Trump’s Granting of Clemency to High-Profile Individuals Portends a Further Emboldened Presidency

Barely two weeks after his impeachment acquittal by the Senate, a revitalized President Trump issued a slew of pardons and commutations to a variety of high-profile convicted felons last Tuesday. Most notably, the rogue’s gallery of white-collar criminals granted clemency by Trump included former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. Blagojevich, a former contestant on Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice”, was convicted on charges of corruption back in 2011 for a pay-to-play scheme that involved trying to sell the Senate seat vacated by then-president Barack Obama.

“He’ll be able to go back to his family after serving eight years in jail, which was a powerful and ridiculous sentence in my opinion,” Trump told a gaggle of reporters shortly before boarding Air Force One. Despite Blagojevich’s lack of contrition, and urges from Republicans in Illinois’ congressional delegation not to commute the former governor’s sentence in order to make “a strong stand against pay-to-play politics,” Trump nevertheless felt that the former governor “was treated unbelievably unfairly.”

Trump announced similar pardons for Bernie Kerik, who was sentenced to 48 months in federal prison after being convicted of tax fraud and lying to officials; Mike Milken, the investment banker infamously known as the “Junk Bond King” who was convicted of conspiracy and securities fraud; and Eddie DeBartolo Jr., the former San Francisco 49ers’ owner who pleaded guilty in 1998 to concealing an extortion attempt in a bribery case. In total, Trump granted clemency to 11 individuals and the moves advanced the impression that the president feels unbound in the wake of his impeachment acquittal—ironically, an impeachment whose charges alleged abuse of power.

Truthfully, divisive political endeavors like issuing a string of pardons to controversial figures should come as no surprise for a presidency which has been characterized by outright hostility towards conventional norms. Furthermore, these latest commutations are far from unprecedented as Trump has used his executive power to issue controversial pardons in the past—including the one granted to former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio in 2017 after he was convicted of criminal contempt of court related to his heavy-handed tactics in pursuit of undocumented immigrants along the U.S. border. Likewise, half-baked executive actions likely to result in political self-injury and the unnecessary spending of political capital are par for the course in this administration.

Nevertheless, there is indeed cause for alarm. With Trump’s continued brandishing of executive power, the fears of those who were hesitant to jumpstart the impeachment process over reservations that it would inevitably lead to Trump’s acquittal and embolden an already unhinged president, are now coming to fruition.

Following the news of the recent Trump pardons and commutations, former GOP congressman-turned-MSNBC host Joe Scarborough attacked the president via Twitter last Thursday pointing out that Trump’s recent pardoning of convicts is nothing more than an attempt “to normalize the coming pardons of his political hacks and co-conspirators.”

Despite being impeached by the House of Representatives, Trump was found not guilty by the Senate in early Feb., ending the bitter impeachment trial along with the bid to remove him from office. Ever since, Trump has been on the warpath. On Feb. 7 Trump fired Purple Heart recipient, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukrainian expert at the National Security Council, along with Ambassador to The European Union, Gordon Sondland. Both offered explosive testimony in the House’s impeachment case against President Trump back in November and had since been among the many targets of Trump’s Twitter diatribes.

This, all happening as Trump has raged in recent days about what he believes to be federal prosecutors run amok. Most notably, Trump cited alleged unfairness in the case involving his friend and political advisor Roger Stone when he tweeted on Feb. 10 that the original seven-to-nine year sentencing recommendation was “horrible and very unfair” and a “miscarriage of justice.” Stone, who was found guilty of obstruction of Congress, five counts of making false statements to Congress, and tampering with a witness, is long thought to have acted as a conduit between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks, which, in July, 2016 released thousands of e-mails stolen from the Democratic National Committee.

Hours after Trump took to Twitter to voice his displeasure in the Stone case, the entire Department of Justice (DOJ) team prosecuting Stone abruptly stepped down with one prosecutor even resigning from the DOJ entirely. The prosecutors cited alleged interference from higher-ups in the department regarding changes to their original seven to nine year sentencing recommendation in the wake of Trump’s tweets as the reason for their exit.

Now, as the furor wrought from the impeachment trial begins to fade into memory, like so many of the other scandals that have come and gone during this presidency, Trump is once again free to antagonize his political opposition. The only difference is that this time he does so with the tacit blessing of all the Republicans who failed to remove him from office.

Many rolled their eyes when Maine Senate Republican Susan Collins, someone Democrats had hoped would break from her party and move to impeach Trump, announced her decision to vote against removing the President from office saying that she believed he had learned his “lesson” and would be “much more cautious in the future.” Collins has since walked back her comments as Trump’s recent activity illustrates that whatever “lessons learned” Republicans had imagined for the president were little more than a fantasy. If anything, these latest provocative political endeavors evidence an emboldened President Trump eager to settle the score with his enemies in the wake of the impeachment acquittal.

“I haven’t given it any thought,” Trump responded when a reporter asked if he planned to pardon Stone or commute any prison sentence he might receive. “I think he’s been treated very unfairly… you’re gonna see what happens. You’ll see what happens.”

Despite his caginess, there is no reason to believe that Trump won’t try and intervene in the case involving his longtime confidant who was ultimately sentenced to little more than three years in prison last Thursday. In fact, the combination of Trump’s unsolicited twitter punditry and willingness to exercise his clemency power for convicted criminals foreshadows a presidency which will continue to maintain its tenuous relationship with the rule-of-law. Following his impeachment acquittal in the Senate, the president has no interest in mollifying any political detractors, and is instead content to thumb his nose in the face of his malcontents. In the coming months, Americans can expect more presidential interference in judicial matters, more pardons for Trump’s allies, and the continued dismissal of non-partisan government employees.

—David Becker, Criminal Justice Graduate Student