It was a repugnant use of the pardon power, one of 140, including Clinton’s half-brother Roger, on Clinton’s last day in office.
Yes, George H.W. Bush, on his final Christmas Eve in office, pardoned six people charged in the Iran-contra affair, including preemptively pardoning two who had not yet stood trial, former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger and former CIA official Duane Clarridge.
In acting, Bush asserted that the “common denominator of their motivation — whether their actions were right or wrong — was patriotism.” Independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh assailed the action, charging that “the Iran-contra cover-up, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed,” and insinuated that Bush’s action might have been motivated by a desire to shield himself.
No president has ever misused the pardon power as thoroughly as Trump has — not to rectify wrongs and dispense mercy but to reward political allies, excuse corruption and erase, as completely as possible, the work of the special counsel who plagued his years in office.
It was telling that the first pardon of his presidency went to former Maricopa County, Ariz., sheriff Joe Arpaio, convicted of criminal contempt of court for defying an order to stop racial profiling — or, in Trump’s view, “convicted for doing his job.”
And Trump might just be getting started. As I write, there are 28 pardoning days left until the inauguration.
It’s no surprise that Trump, autocrat wannabe that he is, loves his pardon power. It is absolute, entirely committed to presidential discretion, with its monarchical overtones. What the Supreme Court has termed “the benign prerogative of mercy” derives from the power of the British king, and the framers of the Constitution included it among the authorities of the chief executive to provide an escape valve from injustice. Otherwise, argued Alexander Hamilton, “justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel.”
Others warned that a corrupt, tyrannical president would misuse this authority, as George Mason suggested, “because he may frequently pardon crimes which were advised by himself. It may happen, at some future day, that he will establish a monarchy, and destroy the republic.”
Trump won’t destroy the republic, though not for lack of trying. And he has debased the pardon power, bypassing the usual process of having the Justice Department review such requests, ignoring the ordinary standards for granting requests and, most gallingly, bestowing presidential favor primarily as a matter of personal connection or political self-interest. A review by Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith found that an astonishing 60 of the 65 pardons or commutations granted by Trump went to those with a personal or political connection to him.
Including every single one of the 15 pardons and five commutations dispensed in the Tuesday night spree.
There are three separate buckets of outrage. First, continuing his efforts to undo the work of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, Trump — like Lady Macbeth trying furiously to scrub away the blood — pardoned George Papadopoulos and Alex van der Zwaan. Both men pleaded guilty to making false statements in the Mueller investigation, something the White House statement announcing the pardon dismissed as a “process-related crime.” The pardon, the statement added, “helps correct the wrong that Mueller’s team inflicted on so many people.”
Trump has already pardoned former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn and commuted the sentence of adviser Roger Stone. Can his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort be far behind?
Second, trivializing the significance of corruption and elevating loyalty above all, Trump wiped away the crimes of three Republican former House members. Chris Collins (N.Y.), the first House member to endorse Trump, pleaded guilty to insider trading — he called his son with a stock tip from the White House lawn — and lying to the FBI.
Duncan Hunter (Calif.), the second House member to endorse Trump, diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds to pay for personal expenses, including — my favorite — air travel for his family’s pet rabbit; he was set to begin an 11-month sentence next month. Steve Stockman (Tex.) was convicted of 23 counts relating to an effort to bilk conservative foundations out of charitable contributions that he misused for his political campaign; he is serving a 10-year sentence — or was until Trump commuted the remaining sentence, at the behest, among others, of Trump lawyer Sidney Powell.
Third, and perhaps most damaging to U.S. interests, Trump pardoned four former workers for the private security contractor Blackwater who were convicted in the 2007 killing of 14 Iraqi civilians in a busy Baghdad square. One, Nicholas Slatten, was serving a life sentence for first-degree murder in what jurors found was the premeditated shooting of a medical student hit between the eyes. The other three were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to terms ranging from 12 to 15 years. The Blackwater operatives have become a conservative cause celebre; the company, perhaps not coincidentally, was founded by Erik Prince, a Trump supporter and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
The message of these pardons: Lying is trivial. Public corruption matters less than personal loyalty. Government operatives can kill foreign civilians with impunity. This the legacy that Trump leaves us.