President Trump’s pardons were self-serving before, and they became even more so Wednesday night, after he pardoned two prominent conservatives who had already completed their sentences.
Trump pardoned billionaire Conrad Black, who a year ago published a book called “Donald J. Trump: A president like no other.” The book is more hagiography than biography. It defends Trump against charges that he is a racist, stating flatly that he is not. It hails his “very successful” foreign policy ventures. It credits his “unquenchable energy,” “sheer entertainment talent” and “raw toughness.” It misleadingly hails his 2016 election win by saying he won “more votes than any previous Republican candidate for president,” without noting that this was mostly a function of population growth and that Trump lost the popular vote. He called Trump’s win a “stunning rebuff” of the media.
The second pardon went to Patrick J. Nolan, the former Republican leader of the California state assembly. This one is less obviously self-serving, but it is. Nolan has been a prominent conservative voice for criminal justice reform since finishing his sentence and has served in prison ministry. But he, like Black, is close to the Trump family. Appearing at a White House ceremony celebrating the passage of criminal justice reform legislation, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner called Nolan “my friend,” and Nolan called Kushner “just a superstar. I’m impressed with him so much.” Last year, Nolan criticized special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation. He said it was symptomatic of how law enforcement personnel “decide who they’re going to prosecute and then hunt for a crime."
That these pardons went to two Trump allies who said things he likes, and whose pardons could send signals to other Trump allies, doesn’t seem like a coincidence. Trump has now pardoned 10 people in his two-plus years in office. Of the nine living ones, eight are either conservatives or further Trump’s political narrative in some way.
- Dinesh D’Souza is a close analog to Black, publishing books attacking Democrats including Hillary Clinton and former president Barack Obama.
- Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio is an immigration hard-liner who supported Trump in 2016.
- The two Hammond brothers’ case launched a standoff with the federal government that briefly became a cause celebre among some conservatives. As with D’Souza and Arpaio, the pardons could be understood as reaching out to an extreme group that could support Trump down the road.
- Kristian Saucier was the Navy sailor who argued that his sentence was too harsh by citing Hillary Clinton — a comparison Trump often repeated on the campaign trail.
- Lewis “Scooter” Libby was a White House official in the Bush administration whose case bore some striking similarities to Trump’s own legal issues — and whose pardon was pushed for by lawyers Trump briefly hired.
The other two pardons went to the late boxer Jack Johnson and, earlier this month, Michael Behenna, a former Army first lieutenant convicted of murder while serving in Iraq. Trump has also commuted the sentence of two others, including Alice Marie Johnson, whose clemency was pushed for by Kim Kardashian, who is married to Trump ally Kanye West.
The point isn’t that presidents don’t pardon their allies; they have. Bill Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich, who had given large sums to both the Democratic Party and the Clintons, was a massive controversy.
But they often do it sparingly, late in their terms (the Rich pardon came on Clinton’s last day in office), and they mix it in with many other pardons that don’t so clearly and obviously benefit themselves. The scale and audacity with Trump is on another level completely. Trump seems to have very little regard for the perception this creates. Perhaps that’s because he likes the signal it sends to his allies that they too could one day benefit from his broad executive power — even if in ways far shy of a something as big as a pardon. Trump’s dangling of pardons for some of his top aides convicted of crimes drives that home.
The Black pardon, in particular, really tests the limits of what is appropriate. But as with many other norms, Trump is happy to bulldoze it.