The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump vowed to drain the swamp. Then he granted clemency to three former congressmen convicted of federal crimes.

Former congressman Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.) leaves a court building in March after his sentencing in San Diego. (Gregory Bull/AP)

As Donald Trump campaigned for the presidency in 2016, his vow to “drain the swamp” included outrage at past use of presidential pardons. Citing the way President Bill Clinton had pardoned a fugitive financier during his last week in office, Trump fumed, “People couldn’t believe it.”

Yet now, in the closing days of his term, Trump has added to his portfolio of pardons and commutations several people who seemed to exemplify the very swamp that Trump said he would drain, including former political allies as well as three former members of the House of Representatives.

Trump pardoned former congressmen Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.), who pleaded guilty to misuse of campaign funds, and Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), who was in prison after being convicted of securities fraud. The president commuted the sentence of former congressman Steve Stockman (R-Tex.), who was convicted of misusing charitable contributions. Hunter and Collins were early and avid supporters of Trump’s campaign.

At the end of most presidencies, one of the last things a president does is issue pardons. Here's how past presidents have exercised this power. (Video: Monica Rodman, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

“Other presidents have occasionally issued abusive, self-serving pardons based on insider connections,” Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith, who has tracked Trump’s pardons and commutations, said via email. “Almost all of Trump’s pardons fit that pattern. What other presidents did exceptionally, Trump does as a matter of course.”

In July, Trump commuted the sentence of his longtime friend Roger Stone, who was convicted of trying to impede the congressional investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. In November, he pardoned former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying about his discussions with a Russian diplomat. On Tuesday, he pardoned George Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about the Russia probe.

Larry Kupers, the former acting head of the Justice Department Office of the Pardon Attorney, who served in the Trump administration until he left in mid-2019, said in an interview that the president has been abusive in failing to go through the normal channels to review requests for clemency.

Normally, such requests go through his former office and recommendations are eventually sent to the White House. Most of Trump’s actions have been made on requests that did not go through the office.

“It is abusive in the sense that very few of his grants, commutations or pardons really went to any legitimate purpose,” Kupers said. “The purpose of the pardon power set out by Alexander Hamilton — that is mercy and reconciliation and I would add to that forgiveness. I can’t think about any of his grants that come under those categories. They are all grants to cronies or are partisan in the sense that he wants to excite and please his base.”

Trump is hardly the only president to grant much-criticized pardons to political allies.

President Gerald Ford pardoned former president Richard Nixon, whose resignation made Ford’s ascendancy possible. President George H.W. Bush pardoned former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger and others related to the Iran-contra affair. Clinton pardoned financier Marc Rich, who had fled the United States after being indicted on a charge of tax fraud. It was Rich’s pardon that Trump cited on the campaign trail, saying, “No one should be above the law.”

But analysts said there is no precedent for Trump’s focus on granting so many pardons and commutations to those with whom he has ties. Increasingly isolated in the White House as he continues to promote baseless claims about election fraud, he has used one of the greatest powers left at his disposal to help allies avoid or get out of jail.

Of the 65 people to whom Trump had granted clemency as of Tuesday, 60 had a personal or political connection to him, according to a compilation by Goldsmith, the Harvard professor, and Matthew Gluck on the Lawfare blog. Sixteen came due to Trump’s admiration for a celebrity, 12 were brought to Trump’s attention by a television show, and 42 advanced his political agenda, the analysis found.

On Wednesday, Trump granted clemency to another 29 people, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s father, Charles Kushner, and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and upgraded Stone’s commutation to a full pardon.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment about how the president’s actions squared with his criticism of pardons as a candidate.

In a statement on Tuesday, the White House said Trump acted on behalf of the former representatives “at the request of many Members of Congress” and others — a powerful alliance not available to the typical individual who has submitted a request for clemency through the formal channel at the Justice Department.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, with a $4.5 million budget and 19 employees, is swamped with more than 14,000 pending cases. But many of those who have received pardons and commutations from Trump have not gone through that office.

Of the 20 people granted relief by Trump on Tuesday, only seven had filed a request with the Justice Department. None of the three former House members had made such a request, according to department records. Instead, they had allies who pushed their cases with the president, according to the White House statement.

In the case of Hunter, he pleaded guilty in 2019 to conspiring to use $150,000 in campaign funds on personal matters, such as a birthday party for his daughter. Prosecutors had alleged that he used hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds for family vacations and extramarital affairs.

He won reelection in 2018 but resigned this year in January. He was sentenced in March and had been slated in two weeks to begin serving an 11-month sentence in federal prison.

Hunter’s attorney, Devin Burstein, said he did not play a role in the pardon, but he applauded Trump’s action.

“Duncan Hunter served this country with honor and distinction in both the military and Congress,” Burstein said. “The good he has done far outweighs his mistakes. The pardon today recognizes this fact and clears his name.”

The White House said Hunter’s pardon was the result of an effort headed by Bradley Smith, a former Federal Election Commission chairman, who wrote a four-page letter arguing that Hunter’s case should not have been handled as a criminal matter. Smith, in a letter addressed to Trump on Nov. 7, said that some of the items in the criminal indictment would have been dismissed if they had come before the FEC.

Smith wrote, for example, that the indictment alleged that Hunter’s expenditure of $3,754.73, enabling Hunter and his family to fly to Washington for his run in the Marine Corps Marathon, was for a personal vacation. Smith said it was a “valid campaign expenditure.” He wrote that many of the acts in the indictment “fall into the type of gray area” that should have been subject to conciliation and settlement, not a criminal or even civil case.

Smith did not return a call seeking comment.

Phillip L.B. Halpern, one of the prosecutors on the case, said that in that capacity, he was “not personally troubled by Trump’s pardon” — in part because Hunter resigned from Congress and faced other consequences.

“As a private citizen, however, I’m appalled by Trump rewarding Hunter and other assorted political cronies while simply ignoring or excusing their brazen corruption,” he said.

Halpern said that with the pardon, members of the prosecution “begin to question whether their sacrifices were indeed worthwhile.”

On Wednesday, the White House announced that Hunter’s wife, Margaret, who pleaded guilty in the case and cooperated with prosecutors, had also received a pardon. She is seeking a divorce and began an eight-month sentence of home confinement in August, her attorney, David Beavans, said.

Trump has a fractured history when it comes to his view of criminal cases.

In contrast to his clemency for political friends is his disregard for findings of innocence in the Central Park jogger case.

In 1989, Trump took out a full-page ad in New York City’s four major newspapers, in which he called for a return of the death penalty, citing the case of five boys ages 14 to 16, four Black and one Hispanic, who were arrested in the case of a Central Park jogger who was beaten and raped. The ad brought Trump huge attention, but years later, the five were exonerated and received a $41 million settlement for wrongful imprisonment. Trump called the settlement a “disgrace” and has refused to apologize.

Matt Zapotosky and Alice Crites contributed to this report.