WASHINGTON – Former Rep. Chris Collins' guilty plea to two felony insider trading charges left him with one last-ditch hope:
His friend in the White House could pardon him.
Will he? Only President Trump – if he is even thinking about it – knows for sure.
There's no doubt, though, that people in metro Buffalo are thinking about it, and there is no doubt that it's a possibility.
Collins' critics have been speculating about a potential presidential pardon since his Aug. 8, 2018, arrest. They note that Collins was the first House member to endorse Trump and that Collins has been one of Trump's most ardent defenders ever since.
Then there's Trump's own history of using the Constitution's pardon power to help people whose political beliefs align with his own. Among them: conservative media magnate Conrad Black; right-wing provocateur Dinesh D'Souza; former Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio; and Lewis "Scooter" Libby," an aide to former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney.
It might look bad for Trump to pardon Collins, a man who launched an insider-trading scheme with a cellphone call from the White House lawn and who won re-election insisting he was innocent.
But experts in the president's pardon power aren't sure if that sort of political consideration would ever stop Trump. After all, seven of Trump's 15 pardons have gone to controversial right-wing figures.
"As far as I can tell, Trump's criteria for pardons is: You qualify if you are a white Republican who's ethically challenged," said James A. Gardner, a constitutional law scholar at the University at Buffalo. "Chris Collins certainly fits the profile."
Collins and Trump
With President Trump embroiled in controversy about a phone call in which he suggested to the Ukrainian president that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden should be investigated, Collins tweeted out a vociferous statement attacking Democrats on Sept. 24.
"Democrats just can't help themselves in their quest to impeach President Trump," Collins said.
That statement is entirely in character with others Collins has issued defending Trump in dozens of news releases and television appearances since the then-lawmaker endorsed the New York billionaire in February 2016.
But one thing was different. Collins' last tweet defending Trump came on the day the Republican lawmaker from Clarence signed his plea agreement. Collins officially pleaded guilty in court Oct. 1. His resignation took effect that day, and he deleted his Twitter account that day, too.
Not surprisingly, then, some see Collins' continued defense of the president as a de facto plea for help from the man with the constitutional power to help him.
"I think he wants his pardon in time for the election (and before Trump is impeached)," Andrea Nikischer, one of the founding members of the "Citizens Against Collins" group, said on Twitter on Sept. 30, the day news broke of Collins plea deal. "Criminal Chris Collins has no shame. He will run again if he can."
The notion of Trump pardoning Collins is nothing new.
Speculation about a pardon filled social media at the time of Collins' arrest and got a boost on Labor Day 2018. That's when Trump took to defending Collins and Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, another indicted Republican, in a Twitter attack on then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
"Two long running, Obama era, investigations of two very popular Republican Congressmen were brought to a well publicized charge, just ahead of the Mid-Terms, by the Jeff Sessions Justice Department," Trump tweeted at the time. "Two easy wins now in doubt because there is not enough time. Good job Jeff......"
While both the White House and Collins refused to comment for this story. CNN reporter Manu Raju asked Collins last November whether Trump should pardon him.
“Oh no, that would be not be appropriate," Collins said. "I will have my day in court; I’m innocent, and that will be February 2020," when his trial had been scheduled.
The second half of that quote is no longer operative in light of Collins' guilty plea.
One thing that remains, though, is Collins' undying ardor for the president.
The day after Collins signed his plea agreement — which wasn't publicly revealed till the following week — The Buffalo News asked Collins for a more detailed explanation of his stance on Trump's Ukraine call.
"The transcript of the call between President Trump and his Ukraine counterpart clearly shows there was nothing improper about the call and certainly no quid pro quo," Collins replied in an emailed statement that gave no hint that his days in Congress were numbered.
Trump and pardons
It's not just Collins' long history of praising Trump that makes some think it's conceivable that the president will pardon the former congressman.
The way Trump has used the pardon power makes people wonder, too.
"Trump’s early clemency grants seemed to be targeted mostly at people he knows or knows about: people with a celebrity connection or a tie to the Republican Party," said Jeffrey Crouch, an assistant professor of American politics at American University and author of a book called "The Presidential Pardon Power."
For example, there's Conrad Black, the conservative media mogul convicted of mail fraud, wire fraud and obstruction of justice in 2007 and pardoned by Trump this May. Black is not only a longtime friend of Trump's, but also the author of a book called “Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other.”
Consider, too, the case of Dinesh D'Souza. He pleaded guilty in 2014 to making illegal campaign contributions to Wendy Long, a Republican Senate candidate in New York. Trump pardoned him last year, saying he had been "treated very unfairly."
Then there's Arpaio. He was convicted of disobeying court orders to no longer target Hispanics in traffic stops, but Trump pardoned him, saying he spent his life "protecting the public from the scourges of crime and illegal immigration."
One thing differentiates such Trump pardons from the majority of the pardons granted by other recent presidents, said Gardner, the UB professor: Those earlier cases usually went through a rigorous review process.
"Historically, the presidential pardon has been understood to be a last line of defense against egregious injustice," Gardner said. "This president doesn't seem to be following that pattern."
Instead, he seems to be doubling down on a strategy that President Bill Clinton issued in the last days of his time in office, when he pardoned campaign donor Marc Rich.
"What happens sometimes is that the president pardons somebody because this person is a friend is or is a supporter or even a contributor," said Charles Fried, a professor of law at Harvard University.
But Trump has indicated his standards might be even looser than that. He's mused about possibly of commuting the sentence of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat convicted of threatening to sell off an appointment to a vacant U.S. Senate seat.
Trump apparently doesn't think much of Blagojevich's conviction because he never followed through on his threat and because it was made over the phone.
"He's been in jail for seven years, over a phone call where nothing happens," Trump told reporters in August.
So that raises the question: What would Trump think of Collins' June 2017 phone call to his son Cameron, where he shared an inside stock tip that allowed Cameron Collins and others to shield themselves from more than $700,000 in potential losses?
But could he, really?
Some political figures in Buffalo speculate that if Trump were to pardon Collins, it would happen after the 2020 presidential election. Before that, they said, it would be too politically explosive to pardon a close ally who, as a member of Congress, hatched an insider trading scheme while attending a White House picnic.
Then again, the Constitution grants Trump the power to pardon Collins at any time -- either before his Jan. 17 sentencing, when the former lawmaker could get a prison sentence of 57 months or more, or afterward.
And if it happens, the public has every right to be outraged, said Nate McMurray, the Democrat who narrowly lost to Collins in last November's election, back when Collins was insisting he was innocent.
"He lied to the people," McMurray said of Collins. "He predicated his election based upon that lie. People helped him to do it, and now you're going to have additional help from the most powerful man in the world? I mean, it would be just more uneven treatment and more unfairness."
Granting a pardon to a close political ally who already admitted his guilt would, of course, flout political norms. But several scholars noted that political norms haven't guided Trump on his past pardons, and may not do so in the future, either.
"The big difference between Trump and other recent presidents here is that he does not seem to worry much about the consequences of a political pardon," said Crouch, of American University.
Jonathan L. Entin, a professor of constitutional law at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, agreed.
"President Trump is operating in such an unconventional way, all the way along, that sort of the normal kinds of constraints seem to carry less weight with him," Entin said.