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Tuesday, Nov. 25 at 2 p.m. ET

Big Names Seek Pardons from Bush

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Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 25, 2008; 2:00 PM

President Bush granted 14 pardons and shortened two prison sentences on Tuesday. High-profile criminals including Duke Cunningham and Michael Milken have appealed to President Bush for pardons or clemency before the end of his term, and speculation abounds about other well-connected convicts. Post reporter Carrie Johnson was online Tuesday, Nov. 25 at 2 p.m. ET to take your questions about the pardon process.

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The transcript follows.

Round of Bush Pardons Includes No Big Names (Post, Nov. 25)

As Bush's Term Ends, Some Big Names Seek Pardons (Post, Nov. 24)

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Carrie Johnson: Good afternoon. Thanks so much for dropping by to talk about clemency in the waning days of the Bush administration. Happy to field your questions and thoughts, so fire away.

You also might want to check out a couple of stories on President Bush's sparing use of the pardon power and the most recent awards he bestowed yesterday.

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Clark, Baltimore, Md.: Bush has so far been very stingy with his pardons and commutations, why does everyone suddenly think that is going to change in his last days in office?

Carrie Johnson: This is a good question, Clark. So far President Bush has issued only 171 pardons over his seven years in office -- that includes the 14 pardons he awarded yesterday. But scholars say that the use of the pardon power tends to increase at the end of a president's term. That pattern surely held with both of Bush's predecessors. Bill Clinton famously awarded 140 pardons, some of them very controversial, on his last day in office. And this president's father, George HW Bush, pardoned several people connected to the Iran Contra affair on Christmas eve several years ago, even though the most prominent recipient, former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, had not yet gone to trial.

Yesterday's 14 pardons and two commutations by President Bush may foreshadow more movement over the next couple of months. We'll be on the lookout.

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Washington, D.C.: I know it's in the Constitution, but can we get rid of pardons some how? And before you go on and on about the holiness of the Constitution, black people were only counted as 3/5 of a person in the original, updates are good.

Carrie Johnson: Well even critics acknowledge that the president's power to award pardons is near absolute under the U.S. Constitution. The "check" in the system as it were appears to be public reaction, which is why the outcry can be loudest on the president's way out the door. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) recently penned an interesting opinion piece about this subject that should be on his web site.

I have not heard anyone in Congress issuing meaningful calls to change the constitution to restrict the president's hand, though Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) introduced a resolution last week calling on President Bush not to issue politically influenced pardons on his way out the door.

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New York, N.Y.: Does it seem "tradition" that presidents pardon political leaders from both parties who got into trouble, and is this seen as galantry, or politics as usual? What are the positives and risks of pardoning Duke Cunningham, although are the risks minimized since Bush has no future political worries?

Carrie Johnson: Folks who closely follow the process put low odds on a pardon for former California Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who was convicted and is serving a sentence on corruption charges. Republican leaders have been pretty vocal about the so-called "culture of corruption" on Capitol Hill perhaps causing some election losses two years ago and in the most recent elections too. Cunningham, who allegedly accepted lavish furniture, a boat, the services of female escorts and other "gifts" from contractors seeking favors, may not be the likeliest of candidates for amnesty this Christmas. On the other hand Cunningham has suffered some health trouble and that may make people more amenable to look upon him with kindness.

It's true that President Bush will not have to face election anytime soon, if ever again, after January 2009 but some analysts say he is interested in preserving his legacy and that White House Counsel Fred Fielding, one of Washington's best and most cautious legal advisers, is warning against any precipitous moves in this area.

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San Francisco: Do you think President Bush will commute the sentence of Clarence Aaron, a first-time nonviolent drug offender who was sentenced to lfie without parole sentence?

Carrie Johnson: Interesting, not familiar with the specific facts of this case, but I can tell you that Washington groups such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums are pressing the White House to bestow pardons or shorten the sentences of first time, nonviolent offenders. Many such interest groups say the problem with pardons is not that they are used too often, for high profile convicts, but they are employed too little, particularly in cases of people who commit garden variety crimes but who are sentenced to long federal prison terms.

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Kettering, Ohio: When Clinton pardoned the Weatherwomen in 2000, I don't recall there being much outrage over them, with Marc Rich getting all the thunder. Did I miss something with those pardons? After hearing about the backgrounds on these convicted terrorists, I would have thought that the press stupidly focused on the wrong pardons.

Carrie Johnson: Hi Ohio, the Clinton pardons generated more heat perhaps than any since President Ford's pardon of former President Nixon. Congressional hearings, federal investigations, and a whole lot of noise ensued. While the pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich absorbed most of the attention, the pardons of people with ties to FALN and other groups certainly did not escape notice in Washington or around the nation.

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San Diego, Calif.: Could you print a list (without commentary) of the pardons already given?

Carrie Johnson: Hello San Diego, I do not have easy access to a list of all 171 pardons that President Bush has granted but the Justice Department issued a news release late yesterday with brief descriptions of the people who won clemency in this latest round.

Here is the link, without commentary:

http://www.usdoj.gov/opa/pr/2008/November/08-opa-1048.html

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Washington, D.C.: Is there a particular reason a convicted felon (or fugitive, in the case of Mark Rich) would wait until a president is nearly finished with his term of office? Why wait? Why not apply in the middle of the term, or in the middle of the term's final year?

Carrie Johnson: Smart question. Many people do apply early, but the regular pardon process can take 18 months or more from the time an application is submitted to the Justice Department Office of Pardon Attorney. The most recent trend appears to be that because there is such a backlog some high profile convicts are hiring lawyers with sterling political connections to make their case directly at the White House level. That can raise some concerns or questions about fairness and transparency.

My reflexive answer to your question might have been that waiting until the last weeks or days in office to bestow a pardon would avoid congressional scrutiny, but clearly that pattern did not hold in the Clinton era since Rep. Dan Burton held at least two hearings on that president's pardons even after he left office.

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Alexandria, Va.: Scooter Libby was Marc Rich's attorney, so he must know his way around the process about getting a presidential pardon. What are the odds?

Carrie Johnson: I wish I knew...The Justice Department says that Lewis "Scooter" Libby, a former chief aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, has not applied for a pardon. President Bush famously short circuited Libby's prison sentence last August after he was convicted in connection with leaking the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame. As a practical matter, President Bush could pardon Libby even though he has not applied through the formal Justice Department process.

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London, U.K.: Does someone have to have been convicted of a crime in order to be pardoned? Or can a person merely acknowledge that he has committed a crime and then be pardoned, whether the proper authority has yet had the chance even to arrest him? Also, how blanket are the pardons? Can a president pardon, for example, "anyone who worked for this administration and in doing so committed an act that may be considered a crime in the future" (or however his adviser may word it)?

Carrie Johnson: Nope, the experience of Cap Weinberger, who was to go on trial only a week before he was pardoned by George H.W. Bush, demonstrates that the president's power in this area is pretty vast. Under Justice Department guidelines people are eligible for pardon only if they have served their sentence and stayed out of trouble for five years. But the constitution does not limit the president's authority.

Scholars are presently debating how vague a pardon warrant can be, to still hold up under legal challenge. It's worth noting that in most if not all cases the person is named and the offense is specified. That got a bit blurry when President Jimmy Carter pardoned Vietnam draft dodgers and when President Abraham Lincoln pardoned Civil War soldiers.

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Newnan, Ga.: Hi Carrie, is there any information you can give a small town mom who's only son got excessive sentencing.Do you have an address for me to send the president my story?

Carrie Johnson: Yes, hi, I believe the producer of this chat, Rocci Fisch, has reached out to you directly with my response. Best wishes to you.

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Washington, D.C.: Where does the tradition of issuing pardons at the end of the term come from? Any chance Obama might pardon Gov. Siegelman?

Carrie Johnson: It's way too early to speculate about what President-elect Barack Obama might do in this regard given that he has not yet been sworn into office. My understanding is that former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman (D) whose case has become something of a cause celeb, is appealing his conviction on public corruption charges but that the appeals court has not yet heard arguments.

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Burke, Va.: Why do you think there's not more of a push to limit the presidential pardon? It's hard to imagine that anyone other than the sitting president would really fight for it. How about a constitutional amendment that makes pardons subject to confirmation by a congressional super-majority (say, two-thirds)? It seems like an unrestricted power that is begging for a check and balance.

Carrie Johnson: Some people including former Justice Department pardon attorney Margaret Love assert (and have written so in the W Post op-ed pages) that the high demand for clemency points out serious problems with the criminal justice system and that rather than abolish pardons the president should be freer with them, particularly in cases involving long prison terms for nonviolent criminals.

Because President Bush has not used the power much, and when he has it mostly has helped convicts who committed run of the mill white collar and environmental crimes, there has not been a substantial outcry about the issue.

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Leesburg, Va.: A few questions, please, about presidential pardons:

1) Can a presidential pardon be pre-emptive, for an unspecified act -- one where no conviction has been made or no charges have been brought?

2) Once a person accepts a pardon, can that person plead the Fifth Amendment right to not testify about the subject of the pardon for fear of self-incrimination? Once a person has been pardoned, he/she can't be re-tried for the crime, so would he/she have any grounds to plead the 5th?

3) Can a president pre-emptively pardon himself?

Thank you!

Carrie Johnson: Leesburg, thanks for your questions.

A president can issue a preemptive pardon but there is debate about how specific the language must be covering the criminal offense. I have talked for instance with lawyers who speculate that the pardon of former President Richard Nixon may not have held up under legal challenge because of this issue. It was never tested, so we'll never know.

Court precedent though makes pretty clear that the president's authority is all but absolute.

Your second question is incredibly interesting. I am not aware that Marc Rich, for instance, actually testified at the hearings Rep. Dan Burton had several years ago but off the top of my head I don't know whether lawyers asserted the 5th Amendment on his behalf. Perhaps a wise member of the audience can weigh in?

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Edwin Edwards: Any chance President Bush will pardon former La. Gov Edwin Edwards? Yeah, he's a crook, but has served six years already, is 80 or 81, and he served 4 terms as governor, then some good for the state, and saved the state from it itself by running against and defeating David Duke.

Carrie Johnson: Former Louisiana Gov. Edwards (D) is definitely on the list of people who have applied for pardons, according to the Justice Department, and he has served some period of his corruption sentence as well. Louisiana political blogs began to light up over this prospect a few weeks ago -- and they claim that Edwards has support from former home state senators, which could help ease his path. White House spokesman denied any action was imminent when I pinged him a couple of weeks ago but this case definitely bears watching, going into the holiday season.

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Washington, D.C.: Hypothetically, can a president give someone a pardon for anything he/she would do in the future? So if someone received one they could just run around committing crimes and murders at will? The pardon system doesn't make a great deal of sense, is there anyway we can scrap it?

Carrie Johnson: Well there must be practical limits of the sort you describe, or elsea new administration could simply reject the legal viability of such an open ended pardon... To my knowledge this has not been tested in recent memory. Would make a heckuva story though.

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Carrie Johnson: Thanks very much for all of the questions and insights this afternoon. Hope you have a very happy Thanksgiving holiday and perhaps we can meet again in a couple of months to hash out the pardon issue at the end of the president's term.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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