The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump grants clemency to high-profile individuals, including Rod Blagojevich, Michael Milken and Bernard Kerik

President Trump on Feb. 18 said he had granted clemency to former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich and pardoned Michael Milken and Bernard Kerik. (Video: Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

President Trump on Tuesday used his sweeping presidential pardon powers to forgive the crimes of a list of boldface names, including disgraced politician Rod R. Blagojevich, convicted junk bond king Michael Milken and former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik.

Trump pardoned or commuted the sentences of seven convicted white-collar criminals at the center of federal anti-corruption and tax fraud cases spanning decades, alongside four women whose cases were not as well known.

The action frees Blagojevich, the former Democratic governor of Illinois, from the federal correctional facility in Colorado where he was serving out his 14-year sentence. He was convicted on corruption charges in 2011 for trying in 2008 to sell President-elect Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat.

“He’ll be able to go back home with his family after serving eight years in jail,” Trump told reporters. “That was a tremendously powerful, ridiculous sentence in my opinion and in the opinion of many others.”

Former NFL players spoke outside the White House on Feb. 18 after President Trump pardoned former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, Jr. (Video: Reuters)

Tuesday’s clemency announcements came as Trump has been flexing his power in recent days after being acquitted by the Senate on two impeachment charges. The president has removed from their jobs witnesses who testified against him and publicly weighed in on criminal cases concerning his associates while also dismissing the idea that his actions have crossed ethical or legal lines.

The pardons and commutations focus on the type of corruption and lying charges his associates were convicted of as part of the Russia investigation, once again raising the question of whether he will pardon former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and longtime adviser and friend Roger Stone. Trump said he hadn’t thought about pardoning those three but made clear he wasn’t happy with the cases brought against them.

“I think Roger Stone has been treated unfairly. I think General Flynn has been treated very unfairly,” he told reporters. “I think a lot of people have been treated very unfairly.”

The executive actions announced Tuesday fit a pattern of highly personal presidential justice that largely bypasses the traditional pardon process administered by the Justice Department. Most of the people who have received clemency under Trump have been well-connected offenders who had a line into the White House or currency with his political base.

Most Trump clemency grants bypass Justice Dept. and go to well-connected offenders

Milken received a pardon with the White House providing a long list of advocates for the wealthy financier, including Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, political donors Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

Milken became a symbol of the culture of greed during the 1980s that was fictionalized in movies such as “Wall Street,” where Michael Douglas plays ruthless financier Gordon Gekko, who declares that “greed is good.”

Milken rose to prominence for his role in developing high-interest-bearing securities markets, known as junk bonds, before pleading guilty in 1990 to six felony counts, including securities fraud, mail fraud and aiding in the filing of a false tax return.

Milken, a major donor to causes such as cancer research, has sought to rehabilitate his image.

Also on Trump’s pardon list were Kerik, who was convicted of tax fraud, and Edward DeBartolo Jr., the billionaire former owner of the San Francisco 49ers football team, who pleaded guilty two decades ago to charges related to his role in a corruption case against former Louisiana governor Edwin W. Edwards (D).

The president also pardoned David Safavian, a senior official in the George W. Bush administration who was convicted of obstructing a federal investigation as part of the scandal surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and two lesser-known business executives, technology executive Ariel Friedler and construction company executive Paul Pogue, who were convicted of computer and tax charges. He also pardoned Angela Stanton, an author who served a six-month home sentence for her role in a stolen vehicle ring.

Kerik is a frequent visitor to the president’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida and recently posted a picture at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, tagging the president and bragging of “Badassry” there. He declined to comment. Safavian now works at the Trump-aligned American Conservative Union Foundation’s justice center and attacks Trump critics through his Twitter account. Blagojevich’s wife lobbied for her husband’s release, including going on Fox News to make her case.

The White House says all 11 actions help people who were treated unfairly or had repaid society through good works. Most are white men with connections to power and, in some cases, to Trump himself.

Blagojevich and Trump were well acquainted from when Blagojevich was a contestant on Trump’s show “The Apprentice” in 2010. Trump fired Blagojevich for shoddy work on a Florida theme park project, telling him, “Your Harry Potter facts were not accurate. Who did the research?”

Kerik and Milken were prominent New Yorkers during Trump’s professional rise as a real estate magnate there.

“We have Bernie Kerik, we have Mike Milken, who’s gone around and done an incredible job,” Trump said, adding that Milken had “paid a big price.”

The 11 clemency grants Tuesday mark the largest group Trump has announced, but it barely dents the record-setting backlog of nearly 13,000 people waiting for responses to their clemency requests.

The White House released a synopsis of each granted case Tuesday, including lists of supporters that reads like a who’s-who of the president’s elite orbit.

Nelson Peltz, who threw the president a $10 million fundraiser at his $95 million Palm Beach, Fla., house Saturday night, recommended the pardon of Milken.

TV personalities, including Geraldo Rivera, Andrew Napolitano and Maria Bartiromo, were cited as pardon advocates.

Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who advises the president, also takes on legal clients, including Friedler, who received a pardon.

Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, was listed as a supporter for both Milken and Kerik, who also received backing from disgraced Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who was granted clemency by Trump last year. Kerik rode his prominence as Giuliani’s police chief during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to a nomination to be homeland security secretary in the Bush administration. But he soon ran into legal trouble, and his nomination was pulled.

Newsmax Media chief executive Christopher Ruddy said he had lobbied Trump on behalf of Kerik and Blagojevich.

“It was just so glaring that it was a political case,” Ruddy said of Blagojevich.

The entire GOP delegation from Illinois lobbied against the Blagojevich commutation, officials said.

“We are disappointed by the President’s commutation of Rod Blagojevich’s federal sentence. We believe he received an appropriate and fair sentence,” Reps. Darin LaHood, John Shimkus, Adam Kinzinger, Rodney Davis and Mike Bost said in a statement. “History will not judge Rod Blagojevich well.”

Trump made phone calls to the Illinois Republicans including LaHood last week to argue that the Blagojevich sentence was unjust, two administration officials said. But the lawmakers were not convinced.

Some campaign and White House officials opposed the clemency grants — particularly for Blagojevich — believing they could be damaging politically and were unnecessary. Some officials were still seeking to talk Trump out of the actions — some of which had been in the pipeline for more than a year — this weekend.

Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), who signed a letter supporting the Kerik pardon, said the president “has had a lot of respect for Bernie over the years.” Rivera also signed the letter and was instrumental in the pardon, King said.

Trump acknowledged that in deciding whom to pardon, “a lot of times I really rely on the people that know them.”

The head of the Justice Department’s pardon office during the first two years of the Trump administration told The Washington Post that he quit last year because the White House had sidelined his office in favor of taking its cues from celebrities, political allies and Fox News.

DeBartolo and Kerik were denied pardons under Obama. Friedler had never applied to the pardon office, Justice Department records show.

Most presidents in recent decades have faced accusations that they exploited the pardon power. President Bill Clinton issued pardons in the final hours of his presidency to his half brother, a Whitewater business partner, his former housing secretary and a fugitive commodities trader married to a major Democratic donor.

Under Trump, however, politically motivated grants have become the rule, not the exception.

Obama granted an unprecedented number of commutations, about 1,700, under a sweeping initiative that prioritized nonviolent drug offenders. Nearly all of those selected had been sentenced under the mandatory-minimum penalties deployed during the “war on drugs” that critics say disproportionately punished minority communities. Nearly all of the people who received commutations from Obama were men and nearly 80 percent were African American and Hispanic, according to a report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

The program ended when Trump took office. He has granted clemency to only one African American man so far: the late boxer Jack Johnson.

The White House also announced Tuesday that Trump had granted commutations to three women convicted of nonviolent drug or fraud offenses. The cases of Tynice Nichole Hall, Crystal Munoz and Judith Negron were supported by Alice Johnson, a criminal-justice advocate who had her life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense commuted by Trump in 2018. Johnson, whose case was featured in a Trump campaign ad aired during the Super Bowl this month, had been recommended to Trump by reality star and criminal-justice advocate Kim Kardashian West.

“It’s a clemency process for the well-connected, and that’s it,” said Rachel Barkow, a New York University Law School professor and clemency expert. “Trump is wielding the power the way you would expect the leader of a banana republic who wants to reward his friends and cronies.”

Blagojevich was caught on FBI wiretaps talking about trying to sell Obama’s vacated Senate seat, saying that it was a “valuable thing” and that “you don’t just give it away for nothing.”

Trump has mentioned the Democrat’s case frequently in recent years, focusing on what Trump said was a disproportionate punishment for an offense he suggested was really just politics.

“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 told reporters last year. “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.”

Trump first publicly mused about commuting Blagojevich’s sentence in 2018, when he exercised his clemency powers in a string of cases and speculated about others he might pardon. Others mentioned at the time included Martha Stewart, the television personality and lifestyle mogul who was convicted in 2004 of obstructing justice and lying to investigators about a well-timed stock sale.

Trump has routinely downplayed and mischaracterized the case against Blagojevich, whose trial included not only the wiretap but also witnesses testifying that he had solicited campaign cash in exchange for official acts.

In comments last year, Trump also falsely blamed Blagojevich’s treatment on “the Comey gang and all these sleazebags,” a reference to James B. Comey, the FBI director Trump fired amid the mounting investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Comey was in the private sector at the time of Blagojevich’s prosecution and conviction in 2011.

At a fundraiser last year at his Chicago hotel, Trump polled the room on whether he should grant a pardon, taking some donors by surprise. Trump was pleased that so many people said they would be okay with it, people familiar with the event said.

Blagojevich’s turn as a contestant on Trump’s NBC reality show came after he was indicted but before his convictions. Trump praised Blagojevich at the time for having “a lot of guts” to appear on the program.

John Wagner and Marc Fisher contributed to this report.