The more fundamental and clearer takeaway is that presidential pardon powers are being perhaps irrevocably politicized for Trump's own legal purposes.
The common thread running through four of Trump's five pardons isn't so much that these are top allies as it is that they were all allegedly politically and legally oppressed. D'Souza and former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio were certainly big Trump backers and allies who fit the Trump mold better than the vast majority of Republicans. But I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, an aide in George W. Bush's White House, wasn't a high-profile Trump backer, nor was Navy sailor Kristian Saucier, who was pardoned after being sentenced to a year in prison for illegally retaining pictures of a submarine.
Saucier may be the best example of Trump's pardon strategy. Trump used his case frequently on the 2016 campaign trail as a counterpoint to rival Hillary Clinton allegedly being let off easy by the feds. How did a guy get a year in jail just for having pictures of a submarine, while Clinton got off free and clear?
Saucier may have truly deserved the pardon — his plight wasn't inherently political, and plenty agree that his sentence was harsh — but Trump's pardon sure reinforced his message that justice wasn't being carried out appropriately (and, as a bonus, that perhaps Democrats were getting off easier than the Republicans).
And that has been Trump's argument for the three other pardons, too. In his tweet about D'Souza on Thursday morning, Trump said D'Souza “was treated very unfairly by our government!”
Of Arpaio, he said, “I thought he was treated unbelievably unfairly when they came down with their big decision to go get him, right before the election voting started. ... I thought that was very, very unfair thing to do.”
As for Libby? You guessed it: He was “treated unfairly.”
Trump even said the same thing Thursday about Martha Stewart, for whom a pardon would look less partisan but would still reinforce this central theme. "I think to a certain extent Martha Stewart was harshly and unfairly treated," Trump said, as on-message as ever.
The fact that this talking point has been applied to three pardons and a potential pardon is no coincidence. Trump would have you believe he's righting wrongs, and that's certainly in the eye of the beholder. But he's also righting wrongs that mirror his own legal predicament. The president who routinely complained about the “witch hunt” that is special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's investigation is using his pardon power in perhaps unprecedented ways to assert that myriad other witch hunts have taken place in recent years. It's all self-serving on some level, regardless of how you feel about any individual pardon.
Legal expert Ken White, better known as @Popehat, laid it out nicely here:
And there are other parallels. The New York Times's Eileen Sullivan notes that Trump's pardons have keyed on cases that were prosecuted by some of his political adversaries. D'Souza was tried by former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara, whom Trump fired; in Stewart's case, it was none other than James Comey; and in Libby's and Blagojevich's cases, it was Comey's friend Patrick Fitzgerald. D'Souza's crime was also a campaign finance violation, which is perhaps Cohen's most likely crime in the Stormy Daniels hush-money case. Casting doubt on these prosecutors' works and the severity of campaign finance violations would all seem to accrue to Trump's benefit.
Pardons have certainly been used in cases of perceived unfair prosecutions, but much of the time they reflect on situations in which people have paid their debts to society and may have received extreme sentences. And when pardons have been given to political allies, it generally has been done in rare cases and in the twilight of a presidency, such as Bill Clinton's pardon of Marc Rich on his last day in office in 2001. Trump, who has demolished so many political norms, has increasingly laid waste to this one, too. Political pardons are apparently no problem for him.
Trump may indeed be testing the waters for a Cohen pardon, a Paul Manafort pardon, or even — most controversially — a pardon of himself. But even if none of those come to pass, he's feeding his overriding narrative in the Mueller case. And that's controversial enough.