(CNSNews.com) - Democrats, panicked that President Trump might pardon former associates who now find themselves in legal trouble, pressed Attorney General Jeff Sessions on that issue at a Senate hearing on Wednesday.
"The President of the United States clearly has the constitutional power to pardon," Sessions said; and the president may do so without going through the Justice Department's pardon attorney.
"And it's been done very frequently in history," Sessions told Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).
Van Hollen said he wasn't disputing the president's pardon power, but he did want assurances from Sessions that it would be "an inappropriate use of that power" for President Trump to grant pardons without input from the pardon attorney.
Van Hollen said in eight years of the Obama administration, he couldn't think of one pardon that didn't go through the pardon attorney. "And I don't think there was a single pardon during the presidency of George W. Bush that did not go through the...Pardon Office," the senator said.
Sessions reminded Van Hollen that "a number" of pardons granted by President Bill Clinton did not go through the pardon attorney; and some of Clinton's pardons "were stunning, shocking and unacceptable on the merits," Sessions said.
President Bill Clinton, on the eve of his departure from the White House, pardoned fugitive financier Marc Rich, the ex-husband of a major Clinton donor.
Here's part of the Van Hollen-Sessions exchange:
Sessions: It's clearly within the power of the president to execute pardons without the pardon attorney. If you're doing a lot of pardons and you want to have a lot of cases and you want to have them reviewed by independent force, the pardon attorney provides a real asset through a chief executive before executing a -- a pardon.
Van Hollen: Did (Trump's) pardon of Sheriff Joseph Arpaio go through the pardon attorney office?
Sessions: I don't believe it did.
Van Hollen: Did (Trump's) pardon of Scooter Libby go through that office?
Sessions: I don't believe it did.
Van Hollen: OK. But do you agree with what you said earlier (at a previous congressional hearing), that that is the appropriate course of action for a pardon? I'm not asking you what the president's authority is. I'm asking you what you think the appropriate course of action is to make sure that the public has confidence in the integrity of the process?
Sessions: There are opportunities that the pardon attorney can be utilized very effectively, and it has been over time. But I don't think it's in any way required that any president seek the opinion of a pardon attorney.
Van Hollen: It's -- it's not a requirement, I'm just -- you're -- I'm quoting from a statement you made saying it was abuse of process in a particular case made by President Clinton...
Sessions: Well, I would just say that pardons President Clinton made were stunning, shocking and unacceptable on the merits.
Sessions noted that former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio was in his 80s and had been convicted of a misdemeanor. "And Mr. Libby is well-known, the circumstances of that case."
"They contributed greatly to America," Sessions added.
Later in the hearing, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) also raised the issue of presidential pardons.
"Has the president or anyone in the administration discussed with you the possibility of President Trump pardoning Michael Cohen?" Coons asked Sessions.
"I am not able to reveal the contents of any communications I might have with the president of the United States or his top staff," Sessions replied.
"Given the previous conversation you had with Senator Van Hollen, it's my hope that if President Trump proceeded to pardon Michael Cohen in violation of longstanding policy and did not consult with a pardon attorney, did not consult with DOJ, that you would express strong objection to that and would consider resigning if that step were taken," Coons said. "Hopefully, it would not come to that."
Michael Cohen, a long-time friend and attorney to Donald Trump, reportedly plans to plead the Fifth Amendment in a civil lawsuit filed by porn star Stormy Daniels. He is also the target of a criminal investigation by the FBI.