Under the US Constitution, the president “shall have the Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons of Offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.” Let’s break that down real quick. First, all of these only apply to federal crimes (“against the United States”), meaning state crimes (most criminal law is at the state level) are not implicated and a president has no power over state criminal law. Reprieves means commutations — a president can shorten or eliminate the sentence of someone who’s been convicted of a federal crime. A pardon means that the conviction is wiped clean — it’s not quite the same as declaring them innocent, but that person’s record is gone and any legal implications of being a convict disappear. Finally, a president cannot use the pardon power to get out of being impeached (that clause does not mean anything other than that, I promise). The broad term for any of these actions is clemency. Clemency may be granted before someone is convicted or afterwards. The only requirement is that there be a crime or offense or punishment to actually cancel.
There are few powers in the constitution, in any branch, that are more unlimited or unchecked. While courts have placed SOME minor limits on the pardon power, it is generally very expansive. In this area, the president gets to do what he wants, however he wants, and the only ramifications are political. Political ramifications are no small thing for a president though, which is why a lot of the pardons that have come out of the White House happen on the last day of the presidency. Let me tell you, January 20th every 4–8 years is pardon-palooza. Perhaps the most famous pardon was by Gerald Ford, who pardoned Nixon after he resigned — he pardoned Nixon of all the crimes he may have done while in office.
George HW Bush pardoned the perpetrators of the Iran Contra Affair. Bill Clinton pardoned 140 people on his last day in office, including Marc Rich, one of his buddies and big donors who was indicted on tax evasion charges. George W. Bush pardoned Cheney’s pal Scooter Libby, who was convicted for outing a CIA agent (Valerie Plame). Obama pardoned a renowned bank robber, Oscar Lopez Rivera, and Chelsea Manning, a soldier convicted of passing documents to WikiLeaks. No president is immune from pardoning controversial people, that’s for sure. With a few historical exceptions, presidents generally pardon people who, despite their guilt, have been excessively wronged, have been redeemed since their arrest, or represent some criminal policy they wish to be changed. For example, Obama pardoned a LOT of first-time non-violent drug offenders and Jimmy Carter pardoned 200,000 Vietnam War draft dodgers. On the other hand, posthumous pardons are a big thing too for historical wrongs to have a sense of being set right. For example, Carter pardoned Jefferson Davis for…treason. It’s not a perfect system.
That said, let’s take a look at some of the people Donald Trump has pardoned while in office. Hold on tight, and tell me if you see a pattern:
1. Kristian Saucier — former Navy sailor convicted of unauthorized retention of national defense information. He took photos of a classified submarine and didn’t delete them off his phone. He became famous when Trump used his case to go after Hillary Clinton for her private server, claiming a double standard — he was convicted for a few photos of a sub on his phone while she had loads of classified material on her private server and wasn’t even indicted. Purely political.
2. Joe Arpaio — an infamous sheriff from Arizona who was convicted of contempt of court for refusing to follow a court order that he stop conducting “immigrant round ups”. Before that he was famous for setting up tent cities for inmates and literally calling them concentration camps. HE called them that, not other people. The conditions were, as you might expect, terrible. He has also been the subject of numerous civil rights lawsuits and is a renowned racial profiler. Donald is tough on illegal immigrants.
3. Dinesh D’Souza — a right wing author and filmmaker. Convicted of campaign finance violations. He made illegal donations to a republican senate candidate using straw donors to get around the individual donation limits (a scheme not unlike what US Postmaster General Louis Dejoy was recently accused of doing). Spend that political money however you want!
4. Alice Johnson — this one was totally legit for a lovely old black woman convicted of a first time nonviolent drug offense. Reminiscent of Obama. Trump obviously only did it so that he could meet Kim Kardashian (see the hostage photo at the top).
5. Dwight and Stephen Hammond — I could write an entire article on these guys alone, but they were arrested for arson in a national forest. Their case was the inspiration for Ammon and Clive Bundy and his right-wing militia, who stormed a Federal Wildlife Compound in Oregon. They occupied the facility with armed militiamen against Federal authorities in a standoff that lasted 40 days and ended without violence. Trump’s pardon of the Hammonds was a not-so-subtle outreach to extreme anti-government right-wing militia types, who view these guys as heroes.
6. Conrad Black — right wing newspaper publisher convicted of fraud and obstruction of justice for embezzling money. Sounds familiar somehow…
7. Rod Blagojevich — Former Democratic governor who quite literally auctioned off Barack Obama’s vacant US Senate Seat to the highest bidder. He is the best example of political corruption out there and was also on Celebrity Apprentice. The pathology of Trump’s obsession with Obama is a whole different story.
8. Bernard Kerik — former NYPD Commissioner. Rudy Guiliani’s pal. He pleaded guilty to eight felonies, including tax fraud and making false statements. He’s now a regular Fox News contributor and huge Trump supporter. Tough on crime…
9. Michael Behenna — US Army Lieutenant who was tasked with returning a detainee in Iraq to a checkpoint to be released. According to those present, they were releasing the detainee because they didn’t have enough evidence to hold him. He brought the man under a bridge at the checkpoint, cut his clothes off, cut off his handcuffs, and shot him. He then took a grenade, put it under the man’s chin, pulled the pin, and walked off. He told his squad-mates to write down that the detainee had been released. He was convicted of murder after claiming he acted in self defense during an impromptu interrogation. Duncan Hunter, former Rep. from CA, advocated hard for him — Hunter is now himself in prison for unrelated campaign finance crimes.
10. Matthew Golsteyn — Green Beret charged with murder after he admitted to killing an alleged Afghan bomb-maker and burning his body off-base. Granted clemency before a verdict was rendered after appearing on Fox News. Hunter also advocated hard for Golsteyn; birds of a feather and all that.
11. Clint Lorance — While in command of a platoon in Afghanistan, he ordered his men to fire on three Afghan men standing by a motorcycle on the side of a road. He was convicted on two counts of murder and sentenced to 19 years in Leavenworth. His entire platoon of 14 men testified against him. The testimony against him was damning: a commander who was ignorant, overzealous, and out of control. Here’s a fantastic article about his platoon.
12. Eddie Gallagher — A Navy SEAL convicted of posing with a corpse for a photo. The charges for him murdering the man with a knife didn’t stick after a witness changed their story last minute. Again, his platoon-mates spoke out against him, saying things like “the guy is freaking evil” and “you could tell he was perfectly ok with killing anybody that was moving.” They saw him shoot civilians. He did a Fox News campaign and was later pardoned by Trump. After the pardon, he publicly ridiculed and doxxed some of the soldiers who testified against him. He now is a Trump supporter and goes out on the campaign trail to support him.
13. Roger Stone — Trump’s longtime political ally, convicted of lying to authorities and witness intimidation. He threatened the guy’s dog. He has a tattoo of Richard Nixon on his back and is as slimy as they come. He’s basically a comic-book villain, except not as smart. The same day he publicly reminded Trump that he was about to go to prison for NOT ratting on him (literally, he was convicted for lying to protect Trump), Trump commuted his sentence. Recently, he’s been calling on Trump supporters to rise up violently, and for Trump to declare martial law if he loses the election. The lawyers in Stone’s case are currently challenging the pardon under the theory that it was corruptly made in exchange for protection. We’ll see what happens there.
14. Honorable Mention for Michael Flynn — Trump didn’t actually pardon Flynn. He did worse: he got the Attorney General to try to drop the charges against Flynn AFTER he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Think about that for a second. This amounted to a pardon without having to take the political heat of pardoning a man who was heavily involved with Russia, engaging in suspicious behavior with Russian intelligence agents, then lying to the Vice President and the FBI about it. Flynn was the epicenter of Russian collusion. Though it’s still working through the courts, it looks like Trump might get him off without having to pardon him. Swamp, thy name is Donald.
This is how he uses the power of the presidency. To help his friends, to hurt his enemies, and make himself seem like a tough guy. Few, if any, of his pardons were to acknowledge reformed prisoners or people who were, as Johnny Cash said, “victims of the time.” No, Trump pardons fraudsters, cheats, liars, war criminals, election-meddlers, concentration camp wardens, and anti-government militants. There is also some reporting saying that Trump has given orders to people in his administration that he knew were illegal, with the promise of pardoning them if they’re caught. Everything he does is corrupt and serves only himself.