President Donald Trump on Tuesday announced a barrage of pardons and commutations – largely a mix of political cronies and allies, from individuals trapped in former Special Envoy Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation to ex-Congress members.
Among the pardons are former Trump election worker George Papadopoulos and Dutch lawyer Alex van der Zwaan, who were both involved in the Russia investigation. This includes former Republican Congressmen Chris Collins from New York, Duncan Hunter from California and Steve Stockman from Texas, who each pleaded guilty to corruption charges or were convicted of corruption.
Trump also pardoned four men who worked as private military contractors for the Blackwater company and who participated in a 2007 massacre of Iraqi civilians, as well as two border guards who killed an unarmed undocumented immigrant in 2006. (Former President George W. Bush commuted, but not pardoned, border guards’ judgments.)
Nonviolent drug offenders recommended by Alice Johnson, who received a respite from her own drug-related conviction in 2018 after intense lobbying by Kim Kardashian, were also included in the pardon and commutation blitz.
The wave of forgiveness may just be the beginning of the pardons and commutations Trump may give out when his time in the White House comes to an end. This latest wave, the White House acknowledged, was recommended by conservative media and members of Congress.
According to the New York Times, Trump’s move also appeared to bypass the usual process that includes a Justice Department review.
The president has previously used his pardon powers to benefit political allies. He recently pardoned his former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn. Trump previously granted reprieve to advisor Roger Stone and former Maricopa County, Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who supported Trump and fought for him.
Harvard professor Jack Goldsmith estimated that 88 percent of Trump pardons and commutations went to people with personal or political ties to Trump. The recent pardons “continue Trump’s unprecedented pattern of issuing selfish pardons and commutations that advance his personal interests, reward friends, seek retribution against enemies, or satisfy constituencies,” Goldsmith told the Times.
The president’s pardon powers are almost unlimited and subject to almost no restrictions. The person in the Oval Office grants near-unchecked relief to individuals who are charged or convicted of federal charges.
Former presidents have used their pardon powers on friends and allies as well. Former President Bill Clinton sparked controversy when he issued more than 100 pardons on his last day in office, including his half-brother and Marc Rich, whose ex-wife was a Clinton donor.
These longstanding problems have led some activists to call for reform of the pardon process, which is less an instrument of political and personal favors than a means of reforming the criminal justice system.
For example, Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) separately suggested during their presidential campaigns that independent panels be set up, composed of a variety of stakeholders across the criminal justice system, to advise the president on his or her use the pardons. The focus would be on emptying federal prisons and prisons of individuals charged with low-level crimes – or perhaps others who are simply faced with sentences too harsh relative to the crime.
President-elect Joe Biden appears to be receptive to such action, although his own plans for the president’s pardon are vague.
However, Trump was not receptive to such reforms and continued to use his powers to benefit his friends and allies rather than embarking on broader reforms. The latest wave of pardons on Tuesday only confirms this.
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