Although Gerald R. Ford was never elected as vice president or president and served for only two-and-a-half years, didn’t get the United States involved in many foreign adventures, and inconsistently muddled through in combatting the stagflation created by his two predecessors, he was a far more critical president than one who merely filled in during the second term of the disgraced Richard Nixon, who had appointed him vice president and then resigned.

Ford was so consequential because of one decision: his unconditional and blanket pardon of Nixon to prevent his likely indictment and possible conviction for crimes he committed in office.

Ford defended the pardon by saying that any indictment, trial and conviction of Nixon would have distracted the American government and public from important problems, domestic and foreign, that the country was facing. He made other statements that insisted he was trying to reunify the country after the national nightmare of Watergate.

On January 12, 1977, near the end of his term, he argued, “I am proud of the part I have had in rebuilding confidence in the presidency, confidence in our free system, and confidence in our future.”

Although Ford’s statements have aged better with time, as is indicated by the favorable eulogies from the media, politicians and other luminaries upon his death in 2006, the pardon was a disaster for the American rule of law that keeps on giving up to the present.

“Rule of law” is a term that means the law is applied equally to every citizen. Granting blatant special treatment to important, famous or wealthy people results in a two-tier justice system, which is inimical to a mature and stable democracy. Even worse, Ford’s pardon of Nixon even before he had been charged with a crime was likely unconstitutional. The Constitution says the chief executive “shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States.” Yet, to have an “offense,” a person must be charged, tried by a jury, and convicted of a crime. Ford pardoned Nixon only about a month after he left office, which was designed to preempt any such due process for Nixon’s likely crimes, for which Watergate prosecutors had already dubbed him an “unindicted co-conspirator.”

Despite Ford’s later attempt to put lipstick on a pig, how he announced the pardon speaks volumes about his shame in doing so. Without consulting the special Watergate prosecutor, congressional party leaders, members of Congress or the public or giving any hint of what was to come, he announced the unconditional pardon for all Nixon’s crimes during his presidency on a sleepy Sunday morning when only a skeleton media presence was at the White House. (Putting out bad or embarrassing news at a time when no one is likely to pay much attention is a technique regularly used by presidents to minimize news coverage of it.)

Ford’s pronouncement that Nixon would be permitted to destroy incriminating White House tapes that led to his resignation was equally illuminating. Congress later laudably stopped this attempt to whitewash history.

Earlier at his confirmation hearing for vice president, Ford asserted that “I do not think the public would stand for (the pardon).” His press secretary, Jerald terHorst, who had told reporters that Ford would stand behind this previous statement, resigned in disgust. Thus, despite Ford’s minimization efforts, suitable national outrage ensued. Congressional leaders called the pardon an “abuse of power,” the same impeachable charge that had been leveled at Nixon. Members of Congress were apoplectic about the pardon and not being consulted in advance. After the pardon, Ford’s popularity plummeted more than 20 percentage points, a major reason Ford lost the 1976 election.

The media and public were outraged that Nixon got off scot-free when many lower-level people carrying out his illegal orders were sent to jail. Ford intended to clean up that mess by pardoning all involved in the Watergate scandal, but the Senate found out and preempted Ford by passing a resolution declaring that the president should not pardon anyone else before conviction.

Ford’s pardon of Nixon, allowing him to retire in leisure rather than behind bars, accelerated the already imperial presidency—as historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. identified in 1973—and contributed to its further ballooning since then. The horrible precedent of this pardon, done allegedly to shield an exhausted American people in the mid-1970s from further ugly proceedings, is still with us—as illustrated when Judge Aileen Cannon and many others think former President Donald Trump should get special treatment in the legal system. In fact, as the January 6 convictions have shown so far, appropriate punishment can dissuade future criminal actions. If Nixon had been tried and convicted, perhaps this lesson would have moderated the illegal behavior of future imperial presidents.