When it comes to clemency, presidents have absolute power; Congress and the courts cannot overrule them. President Bush issued 19 pardons Tuesday, and now there's intense speculation that he might issue last-minute pardons to officials of his own administration.
One of the pardons issued Tuesday went to Charles Winters, who did prison time for supplying three airplanes to Israeli independence forces in 1948. Winters died 24 years ago. The clemency announcements were typical for Bush. In addition to the 19 people pardoned, one other gets his sentence commuted. None of them is well-known. Their offenses date from years or even decades ago.
This president has used the clemency power far less than any other recent president. And Tuesday's list may be it for Bush. It's possible he could leave office in 27 days without giving clemency to anyone else.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, wants Congress to tell him not to.
"I introduced the resolution saying there shouldn't be pardons really as a shot across the administration's bow. If he's insistent on pardoning people, we can't do anything to stop him," Nadler says. That's because even if a congressional resolution is adopted, it only advises — it doesn't compel.
Liberals — and some conservatives — wonder whether pre-emptive pardons are in store for administration officials who pushed the constitutional envelope but who haven't been charged with anything.
Nadler ticks through his list of what administration officials did: "Claimed immense monarchical powers for the executive; engaged in torture and warrantless and illegal wiretapping; they claimed the power to hold any American citizen in jail forever with no hearing, no warrants."
By this theory, one possible beneficiary of a pardon would be Vice President Dick Cheney. In a recent interview with ABC News, Cheney defended waterboarding as an interrogation technique, not torture, and said he had supported using it.
"I think those who allege that we've been involved in torture, or that somehow we violated the Constitution or laws with the terrorist surveillance program, simply don't know what they're talking about," he said.
Cheney's former chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, was convicted in the Valerie Plame case, which involved the leak of Plame's identity as a CIA operative during debate over the Iraq war.
President Bush quickly commuted Libby's sentence.
Conservative consultant Craig Shirley doesn't expect that Libby will see his record wiped clean now with a pardon. Shirley says Libby has been lobbying conservatives for support.
"It hasn't worked. Nobody in the conservative community has ever viewed him as one of the true believers," Shirley says.
Shirley predicts that former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales won't be pardoned, either — for the same reason. And he's skeptical of the big theory — that President Bush would use any pardons to protect his legacy. Shirley says it wouldn't work. Not with the legacy of the Iraq war and big government spending to rescue Wall Street and Detroit.
"He's got all of these things that are already stains on his reputation," Shirley says.
Still, if President Bush does issue some surprise clemencies, he wouldn't be the first president to do so.
As President Bill Clinton headed out the door in 2001, he pardoned nearly as many people as Bush has in eight years.
One big name was Marc Rich, a fugitive financier whose ex-wife was a big Democratic donor. People who had been entangled in political scandals also got pardons.
Before that, Bush's father gave Christmas Eve pardons to former officials indicted in the Iran-contra scandal, a case that also could have touched the elder President Bush himself.
Dan Kobil, who teaches at Capital University Law school in Columbus, Ohio, says recent presidents have trivialized their clemency power, using it for minor cases and politics "but not very frequently to remedy injustices in sentencing that are prevalent in our system of mandatory minimums, in our system that has wide disparities."
So far in his eight years, those are issues that President Bush hasn't touched, either.