Trump flexes pardon power with high-profile clemencies

President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments Ocasio-Cortez: Trump contributed less in taxes 'than waitresses and undocumented immigrants' Third judge orders Postal Service to halt delivery cuts MORE on Tuesday commuted the sentence of a former Illinois governor and pardoned three high-profile white-collar criminals in a sweeping display of executive clemency affecting nearly a dozen cases. 

The White House portrayed it as an act of mercy for deserving candidates whose debts had been repaid. But the move also raised questions about Trump’s intervention in criminal cases, especially when handling individuals with powerful connections, and over how he might deal with two associates, Michael Flynn and Roger StoneRoger Jason StoneFederal prosecutor speaks out, says Barr 'has brought shame' on Justice Dept. The agony of justice Our Constitution is under attack by Attorney General William Barr MORE, who are facing imprisonment. 

The most prominent recipient of Trump’s clemency on Tuesday was former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), who had served just over half of his 14-year prison sentence. Blagojevich was convicted a decade ago on a number of federal charges that included trying to sell the Senate seat Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump, Biden have one debate goal: Don't lose Is Congress reasserting itself? Trump-Biden debate: High risk vs. low expectations MORE vacated when he was elected president.

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“Yes, we commuted the sentence of Rod Blagojevich,” Trump told reporters before departing for a multiday trip west. “He served eight years in jail, a long time. He seems like a very nice person, don’t know him.”

In total, Trump pardoned or commuted the sentences of nearly a dozen people, many of whom had high-profile advocates urging the White House to intervene in their cases, including conservative media personalities and GOP lawmakers.

Three pardons drew particular notice: former San Francisco 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr., who pleaded guilty in 1998 for failing to report that he was extorted by an ex-Louisiana governor; former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who was convicted of tax fraud and making false statements; and financier Michael Milken who pioneered high-yield “junk” bonds and pleaded guilty in 1990 to six felonies related to securities and tax fraud. 

It is unclear what role, if any, the Department of Justice's Office of the Pardon Attorney had in Trump’s decisions. Neither the office nor the White House responded when asked.

An analysis by The Washington Post this month found that the majority of clemency grants issued under Trump have been bestowed on those with White House connections and bypassed the executive branch’s slate of pardon advisers.

A White House announcement of the clemency grants contained short biographies of the recipients, as well as a list of their backers, with an emphasis on celebrity athletes and Trump allies in conservative media and Congress. 

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In Blagojevich's case, the White House noted, the former Illinois governor had received support from some Republicans and Democrats, including former President Obama’s Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderThe Hill's Campaign Report: Biden on Trump: 'He'll leave' l GOP laywers brush off Trump's election remarks l Obama's endorsements Obama endorses Warnock in crowded Georgia Senate race The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump's rally risk | Biden ramps up legal team | Biden hits Trump over climate policy MORE and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. 

Among those supporting Kerik's pardon were Trump lawyer and former New York City Mayor Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiTrump says Christie, Giuliani assisting debate prep The Hill's Campaign Report: GOP set to ask SCOTUS to limit mail-in voting CIA found Putin 'probably directing' campaign against Biden: report MORE, Fox News analyst and former judge Andrew NapolitanoAndrew Peter NapolitanoFox's Napolitano says grand jury erred in Taylor case: 'I would have indicted all three of them' Fox's Napolitano: Supreme Court confirmation hearings will be 'World War III of political battles' Fox's Napolitano: 2000 election will look like 'child's play' compared to 2020 legal battles MORE, Fox News personality Geraldo Rivera and Rep. Pete KingPeter (Pete) KingTrump holds private funeral service for brother Robert Trump at White House  Cheney clashes with Trump Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney MORE (R-N.Y.).

Many Illinois Democrats had previously criticized Blagojevich's sentence, but the five-member Illinois Republican delegation blasted Trump’s move.

"Blagojevich is the face of public corruption in Illinois, and not once has he shown any remorse for his clear and documented record of egregious crimes that undermined the trust placed in him by voters," the lawmakers said in a statement.

For more than a year, Trump has publicly weighed a commutation for Blagojevich, who had previously appeared as a contestant on "The Celebrity Apprentice." 

Blagojevich was removed from office in 2009 and later convicted on a range of corruption charges, which in addition to trying to sell a U.S. Senate seat, also included the attempted extortion of a children's hospital for campaign contributions.

He was infamously caught on tape speaking about the pay-for-play scheme involving Obama's seat.

"I've got this thing, and it's f-----g golden. I'm just not giving it up for f-----g nothing," Blagojevich said in a recorded phone call.

The former governor has been incarcerated since 2012.

Trump’s decision to grant clemency for a range of corrupt behavior also raised questions about his motives, with some questioning if the president was seeking to soften public perception on such crimes.

“The President is making clear his increased willingness to exercise his discretionary powers to benefit those who engaged in the kind of white collar felonies the president tends to dismiss as ‘what everyone does,’ ” said Brad Moss, a national security lawyer.

“President Trump may be trying to groom the public to believe that corruption is not a serious crime,” said Barbara McQuade, a law professor at Michigan University and former federal prosecutor. “To the contrary, our laws exist to prevent powerful people from exploiting others.”

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Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said the president's move was not in keeping with the spirit of presidential clemency.

"There are people who deserve commutations but won't get them from this president because he sees pardons as a way to undermine the rule of law, not to see justice done," Beyer said in a tweet.

The question of presidential pardons now hovers over the criminal cases of two former Trump aides who face imprisonment.

Roger Stone, a 67-year-old right-wing provocateur, was found guilty in November of lying to Congress and witness tampering related to his efforts to provide the Trump campaign inside information about WikiLeaks in 2016. Stone is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday.

Sentencing for Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, has been delayed multiple times after Flynn withdrew his guilty plea of lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. during the Trump transition period.

Trump has repeatedly declined to rule out future pardons, including for Stone. And in recent days he’s taken to Twitter to defend Stone, attacking the prosecutors who include members of former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE's team, and suggesting he might sue them.

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Trump has dismissed criticism, including from Attorney General William BarrBill BarrFederal prosecutor speaks out, says Barr 'has brought shame' on Justice Dept. Why a backdoor to encrypted data is detrimental to cybersecurity and data integrity FBI official who worked with Mueller raised doubts about Russia investigation MORE, over his tweets.

Brian Kalt, a law professor at Michigan State University, described the pardon power as “the closest thing a president has to a magic wand,” and said it’s a prerogative Trump seems eager to employ.

“Unlike his other powers, he does not need to go through Congress to do this, and he does not need to rely on others to implement his wishes,” Kalt said. “He just declares it and it happens, and it’s a guaranteed headline.”

Brett Samuels contributed.