer is always, 'Well, he can try,'" said Brian Kalt, a constitutional law professor at Michigan State University. "The Constitution does not provide a clear answer on this."

Many legal experts have said that a self-pardon would be unconstitutional because it violates the basic principle that nobody should be the judge in his or her own case. Kalt said that, in his view, was the stronger argument.

Trump could try to pardon himself preemptively to cover the possibility of prosecution after he leaves office.

In that case, the pardon's legitimacy might never be tested in court, said Kalt. For a court to rule on the pardon's validity, a federal prosecutor would have to charge Trump with a crime and then Trump would have to raise the pardon as a defense, he said.

COULD THE VICE PRESIDENT TAKE OVER AND PARDON TRUMP?

In a 1974 memorandum, a Justice Department lawyer said President Richard Nixon could not pardon himself but that another option was constitutional: that he temporarily step down, receive a pardon from his vice president and then regain power.

In order to do that, Nixon would have had to invoke the 25th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which allows an incapacitated president to temporarily step down.

Nixon ultimately resigned in the face of the Watergate scandal and almost certain impeachment and removal from office. His successor, Gerald Ford, later pardoned Nixon for any federal crimes he committed or might have committed while in office.

It is not clear what Vice President Mike Pence would have to gain from agreeing to pardon Trump, said Corey Brettschneider, a professor of political science at Brown University.

"I don't think Pence would want that to define his legacy," Brettschneider said.

(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Noeleen Walder, Peter Cooney and Jonathan Oatis)

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