On Jan. 13, former FBI Director James Comey made headlines for suggesting that President-elect Joe Biden should "consider" pardoning President Donald Trump. The news was surprising coming from one of Trump's most outspoken critics, especially because he made the suggestion on the same day the U.S. House voted to impeach the president on one article of inciting insurrection.
The Senate will now have to vote on whether to convict Trump — a process that will not be resolved until after Biden's Jan. 20 inauguration. Meanwhile, prosecutors could charge Trump with a plethora of crimes and infractions once he becomes a private citizen again.
The impeachment battle and potential prosecutions make for an unlikely recipe for the "unity and healing" Biden says he wants to bring to the country, many news outlets seem to agree with Comey's suggestion that Biden should indeed pardon Trump to help the country heal and move on.
Recent articles in the Independent, the Baltimore Sun, the Columbian, the Arizona Republic and NBC News have called such a pardon a "return to a sense of decency," "tension-calming" and "the only path forward."
Each article invariably brings up the time President Richard Nixon was similarly facing both impeachment and prosecution as fallout from the Watergate scandal in 1974 and President Gerald Ford made the controversial decision to pardon him.
While Ford's pardon was incredibly unpopular at the time and almost certainly cost him reelection, most historians have come to agree that Ford made the right decision for the good of country.
Even the legendary journalists responsible for breaking the Watergate scandal — Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein — who initially saw Ford's pardon as the "final corruption of Watergate" eventually came to view it as "an act of courage" many years later.
In 2014, Woodward told a Washington Post-hosted panel that Ford had himself been the one to change his mind more than two decades later. While interviewing Ford some 25 years after the controversial pardon, Ford confessed to Woodward that Nixon's chief of staff, Alexander Haig, had indeed offered him the presidency in exchange for his promising to pardon Nixon. However, as Woodward described the interview in his book, "Shadow: Five Presidents And The Legacy Of Watergate," Ford turned the offer down right away. "It was a deal," Ford said, "but it never became a deal because I never accepted."
The only reason Ford told Woodward he eventually decided to pardon Nixon anyway was, "not for Nixon, not for myself, but for the good of the country." In his testimony before Congress on Oct. 17, 1974, Ford said: "I was absolutely convinced as I am now that if we had had this serious indictment and trial, conviction and anything else that transpired after that, that the attention of the presidency, the Congress and the American people would have been diverted from the problems that we had to solve and that was the principle reason for granting the pardon."
In "Shadow," Woodward praises Ford's decision. "I have become more and more convinced that Ford made the correct decision in pardoning Nixon. Nixon had already paid the political death penalty of resignation, and for Ford a pardon was the only way of ending the public and media obsession with his predecessor's future," he wrote.
While America is now facing similar challenges to the challenges Americans were facing in 1974, historians say the circumstances of the Ford/Nixon pardon aren't the same and don't apply to President Trump.
"The situation today is utterly different," says Sean Wilentz, a history professor at Princeton University. Nixon was pardoned solely for his role in the Watergate scandal, he explains. By contrast, a pardon of President Trump "would be halting further investigation and possible prosecution concerning the serious violation of several important federal laws arising from several distinct episodes dating back to the 2016 campaign," Wilentz says.
The severity of the crimes and infractions matter, too. "There was no violence associated with Richard Nixon or Watergate," says Mary Stuckey, a communication arts and sciences professor at Pennsylvania State University, contrasting Nixon's role in Watergate to Trump's role in the insurrection of the attack on the Capitol. "It seems remarkable to say," Wilentz says, "but comparing Trump's acts to what Nixon did is like comparing a mountain to, well, something more than a molehill but much less than a mountain."
Unlike today, 1974 was also a time when Republicans united in condemning such behavior. "Republicans were the ones who told Nixon he had to resign; there was no question of them supporting him — disapproval was clear and was bipartisan," Stuckey says. Wilentz also referenced the role unification played in Nixon's resignation — especially among staunch Nixon supporters. "Leading Republicans, including those who had supported Nixon through most of the investigations, finally broke ranks with the president, choosing the nation over their party. That decision at last compelled Nixon to resign rather than face almost certain impeachment by the House and likely removal by the Senate," he says.
The stakes are also much higher this time around. "President Trump has attacked many of our most sacred institutions of democracy throughout his presidency," says Randall Woods, a professor of history at the University of Arkansas. He adds that "those very institutions now need to hold him accountable. It's vital they do so to ensure their own survival."
Such accountability could take many forms but many historians are united in saying something must be done. "The world and the country need to know that when the president initiates an insurrection against the government of the United States, he'll be held accountable," says Shirley Anne Warshaw, a political science professor at Gettysburg College.
As for concerns that further action will only divide an already divided nation, historians say President Trump and some Republicans have left lawmakers with few options.
"For there to be reconciliation, there has to be a willingness to reconcile from both sides," Woods says, adding: "one side is still struggling to acknowledge that Trump has done anything wrong." A position echoed by Stuckey: "Truth and reconciliation has to begin with truth."
Daryl Austin is a journalist based in Utah and wrote this article for the Chicago Tribune.