President Trump announced the first Medal of Freedom recipients of his presidency this weekend, and just as with his selections for pardons and commutations, politics permeates the list.
Featured are Miriam Adelson, the wife of GOP super donor Sheldon Adelson and a super donor in her own right, as well as Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah). The other two living recipients are former NFL greats Roger Staubach and Alan Page, who was also a Minnesota state Supreme Court justice. Posthumous medals are being awarded to Babe Ruth, Elvis Presley and Antonin Scalia.
The inclusion of Adelson is easily the most questionable. The Adelsons have donated hundreds of millions of dollars to electing Republicans, including Trump, and were the largest GOP donors in the 2018 election. The White House’s news release makes no mention of this, instead focusing on Miriam Adelson’s drug-addiction research and her support for Jewish organizations.
But Adelson’s medal reflects a growing pattern: one of Trump awarding a large majority of such medals and even pardons to supporters, to Republicans, and to recipients who fit his political agenda.
Of the 15 pardons/commutations and Medals of Freedom that Trump has given, nine have gone to such recipients. Of the 11 such awards given to living people, eight have been politically oriented.
In addition to Adelson and Hatch, Trump has pardoned conservatives Joe Arpaio and Dinesh D’Souza, both high-profile Trump supporters. Staubach has not publicly supported Trump, but he has been a GOP donor for decades. Scalia was a conservative icon on the court — somebody Trump aimed to emulate with his appointments of Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh. The White House’s release even refers in coded language to Scalia’s conservative, originalist judicial philosophy:
Antonin Scalia was one of the greatest Supreme Court justices in American history. Confirmed unanimously in 1986, Justice Scalia authored nearly 900 Supreme Court opinions. He was a champion of the Constitution, insisting that the role of Federal judges is to uphold the original meaning of the Constitution—never to impose their own beliefs on the country. Justice Scalia’s legal philosophy is rooted in America’s founding principles, legal heritage, and constitutional obligations. He never backed down from the bedrock proposition that the Constitution “means and will always mean what it meant when it was adopted.”
The pardons of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Kristian Saucier, and Dwight and Steven Hammond occupy more of a political gray area, but they also clearly fit with Trump’s political purposes.
Libby was among the many people Trump has argued were “treated unfairly” by the very same Justice Department he now alleges is treating him unfairly in the Russia investigation (D’Souza and Arpaio were also treated “very unfairly” and “unbelievably unfairly,” according to Trump). Saucier’s story also fits this strategy; the former Navy sailor’s one-year sentence for taking photos inside a submarine was regularly cited by Trump as proof that Hillary Clinton got off easy. The Hammonds’ case is the one that spurred the standoff between the government and right-wing militia groups at Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016. A similar standoff two years earlier briefly became a conservative cause celebre, and as with the D’Souza and Arpaio pardons, the Hammonds' pardons seemed geared toward signaling solidarity with more extreme elements of the conservative coalition.
Not all of Trump’s pardons/commutations and Medals of Freedom have had such a political tinge. Alice Marie Johnson’s commutation (which was pushed by Kim Kardashian) was pretty bipartisan, as was the commutation of Sholom Rubashkin’s bank fraud sentence. Boxer Jack Johnson’s pardon has been in the works for years and years. And nobody is going to argue with medals for Presley, Ruth and Page (least of all this Vikings fan).
It’s also hardly unprecedented for presidents to award pardons/commutations and Medals of Freedom to supporters. Barack Obama awarded several Medals of Freedom to big-name Democrats, George W. Bush initially commuted Libby’s sentence, and Bill Clinton pardoned Marc Rich. But, generally, these awards have been less obviously partisan and/or self-serving when taken as a whole. Obama also awarded Medals of Freedom to two congressional Republicans and to former president George H.W. Bush, a Republican. George W. Bush picked Democrats for two of the four medals he awarded to members of Congress and also honored two Democratic Cabinet secretaries. And usually, obviously political pardons come when a president is a lame duck, as was the case with the Rich pardon.
Trump has been, as with so many other things, pretty blatant about his intentions and unconcerned with looking as if he is wielding such powers for his own purposes. The Adelson example is the clearest to date — a rather stunning, high-profile award to the largest benefactor of the president’s political party — but it fits a well-established and growing pattern.