“If you want to find out what a man is to the bottom, give him power.” — Robert Ingersoll, about President Abraham Lincoln.
King Henry V was, by all accounts, a brilliant military strategist. With only 6,000 men under his command, the English stood victorious on the field of battle after facing down the French army of at least 20,000 soldiers at Agincourt, 1415. When the dead were counted at the end of the day, estimates put the French having lost around 6,000 men, whereas the English lost 400.
But it was not this moment that marked him as a leader among men.
Before he achieved what’s considered one of the greatest military victories in English history Henry was — well, the modern phrase may be “a burnout,” at least in Shakespeare’s plays.
In Henry IV, the prince had forsaken his duties as the heir to the throne and, instead, spent his time with his good friends Falstaff, Poins, Bardolph and Peto, getting drunk, courting whores and robbing coaches.
But this comes to an end when a rebellion rises up against his father and Henry is forced to take up the sword, though he had always planned to eventually leave his life of debauchery for a higher purpose.
With the revolt quashed and Henry well on his way in succeeding his father, Falstaff and the others are excited to be part of his reign, expecting to ride their high-born friend’s coattails to the zenith of society while continuing their uncouth ways.
It was not to be — instead of a life of riches and immunity from the law, they’re imprisoned for their crimes.
A poor way to treat your friends? Perhaps. Hypocritical? Undoubtedly.
But unlike many of his predecessors (likely because his father overthrew the previous king for, coincidentally, improper governing), Henry — both the fictional and historical versions — felt he had to earn his crown, instead of considering it his birthright.
He knew his power was a privilege, not a right.
Falstaff dies shortly after the motley crew was released from prison, but Bardolph survives to be enlisted in the army that saw victory at Agincourt.
Except, he doesn’t live to see it.
Before the battle, Bardolph is caught stealing from a French church, despite Henry’s explicit directions that anyone caught pillaging or raping would be sentenced to death; “We would have all such offenders so cut off,” were the king’s remorseless words.
Bardolph’s death isn’t normally a scene in Henry V, but I was lucky enough to experience the Oregon Shakespeare Festival version which played his demise out in silence, save for the crash of the block as it’s kicked out from under his feet as Henry solemnly, dutifully looked on.
As king, Henry had all the power in the world to forgive his one-time friend and save his life, and mercy is a key quality in leaders. But to spare Bardolph’s life would show his men that Henry’s words, the breath of the law and the bedrock of his nation, were empty, and that he was no leader — just another ruler who falls far short of his responsibilities.
Despite its fictitiousness, this Shakespearean drama has been on my mind since President Donald Trump granted clemency to 11 people earlier this month.
For all intents and purposes, the power of the presidential pardon is ultimate; it exists beyond the scope of our political system’s checks and balances.
I wouldn’t be surprised if most, or all, presidents have granted clemency for political points at some time in office, and it doesn’t seem uncommon for presidents to approve a flurry of pardons near their final days in office. As such, some are controversial — look at President Obama’s pardon of Chelsea Manning in 2017.
But many of Trump’s pardons are alarmingly different than his predecessors’.
Let’s start with when he pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio in 2017, after Arpaio was convicted of defying a 2011 court order to stop racially-profiling Latinos and detaining them on the sole suspicion that they may be in the country illegally.
Now, that wasn’t just one judge’s opinion — a three-year investigation by the Justice Department detailed Arpaio’s department’s “pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos.”
This meant little to our president. Even though defying the court would have given Arpaio a maximum sentence of just six months in prison, Trump believed his friend’s loyalty and support earned him a get-out-of-jail-free card.
It appears those traits were extremely important when it came to these last 11 clemencies, which included:
• former Illinois Gov. Red. R. Blagojevich, who was convicted of trying to sell or trade former President Barack Obama’s Senate seat to the highest bidder, and sentenced to 14 years. Blagojevich was a contestant on Trump’s TV show, “The Celebrity Apprentice,” and was investigated by former FBI director James Comey, someone the president particularly dislikes.
• former owner of the San Francisco 49ers Edward DeBartolo, who pleaded guilty to not reporting an extortion plot by a former Louisiana governor. He didn’t serve jail time, but was fined $1 million. DeBartolo held a pre-inauguration party for the president.
• Ariel Friedler, who pled guilty in 2014 for planning to break into a protected computer, and was sentenced to two months. According to the Washington Post, he never even applied for a pardon — but was a client of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a vocal Trump supporter.
• Bernard Kerik, who pled guilty 10 years ago to eight felony charges, including tax fraud and lying to law enforcement officials, and was sentenced to four years. His pardon was supported by Trump’s lawyer, Rudi Giuliani, but he was also known to Trump since 2004.
• Michael Milken, who was sentenced to 10 years (though it was reduced to only two) after pleading guilty in 1990 for securities fraud and conspiracy charges, for which he also paid $600 million in fines. Milken has been lauded by Trump in one of his books and visited Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.
• Paul Pogue, who was sentenced to three years in 2010 for filing false income taxes; he has donated $200,000 in the last six months towards Trump’s re-election.
• and six others, who may not have been known to Trump personally, but were advocated for by people close to the president, according to the New York Times.
In sharp contrast to these clemencies, it has been reported Trump supporters have created a list of officials “disloyal” to the president, and another of those who are loyal to replace them.
And all of this doesn’t even cover his administration’s extreme turnover rate, with many of his former staff members having been forced out not for incompetence, mismanagement, or scandal, but because they pushed back against Trump’s wildest inclinations.
What does it say about a man when he uses his unilateral powers to reward those who favor him, and punish the rest?
It says he values adherence more than merit.
It says he values allegiance over justice.
And it says he values himself over the people he’s been elected to lead.
All politics aside, Trump has shown he’s the worst kind of leader — one who believes his power is a right.
That belief isn’t fit for a king, let alone a democratically-elected leader.
So far, there have been enough degrees of separation between the president and those he’s pardoned to warrant some benefit of the doubt; none of these people were convicted of crimes that were connected to Trump and his administration.
That may not always be so.
Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn is being prosecuted for lying to officials during Special Council Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference and obstruction of justice in Trump’s administration, and Roger Stone was just sentenced to 40 months for both lying to investigation officials and witness tampering.
Trump has loudly declared both these cases have been miscarriages of justice, and I’d argue the only thing stopping him from granting Flynn and Stone clemency is the upcoming election; to do so now would likely cost him the next four years.
But if he wins, there’s little — if anything — standing against him from further eroding the rule of law.
And if this all isn’t enough to convince some of you of the president’s character, remember that he has already declared himself above the law.
“I have the absolute right to pardon myself,” he tweeted on June 4, 2018.
The 2020 election is more than just deciding who is going to lead our country; it’s a referendum on how we want our country to be led. I believe the vast majority of us will vote for what we think is best for America, but I also think we are quick to convince ourselves the ends will justify the means.
Democracies cannot survive many pyrrhic victories.
If you have even the smallest twinge of doubt about which candidate to vote for this November, I urge you to not just consider the causes they champion, but how they will utilize their power to meet those goals.
Unlimited power doesn’t make a good leader.
And good leaders don’t need ultimate power.