Trump pardons draw criticism for benefiting political allies
President Trump’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 Manafort and Roger Stone, 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 Kushner.
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 Collins (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 Hunter (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 Papadopoulos 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 Mueller. 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 DeVos.
“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 West 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.”