Trump pardons draw criticism for benefiting political allies

President TrumpDonald Trump Pence said he's 'proud' Congress certified Biden's win on Jan. 6 Americans put the most trust in their doctor for COVID-19 information: poll OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Biden administration to evacuate Afghans who helped US l Serious differences remain between US and Iran on nuclear talks l US, Turkish officials meet to discuss security plans for Afghan airport MORE's batch of pardons and commutations this week sparked an outcry from civil rights groups and legal experts who view it as the latest example of Trump using the powers of the presidency to benefit his political allies.

Trump announced a wave of executive clemencies late Tuesday, including 15 pardons and five commutations. The beneficiaries included three GOP congressmen who separately were convicted of or pleaded guilty to various corruption charges, two individuals caught up in the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election investigation, and four ex-security contractors who were convicted for their involvement in the 2007 killings of 17 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Baghdad.

On Wednesday night, Trump announced pardons for associates Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortTrial begins for Chicago banker who exchanged loans with Manafort for Trump job Legal intrigue swirls over ex-Trump exec Weisselberg: Five key points There was Trump-Russia collusion — and Trump pardoned the colluder MORE and Roger StoneRoger Jason StoneBannon asked Trump DOJ to reimburse his legal fees from Russia probe: report Feds charge members of Three Percenters militia group over Jan. 6 attack Biden's anti-corruption memo is good news — and essential to US national security MORE, who were both convicted as part of the Mueller investigation. He also pardoned Charles Kushner, the father of Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerIvanka Trump, Kushner distance themselves from Trump claims on election: CNN Trump discussed sending infected Americans to Guantanamo Bay: book NYC voters set to decide Vance's replacement amid Trump probe MORE.


The president has generally wielded his pardon powers to the benefit of supporters or those with connections to the White House. Tuesday night's announcement marked more of the same, experts said.

"Previous presidents have pardoned supporters and allies, and they haven’t always relied on the Office of the Pardon Attorney," said Kermit Roosevelt, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. "But Trump has taken it to a new level. There’s no prior president who has used the pardon power in such a partisan way or to pardon people whose misconduct was so closely related to the president."

Some of the president's pardons on Tuesday appeared blatantly political. He pardoned former Rep. Chris CollinsChristopher (Chris) Carl CollinsOutrage grows as Justice seeks to contain subpoena fallout Trump denies Gaetz asked him for blanket pardon Gaetz, on the ropes, finds few friends in GOP MORE (R-N.Y.), who was the first congressman to support Trump's 2016 bid for president. Collins had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit securities fraud and lying to the FBI in 2019 and is serving a 26-month sentence.

Trump also gave a pardon to former Rep. Duncan HunterDuncan HunterTrump denies Gaetz asked him for blanket pardon Gaetz, on the ropes, finds few friends in GOP Trust, transparency, and tithing is not enough to sustain democracy MORE (R-Calif.), another early supporter, despite the ex-congressman pleading guilty to misusing campaign funds last year.

"For corrupt politicians who want to enrich themselves in the swamp of Washington D.C., it is good to have Donald Trump as a friend," Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist at progressive think tank Public Citizen, said in a statement.


Former Trump campaign aide George PapadopoulosGeorge Demetrios PapadopoulosTrump supporters show up to DC for election protest Trump pardons draw criticism for benefiting political allies Klobuchar: Trump 'trying to burn this country down on his way out' MORE was given a pardon after he pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigations in relation to the Russia investigation led by former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE. Papadopoulos, who has been a vocal defender of Trump, served 12 days in prison in 2018. He was the first of six Trump associates charged in Mueller’s sprawling 22-month probe.

The pardons of the ex-contractors involved in the killings of Iraqi civilians drew rebukes from civil rights groups in particular. The executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group, called it "an unconscionable act of moral insanity."

The four ex-contractors worked for Blackwater, a firm founded by Erik Prince, one of Trump's allies and the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVosBetsy DeVosErik Prince involved in push for experimental COVID-19 vaccine: report Biden administration reverses Trump-era policy that hampered probes of student loan companies DeVos ordered to testify in student loan forgiveness lawsuit MORE.

"The idea of the pardon power is really to address injustice and to either right wrongs or show mercy when that’s appropriate," said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

"And in the case of Donald Trump, it’s been turned on its head," he continued. "There have been a few pardons that seem to be based on excessively long sentences for drug offenses, although even those have come through connections rather than through the regular process."


The highest-profile example is Alice Johnson, who was serving a life sentence for a drug offense. Johnson's clemency was widely celebrated, but Kim Kardashian WestKimberly (Kim) Noel Kardashian WestMichael B. Jordan to rename his rum brand after appropriation accusations Kim Kardashian West sued by domestic workers, accused of improper pay, not giving breaks Caitlyn Jenner: My family not 'involved whatsoever' in gubernatorial bid MORE had strongly advocated for it. Johnson later spoke at the 2020 Republican National Convention, after which Trump gave her a full pardon.

There have been other lesser-known figures Trump has used his pardon powers to benefit. Those include Roy Wayne McKeever, who served a year of prison time for using a telephone in distributing marijuana, and Jon Ponder, a convicted bank robber who later founded an organization to help reintegrate convicts into society upon their release.

But Trump's most high-profile acts of clemency have mostly gone around the official pardon office and been bestowed upon allies and supporters.

Trump had already granted clemency to Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, two associates and supporters who were investigated by Trump's own Justice Department. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, while Stone had been convicted of lying to Congress.

He also pardoned Joe Arpaio, a former Arizona sheriff who was one of the president's early supporters, as well as conservative filmmaker Dinesh D'Souza.

Experts acknowledge that it is not unusual for presidents to extend the power of the pardon to political allies and to do so in their final days or weeks in office. They pointed to former President Clinton, who pardoned more than 100 people on his final day in office and drew scrutiny for his decision to grant clemency to Marc Rich, whose ex-wife was a major donor to Democrats.

But as with many aspects of the presidency, Trump has pushed the boundaries, and ethics watchdogs worry he will continue to do so in his final weeks in office. Trump is reportedly considering granting preemptive pardons to his adult children and his personal attorney, and legal scholars have discussed whether the president could pardon himself to avoid charges should the next attorney general investigate his actions in office.

"Like so many other things in our system of checks and balances, the pardon power relied on restraint and good judgment and commitment to democratic and ethical ideals by the president and those around him," Bookbinder said. "But as with so many other facets of the presidency, it has turned out that when you don’t have judgment and restraint, there are a lot fewer guardrails and fewer limits than we thought there were."