Update: On Wednesday, President Trump commuted the sentence of Alice Marie Johnson after having entertained a personal appeal from Kim Kardashian West.
Very few parts of President Trump’s job give him the same unilateral power as the authority to grant pardons. He came to the White House from Trump Tower in New York, where he was for decades, essentially, a corporate monarch. A privately held company with one boss is a fiefdom in many ways, and Trump was used to being lord of the manor. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the presidency is not like that. When it comes to pardons, though, it is.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday afternoon that Trump is exploring more opportunities to use that power.
“A White House official this week said Trump is ‘obsessed’ with pardons,” our report indicates, “describing them as the president’s new ‘favorite thing’ to talk about. He may sign a dozen or more in the next two months, this person added.” He has granted five so far, with a possible sixth looming.
In typical administrations, those pardons are filtered through the Office of the Pardon Attorney at the Department of Justice. A 28-page form is filled out to begin a review process, assuming that it has been at least five years since the applicant’s conviction or release from confinement. Then there are necessary character witnesses and background checks, with recommendations for or against clemency eventually passed on to the president.
That is the typical process. That is not the Trump process.
To help people navigate the new system for obtaining a pardon, we have created the following flowchart, which is explained below.
1. Are you a darling of conservative politics?
This seems to be the most effective way of obtaining a pardon from Trump. Three of Trump’s five pardons — Joe Arpaio, Scooter Libby and Dinesh D’Souza — have all worked in Republican politics, conservative media or both. Arpaio was once the sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., and was convicted of contempt of court for ignoring a mandate to respect the civil rights of immigrant detainees. Libby was convicted of obstruction of justice, perjury and making false statements in relation to the leaking of information about a confidential CIA informant during the administration of President George W. Bush. D’Souza pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations.
All three were pardoned by Trump. In at least D’Souza’s case, the pardon was granted without a direct appeal from D’Souza himself. (The idea apparently came from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).
2. Are you a celebrity?
Actually, let’s refine that.
2b. Are you a celebrity who was on some iteration of “The Apprentice”?
Last week, Trump told reporters that he was considering pardons for former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich and interior-design expert Martha Stewart. What’s the common theme there? Both appeared on Trump’s signature television franchise.
If you are a celebrity who wasn’t an “Apprentice” host or contestant, your fate is murkier. But it bodes well for Joe and Teresa Giudice.
3. The next best thing: If you’re not a celebrity, do you know one?
Trump’s pardon of Jack Johnson, the first black man to win the heavyweight boxing title, came as a direct result of advocacy by the actor Sylvester Stallone. The sixth pardon that Trump is reportedly considering — of Alice Marie Johnson, a 69-year-old given a life sentence for drug and money laundering charges — was brought to Trump’s attention during an Oval Office meeting with Kim Kardashian West last month. (Jared Kushner, also in that meeting, is apparently enthusiastic about the idea.)
Update: Trump decided to commute Johnson’s sentence instead of issuing a full pardon.
4. Can you get on Fox News?
One of the more remarkable pardons granted by Trump was that of Kristian Saucier, a Navy sailor convicted of taking photos of classified areas of a submarine. Saucier’s strategy was deliberate: He appeared on Fox News expecting that Trump was likely watching and pleaded his case. It worked.
That strategy has not always worked. Blagojevich’s wife has appeared on the network in an effort to have her case heard by Trump. The wife of George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, made a similar pitch Monday night. Neither Blagojevich nor Papadopoulos has yet been granted a pardon.
5. Do you have any friends who know Trump?
The Post’s report includes this detail:
“Trump has begun asking friends who else he should pardon, according to an adviser who frequently speaks to the president, and some have offered suggestions. The president has asked [White House counsel Don] McGahn to prepare a list of other pardons for him to consider for signature, administration officials said.”
This is what Trump does: He asks for the input of people around him on a broad range of topics, pardons apparently included. If you have a friend who has membership at Mar-a-Lago, now’s the time to call in that old favor.
6. Are you in the sights of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III?
Speaking of Papadopoulos: It seems pretty likely at this point that at least one of the individuals who have been charged as part of the Mueller investigation might get a pardon. Perhaps it will be former national security adviser Michael Flynn, the investigation of whom Trump allegedly once tried to curtail. Or perhaps it will be former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who, some believe, is avoiding cooperating with Mueller in the expectation that his charges will be waived. Or perhaps it will be some future individual who is charged by Mueller for crimes not yet made public. Having potential leverage over Trump seems a reasonably viable path to a pardon.
(It probably will not be Papadopoulos.)
It is possible, too, that some of those whose cases have been wending their way through the Justice Department’s official process might end up having their files dropped on Trump’s desk. But given how things have gone so far, we did not bother to add those people to the flowchart.