The White House is emphasizing that the prospect of pardons has only been raised hypothetically. According to them, it was simply Trump being curious about his legal powers.
But this is a president who has shown little regard for the legal and institutional barriers that exist for his presidency. The first time the prospect of a constitutional crisis was raised came when he repeatedly attacked the judiciary and its independence, a move that earned a rebuke from his own Supreme Court nominee, Neil M. Gorsuch.
Trump also removed James B. Comey as FBI director and later suggested it was because he didn't like the Russia investigation. That has earned him a federal investigation into whether he obstructed justice. And now, in the face of that obstruction and widening Russia probe, he's pretty clearly also considering trying to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. The White House asserted Thursday that Trump has the authority to do so — which is very much in question — but added that he didn't “intend” to do so “at this time.” That's hardly a Shermanesque denial; in fact, it suggests it's very much on the table.
So on the day that marked the sixth month of his presidency, Trump's White House both asserted that it was possible he might try to fire a second person investigating him and/or his campaign (Comey wasn't probing Trump personally at the time of his firing) and was reported to be entertaining the possibility of pardoning himself.
For more on what constitutes a constitutional crisis, see here. A president attempting to pardon himself would certainly qualify; Trump trying to fire Mueller unilaterally — as the White House has suggested he can — would seem to fit the bill as well.
On the surface, that looks a whole lot like Trump being very concerned about what might become of all of this. If he's done nothing wrong, after all, why not let the investigation play out and let the evidence speak for itself?
But applying conventional logic to Trump is always a fool's errand. Trump is known for his ego and also his desire to constantly foment controversy. He is also a president constantly in search of ways to consolidate his own power and chop down his enemies. It seems possible that he merely wants a showdown over just how far he can take his power. And nothing in Trump's past suggests he will heed the warnings of those who urge him against firing Mueller or pardoning those around him or himself. Trump has done and said too many things that seemed politically unthinkable before, and he has lived to tell the tale, with a Republican base largely standing behind him. That's a recipe for hubris and chutzpah.
Trump's combativeness is rooted in those sensibilities, but also in his professed belief that the entire Russia investigation is an effort to undermine him and question his legitimacy as president. And if Trump believes this is truly a witch hunt that is meant to take him down — fairly or not — it would seem he's liable to do anything to prevent that from happening, up to and including possibly testing his powers as president using unprecedented means. If he thinks this is going to destroy his presidency, would he not try anything to stop it?
Trump may never pardon himself, but the fact that he even asks about it is a huge story in and of itself. This whole thing seems to be moving in one direction — a direction that is decidedly not away from a constitutional crisis.