If, as is often said, a president’s budget proposal presents a glimpse of his heart, a president’s use of his pardon power offers a companion, and even more telling, X-ray of his soul.
Writing a budget involves making trade-offs and priorities, but these must be examined and ratified by others, elsewhere. The power to pardon is more uniquely personal, both in that pardons tend to be granted to individuals, based on the circumstances of their particular cases, and in that it is an authority that resides solely within the purview of the president.
What, then, does President Trump’s suite of pardons — five over the course of his still-young presidency — tell us? Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama each took about two years to dispense their first pardons. Trump, by contrast, has embraced his role as what Alexander Hamilton described as the “dispenser of the mercy of government.”
Except that Trump’s twisted brand of mercy is shaping up as a particularly ugly version of that lofty Hamiltonian vision, variously self-serving in its recipients, tactical in its application and willfully dismissive of the countervailing considerations that a responsible president would take into account before intervening in the ordinary criminal process.
And so Thursday’s move to pardon conservative author and admitted felon Dinesh D’Souza was repulsive but not out of character. The quality of Trump’s mercy skews in a decidedly partisan direction. See also former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio and, although this pardon is more justifiable, former Dick Cheney aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby.
To secure a Trump pardon, it helps to be a live Republican, a dead black man whose cause has been taken up by a white celebrity (boxer Jack Johnson, courtesy of Sylvester Stallone), or an ordinary schmo whose offense (mishandling of classified information) happened to look a lot like that of a certain political opponent who Trump thinks should have been locked up.
Or, as Trump hinted Thursday in discussing a pardon for Martha Stewart and a sentence commutation for former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, a former contestant on his “Apprentice” show.
Certainly, Trump is not the first president to use the pardon power in distasteful ways. Clinton’s last-day- in-office pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, following extensive political and charitable contributions to Clinton interests by Rich’s ex-wife, is a pungent example.
Yet there is something particularly wrong, particularly askew, in Trump’s pardoning. Partly it is his sloppy impulsivity, without going through the ordinary process of consideration by the Justice Department or satisfying the usual criteria (a five-year waiting period after serving a sentence; “acceptance of responsibility, remorse, and atonement” for the offense).
But even more it is the disdain in which Trump holds the legal process — a disdain whose public expression in the form of pardons helps reinforce Trump’s case of a criminal-justice system that is rigged, unfair and unworthy of respect. Trump’s pardon of Arpaio for his criminal contempt for disobeying a court order to halt racial profiling underscored the president’s contempt for the judiciary.
The D’Souza pardon makes Trump’s point even more explicitly. “He was treated very unfairly by our government,” Trump tweeted of D’Souza. Unfairly?
This is a man who pleaded guilty to deliberately violating campaign contribution limits on behalf of a friend running for a Senate seat from New York, using straw donors to give her money, which he then reimbursed. While he claimed to be the target of selective prosecution by a Democratic administration, the judge who oversaw his case dismissed that assertion as “nonsense.”
But don’t let facts intrude. “What my case shows in miniature is the way Obama and Hillary [Clinton] too have gangster-ized U.S. politics,” D’Souza said on Laura Ingraham’s radio show Thursday. So much for remorse. But it’s easy to see how nicely D’Souza’s assertions of victimhood dovetail with Trump’s they’re-out-to-get-me strategy.
So, too, with the president’s clemency-in-waiting for Stewart and Blagojevich. Stewart was convicted of obstructing justice and lying — why take that crime so seriously? Blagojevich was convicted on corruption charges that Trump dismissed as “being stupid and saying things that . . . many other politicians say.” How convenient to use a Democratic politician to transform criminal bribery into mere “bravado.”
And if Trump’s freely flowing pardons have the salutary side effect of suggesting to those caught up in the Russia probe that they might ultimately benefit from presidential clemency, so much the better, from his vantage point. As with everything else in this administration, the act of pardoning is not about serving justice, it is about serving Trump.