Even by the standards of modern congressional scandals, Rep. Duncan Hunter's (R-Calif.) case is a doozy. As regular readers know, California Republican's multi-count criminal indictment accused him, of among other things, stealing campaign funds for personal use and clumsily trying to cover it up. As part of the case, prosecutors also alleged Hunter illegally used contributions to help finance extramarital affairs, including some with lobbyists.
After repeatedly insisting he's innocent, and blaming a political "witch hunt" for his predicament, the congressman pleaded guilty this week to conspiracy to misuse campaign funds. He's scheduled to be sentenced in March, and he faces up to five years in prison.
Though resignation seems like the obvious next step for Hunter, the GOP lawmaker, at least for now, seems intent on sticking around. In fact, the day after pleading guilty, the congressman was back on the House floor, casting votes as if he were a member in good standing. Roll Call reported yesterday that some of his colleagues reminded Hunter that he's not, in fact, a member in good standing: he's been stripped of his committee assignments and the Ethics panel wants him to stop voting on legislation.
The House Ethics Committee notified Rep. Duncan Hunter that his recent guilty plea means he should no longer cast votes in the House. The instruction is not mandatory, but the panel threatened action against him if he continues to vote. [...]The Thursday letter from House Ethics specifies that Hunter "should refrain from voting on any question at a meeting of the House," until or unless a court reinstates the presumption of his innocence. It says he could resume voting if reelected to the House despite the guilty plea.
I won't pretend to know what the California congressman intends to do next, though one of the Republicans who hopes to succeed Hunter on Capitol Hill yesterday raised a provocative possibility: what if Donald Trump intervenes on Hunter's behalf?
The San Diego Union-Tribune reported this week that former Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who retired from Congress last year but now hopes to make a comeback in a different congressional district, "talked seriously" about the idea of presidential clemency for Hunter.
"It's not my decision. It's the president's decision," Issa said when asked about a pardon. "But I would certainly say the commuting of sentencing ... has a certain ability to balance the public good. Are we better off spending $60,000 a year to put him behind bars or are we better off with him doing community service and going on with his life with the likelihood of him committing a crime in the future being pretty low?"
It's worth emphasizing that Trump hasn't made any public comments about Hunter, his guilty plea, or his legal fate, and as best as I can tell, there have been no reports about the president weighing intervention in the case. It appears to be little more than a suggestion from Darrell Issa (who may, incidentally, be interested in an endorsement from the Hunter family ahead of Election Day 2020).
The trouble, however, is that this is a ridiculous idea that seems vaguely plausible. The Republican president is already on record suggesting Hunter's case should be politicized by federal prosecutors in order to help the GOP's interests; Trump has demonstrated a willingness to abuse his pardon power; and he's clearly indifferent toward political corruption and accountability for political figures guilty of wrongdoing.
I'm not predicting that Trump will intervene and rescue Duncan Hunter, but it would be consistent with the president's m.o., wouldn't it?