In a process White House aides describe as ad hoc, many of the pardon seekers ended up on the president’s radar after conservative activists, television commentators or other friends of Trump made personal appeals on their behalf.
The brazenness of the announcements — which included pardons for his daughter’s father-in-law, a former campaign manager and convicted killers from a private security firm founded by a longtime political ally — rocked Washington and sparked calls for an overhaul of the constitutional power.
Trump’s wave of pardons, coming less than a month before he is set to leave office, is his latest exploitation of his executive powers in ways that offend the spirit of the Constitution, if not its letter, said Russell Riley, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
“The pardon is an unfettered power, so I don’t think that there was ever a chance that he wasn’t going to look after the people he’s been quietly authorizing and protecting all along,” he said. “Nobody with a straight face can argue that this use of the pardon power is consistent with what the Framers envisioned when they conveyed it in Article II.”
The vast majority of the 94 people who have received clemency from Trump have a personal or political connection to him, according to a compilation by Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith and Matthew Gluck on the Lawfare blog.
Democrats in Congress, good-governance groups and several former prosecutors slammed the pardons as antithetical to the rule of law and yet another example of hypocrisy from a president who campaigned on a pledge to restore “law and order” and end political cronyism.
Some called for an overhaul of the pardon power, saying Trump has so corrupted it that it should be amended or even stripped from the Constitution.
“Once one party allows the pardon power to become a tool of criminal enterprise, its danger to democracy outweighs its utility as an instrument of justice,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) wrote Thursday on Twitter after Trump pardoned several people who were charged in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe into whether Trump conspired with Russia or obstructed justice. “It’s time to remove the pardon power from the Constitution.”
For their part, Republican lawmakers have largely been silent — abandoning the kind of outrage they expressed when Democratic presidents issued pardons to political allies on a far smaller scale.
One Republican who did speak out, Sen. Ben Sasse (Neb.) called the moves “rotten to the core.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump is likely to issue dozens more pardons after the Christmas holiday, according to aides, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Before leaving office, Trump is preparing to deliver parting gifts to allies who have demonstrated loyalty to him, officials said.
Trump has taken something of an impromptu approach to the pardon process, polling advisers, friends and allies for potential candidates, according to advisers. Alice Johnson, a criminal justice advocate from Tennessee who received a pardon for a drug conviction after an intervention by the celebrity Kim Kardashian West and who spoke at the Republican National Convention, has played a key role by sending names to Trump family members and other White House advisers.
Trump continues to consider a pardon for his personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani and former chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, a White House adviser said. Bannon, who was indicted earlier this year on charges of defrauding donors to a charity, has pleaded not guilty. Giuliani, whose business practices have drawn scrutiny from investigators, did not respond to a request for comment.
Several advisers said Trump has asked lawyers and aides to look into the issue of preemptive pardons.
Legal scholars have debated whether Trump could issue a pardon for himself in coming weeks, a prospect that appeared more likely after his latest clemency push focused largely on allies whose legal predicaments were closely linked to his own.
Trump has used his constitutional power to undermine Mueller’s investigation, which neither charged nor exonerated him of obstructing justice. Mueller, who indicted several of Trump’s close allies and aides, cited long-standing Justice Department guidelines against indicting a sitting president.
Trump has told allies he wants to erode the Mueller probe through the presidential power to pardon. His pardons Wednesday of former campaign manager Paul Manafort and political confidant Roger Stone — both convicted of trying to impede investigations into Russia’s interference into the 2016 presidential race — were part of the effort to discredit Mueller and reward those who stood by him even as they faced prosecutorial pressure, aides said.
In its announcement of the pardons, the White House said Manafort was “one of the most prominent victims of what has been revealed to be perhaps the greatest witch hunt in American history.”
The defiant tone drove home another way Trump’s pardons differ from those of his predecessors: Many of the recipients are unrepentant and the White House has portrayed the prosecutors as the actual wrongdoers.
While Trump has so far pardoned five people who were charged by Mueller, some onetime Trump allies who cooperated with the investigation and expressed remorse for their crimes have not received pardons.
They include Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen and former deputy campaign manager Rick Gates. After Cohen implicated Trump in several crimes, Trump lashed out at him and called him a “rat.”
“Trump has upended the traditional criteria for clemency,” Goldsmith, who has tracked Trump’s pardons and commutations, wrote Thursday on Twitter. He linked to a Justice Department document that said “a pardon is granted on the basis of the petitioner’s demonstrated good conduct for a substantial period of time after conviction and service of sentence.”
The Office of the Pardon Attorney, which produced that document, has largely been eliminated from the pardon process.
The process is being overseen by White House counsel Pat Cipollone, but many of the names are coming directly from Trump, who hears about cases on television and from friends, officials said.
Aides say the candidates for clemency fall, broadly, into two categories — political allies with criminal convictions for mostly white-collar crimes and unaffiliated people recommended to be pardoned for what one aide described as “actual crimes,” such as drug convictions. White House officials have tried to roll out the pardons so far with a mix of both, sometimes moving the politically affiliated ones toward the bottom of the list.
Those involved in the process say future pardon announcements will also feature a mix of names.
“I can’t talk about it, and I don’t think you will find anyone who will. There are a lot of names in the hopper,” said Doug Deason, a Trump donor who is working on the issue.
Deason said he was working on pardons with White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and Brooke Rollins, the head of the domestic policy council. Deason said he believed the majority of the remaining pardons will be for less controversial convictions, including those who served lengthy sentences for small amounts of drugs.
But Trump has also told allies that he wants to use his pardon power to help political allies who have been loyal to him. On Wednesday, he pardoned a former aide to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has regularly supported him on some of his positions that are unpopular in the conference and has raised concerns about voter fraud.
Other pardon recipients have benefited from their powerful connections to those in the president’s orbit.
In announcing the pardons, the White House has listed several Trump loyalists who had advocated for clemency — including former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi and Newsmax chief executive Christopher Ruddy.
In pardoning Charles Kushner for witness retaliation and other crimes, the White House cited support from campaign adviser Matt Schlapp and David Safavian, himself a recipient of a presidential pardon from Trump. It did not mention Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Trump has granted clemency to a handful of Republican lawmakers who were found guilty of crimes including fraud, obstruction of justice and campaign finance violations. Two former members of Congress who received pardons this week, Duncan D. Hunter and Chris Collins, were among the first Republicans to endorse Trump’s presidential bid.
Former Palm Beach County commissioner Mary McCarty was pardoned for a 2009 charge of honest services fraud. Her brother, Brian Ballard, is a longtime lobbyist for Trump’s business and a Trump fundraiser.
While the majority of people receiving pardons were guilty of nonviolent crimes, Trump also broke from tradition by granting clemency to several people involved in acts of cruelty against the innocent.
Four former private security contractors who received full pardons — Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard — each had gotten lengthy prison sentences for their roles in a 2007 shooting that killed 14 Iraqi civilians, including women and children. The contractors all worked for the Blackwater Worldwide security company, which was founded by Erik Prince — a longtime Trump ally and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Trump also pardoned two former Border Patrol agents convicted of shooting an unarmed suspected drug smuggler near El Paso, and another former Border Patrol agent who spent 27 months in prison for assaulting a Mexican national who illegally crossed into Texas.
He pardoned a Prince George’s County, Md., police officer who served 10 years in prison for releasing her police dog to attack a man who had surrendered.