By this point, it’s no secret that President Trump’s pardons have been significantly more self-serving than those of other presidents. While his predecessors have lodged controversial pardons — no question — Trump is simply on another level. Not only has he pardoned his allies, but he has often pardoned people who cozy up to the powerful people around him, whether via Fox News or some other method.
But there’s another key aspect of Trump’s pardons that shouldn’t get lost: In many cases, there are significant similarities between the pardon recipient and Trump -- or at least Trump’s depiction of himself.
Back in August, as he was weighing the commutation of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich’s (D) sentence (which Trump granted Tuesday), Trump suggested that the phone call on which Blagojevich was caught talking about selling an appointment to the U.S. Senate wasn’t actually bad.
“He’s been in jail for seven years over a phone call where nothing happens — over a phone call which he shouldn’t have said what he said, but it was braggadocio, you would say,” Trump said in early August. “I would think that there have been many politicians — I’m not one of them, by the way — that have said a lot worse over the telephone.”
The irony of that comment wasn’t known at the time, but it practically slaps you in the face today. Just two weeks earlier, we now know, Trump had been on the phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky trying to get him to launch two investigations that carried political benefits for Trump. Even Trump’s Republican allies have said the whole thing was problematic, but Trump has steadily maintained that the call was “perfect.” Then on Tuesday, fresh off his acquittal in his impeachment trial, Trump has commuted the sentence of a politician whose most infamous crime is … talking about a corrupt exchange on a phone call. Is it any wonder that Trump would perhaps be uniquely sympathetic to Blagojevich’s supposed plight?
But Blagojevich isn’t the only recipient of clemency from Trump whose situation features some personal parallels.
Of the fewer than three dozen people who have received clemency from Trump, at least three of them are reportedly billionaires, like Trump claims to be. Trump previously pardoned the media-mogul author of a Trump hagiography, Conrad Black, and on Tuesday, Trump added former junk bond king Michael Milken and ex-San Francisco 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr. There are an estimated 600 billionaires in the United States, and very few of them have gone to prison, but Trump has now pardoned three.
One of Trump’s earliest pardons was for conservative provocateur Dinesh D’Souza. D’Souza, like Trump, was a major proponent of the racist “birther” conspiracy theory about former president Barack Obama’s birthplace. He was also convicted of a campaign finance violation, which is the crime Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to and implicated Trump in.
Trump’s first pardon was for Joe Arpaio, who might be the most pronounced embodiment of Trump’s hard-line immigration policies in American politics. Arpaio’s crimes also involved disobeying a judge’s orders against racial profiling of suspected undocumented immigrants; Trump as a candidate in the months before the pardon advocated racial profiling and for a ban on Muslim immigration and, in one of his first acts as president, banned immigration from several majority-Muslim nations.
Several of Trump’s pardons also involve people who made false statements to investigators or obstructed justice, including I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Black and another man granted clemency Tuesday, former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik. Trump has defended allies who lied to investigators and was personally the subject of extensive evidence of obstruction in the special counsel report. He has also repeatedly downplayed the severity of meddling in such investigations.
It’s perhaps understandable that a president would find cause to grant clemency to people whose situations carry certain parallels to his own. Trump’s sympathy for an immigration hard-liner and a conspiracy theorist, for example, would certainly be greater than that of your average politician. And if you think someone’s crimes aren’t as serious, it makes granting them a break much easier.
But the Blagojevich commutation and the dual billionaire pardons Tuesday drive home the idea that Trump may sometimes see himself in these pardons. That’s too much coincidence for one day. Trump has maintained before that he has the “absolute right” to pardon himself if need be. He kind of already has.