The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In one of his final acts, Trump showered clemency on people with connections to him and his allies

President Donald Trump gives a final fist pump as he boards Marine One and departs the White House on Wednesday.
President Donald Trump gives a final fist pump as he boards Marine One and departs the White House on Wednesday. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
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One man convicted of health-care fraud is a longtime member of President Donald Trump’s golf club in Westchester, N.Y., and a former donor to Trump’s now-
defunct personal charity.

Another who was convicted of involvement with an illegal sports gambling ring owns six condos in Trump Tower in New York.

A third, sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for tax evasion, is the ex-husband of Fox News personality Jeanine Pirro, who has used her weekly cable news show to pump up support for Trump’s presidency.

The final burst of pardons and commutations that Trump issued in his last hours in the White House punctuated one of the dominant themes of his administration: how he used the power of his office to benefit people with personal connections to him.

A Washington Post analysis of the 144 people who received clemency this week found that at least 45 — or nearly a third — had a link to Trump or people in his close orbit. Some had their cases championed by Trump allies, while others had a relationship with his private company or a Trump family member, or donated money to back him politically.

All the people Trump pardoned on his way out of office

Perhaps the most striking example was former White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who received a last-minute pardon after personally appealing to the president in a phone call Tuesday, according to people with knowledge of the conversation.

Other lesser-known figures who made it onto the final clemency list had Trump allies in their corner, such as former White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, former Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien and attorney Alan Dershowitz, who represented the president during his impeachment trial.

Eleven clemency grants went to people recommended by 11 Republican House members and two senators who had supported Trump’s failed effort to overturn the November election results. (Three GOP lawmakers who did not support the effort also recommended people who were pardoned.)

While the Justice Department generally requires that people who apply for clemency have acknowledged their crimes and shown remorse to receive a recommendation for approval, numerous Trump pardons went to people who have continued to deny wrongdoing in their cases.

At least six had either not yet faced trial and sentencing or not yet begun serving for their alleged crimes. Two are citizens of other countries who were indicted decades ago and had never been brought to the United States to face justice.

Many prosecutors who had worked to convict those on the list condemned Trump’s decision to grant them clemency.

In Detroit, Republican U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider excoriated the commutation granted to former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who has served only seven years of a 28-year sentence for charges that included racketeering, extortion, fraud and bribery.

“Kwame Kilpatrick has earned every day he served in federal prison for the horrible crimes he committed against the people of Detroit,” Schneider said in a statement. “He is a notorious and unrepentant criminal.”

Kilpatrick’s pardon had been supported by a number of influential Trump allies, according to the White House, including the duo Diamond and Silk and Republican donor Peter Karamanos Jr., who founded Detroit-based Compuware. Kilpatrick, a lifelong Democrat, had also written letters hailing Trump and congratulating him on his “unprecedented success” in office, Detroit news organizations reported.

Kilpatrick’s attorney, Harold Gurewitz, said that the sentence imposed on Kilpatrick was unreasonable and that Trump’s action was appropriate. “Justice in this country occurs in various ways,” he said.

One of the celebrities who received clemency from Trump, the 23-year-old rapper known as Kodak Black, still faces charges of sexually assaulting a high school student in a hotel room after a 2016 concert in Florence, S.C., public records show. Trump commuted a separate nearly four-year prison sentence the rapper received after pleading guilty to a federal weapons charge.

“I don’t think he would have gotten clemency if the president knew the full story,” said Ed Clements, a South Carolina solicitor who is prosecuting the sexual assault case. “He victimized a teenager who was weaker than him, not as experienced as him and not familiar with those types of situations. She went straight to the school nurse.”

Black’s defense attorney in the South Carolina case, Beattie Ashmore, declined to comment.

Lil Wayne, Kodak Black among pop culture figures granted clemency on Trump’s final day in office

In his bid for clemency, Black — whose legal name is Bill Kapri — had been backed by Darrell Scott, an Ohio pastor who was one of Trump’s leading supporters in the Black community, as well as former New York police commissioner Bernie Kerik, who had himself been previously pardoned by Trump and is close to Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Trump also commuted the sentence of Salomon Melgen, an eye doctor in West Palm Beach, Fla., near Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, who was sentenced in 2018 to 17 years in prison, accused of stealing $73 million from Medicare by persuading elderly patients to undergo unnecessary procedures.

One of his former patients, Samuel Belcher, who had brought a medical malpractice case against Melgen, said he was shocked to learn of the clemency, according to his attorney. Belcher had alleged that his eye condition had worsened under Melgen’s care and led to blindness.

“When they learned of this, they were just dumbfounded,” said Philip Gold, who represents Belcher and his wife. “And the whole family is in shock because of how Dr. Melgen” treated Belcher.

Melgen’s attorneys did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In a letter supporting his clemency, a group of Melgen’s allies asserted that the physician had been politically targeted by the Obama administration.

In Washington, real estate magnate Douglas Jemal, a wealthy developer close to the family of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, was pardoned for a 2007 conviction for wire fraud. A former federal prosecutor who had been involved in the case noted that Trump did not extend mercy to three of Jemal’s employees, who had also been convicted in the scheme to buy influence in the city but were less culpable.

“Pardons like this are corrosive and send the message that there are two standards of accountability — one for the wealthy and well-connected, and one for everyone else,” said former assistant U.S. attorney Mark Dubester.

Jemal, 79, said Wednesday that he had not spoken to Trump about his pardon and was “not sure why he pardoned me.”

Meet the flamboyant D.C. developer who got a last-minute pardon from Trump

Trump likewise pardoned Bannon, chief executive of his 2016 presidential campaign and a onetime White House adviser, but did not provide similar consideration to three men who were jointly indicted with Bannon in August.

The four were accused of working together to defraud donors to a charitable organization intended to help fund construction of a wall on the southern border. All four had pleaded not guilty and were scheduled to go to trial in May.

A former senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal conversations, said Trump spent Tuesday consumed with indecision over whether he should show favor to Bannon. “Should I pardon Steve?” he quizzed people throughout the day.

A number of advisers advised against doing so, noting that the fiery aide, who had left the White House on bad terms in August 2017, had been critical at times of Trump — and that he was accused of defrauding Trump’s own supporters. Among those who were opposed was Kushner, who played a key role in vetting possible pardons, the official said.

But Bannon had been pressing Trump directly in recent days, including in a phone call Tuesday.

One Trump adviser said Bannon told others one of the reasons Trump pardoned him was because Bannon could help him mount a successful bid to retake the White House in 2024.

Bannon did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump’s final pardon was signed in the last hour before he left office Wednesday and was extended to former New York Republican power broker Al Pirro, ex-husband of the Fox News host and Trump ally.

A person close to Trump said it was not clear how the decision had been made to pardon Pirro and that he had not been among those considered during intense discussions that preceded Trump’s other final decisions.

Trump’s rush of last-minute pardons was in some ways reminiscent of the 140 people who received clemency from President Bill Clinton on his last day in office. Republicans at the time accused Clinton of favoring people with political ties and launched a congressional investigation into the pardons.

But pardon experts said Trump was much more brazen in extending clemency to people who had benefited him in the past or could assist him in the future, and criminal justice advocates urged President Biden to create a fairer process.

“Too many people believe they need to know a celebrity or pay a well-connected lobbyist to have their petitions heard,” Kevin Ring, president of the criminal justice advocacy group FAMM, said in a statement.

One of Trump’s pardons went to Ken Kurson, a close friend of Kushner. Kurson had been the editor in chief of Kushner’s newspaper, the Observer, and co-wrote the book “Leadership” with Giuliani.

Kurson was charged with seeking to harass and intimidate individuals in a case related to his divorce. In justifying the pardon, the White House said in a statement that Kurson’s ex-wife wrote a “powerful letter” to the prosecutors in which she asked that the case be dropped. But the White House did not indicate whether the unnamed victims in the case — who did not include Kurson’s ex-wife — also wanted the case dropped.

In the complaint, an FBI agent said Kurson caused “substantial emotional distress” to the victims, who described his behavior as “traumatic,” “diabolical,” “super scary” and “insane.” At least one victim underwent medical treatment and therapy.

Kurson, who was charged in October, had not yet gone on trial. He declined to comment. His attorney, Marc Mukasey, said he was not involved in seeking the pardon and believed that Kurson’s conduct had not been criminal and that he could have won at trial.

Glen S. Moss, pardoned for his role in a 1998 health-care fraud scheme, appeared on a 2011 list of members of the Trump National Golf Club in Westchester County and was listed as donating $10,000 to the Trump Foundation in 2008.

After Moss’s wife, Kimberly, died last year, Moss said in an obituary that they were members at the club and posted personal letters from the president, who sent condolences from his family, “especially Eric,” a reference to his son.

In an interview, Moss’s brother Douglas said the family has always felt kindly toward Trump, particularly after he arranged for the singer Olivia Newton-John to personally call Kimberly Moss following her diagnosis with breast cancer 13 years ago.

But he said that he believed that the donation and golf membership were “not a factor” in the pardon, and that the White House was instead impressed with the philanthropic and personal contributions his brother has made.

Another Trump pardon went to Hillel “Helly” Nahmad, a wealthy art dealer who pleaded guilty in 2013 in connection with an illegal sports gambling business run out of a Trump Tower condo.

Nahmad owns six units making up the entire 51st floor of the building, according to New York tax and real estate records.

He began acquiring the property in 1999. While he does not appear to have bought any of them directly from Trump, he would still pay condo fees that would flow to the Trump Organization, which manages the property.

“I am grateful for the pardon and I look forward to continuing to give back to the community,” Nahmed said in a statement provided by his art gallery.

Trump also pardoned Tommaso Buti, a well-known Italian restaurateur who Trump announced in 1998 would lead a new modeling agency that the celebrity mogul was launching called Trump Management.

After the New York Post reported that Buti was under investigation for stealing from his restaurant chain, the two men parted ways, but Trump defended Buti, telling New York Magazine that he was a “terrific, unjustly accused guy.”

“Restaurants, with all the unions and hamburgers you got to deal with, are not for him. But Tommaso loves women, and women love him back. He’s a natural to run a modeling agency,” Trump said at the time.

In 2000, Buti was indicted by New York prosecutors for wire fraud and other charges related to allegations he stole from his restaurant chain. He was arrested in Italy, where he stood trial on similar charges and was acquitted. He has denied any wrongdoing.

However, he was never extradited to New York, and his U.S. charges remained pending until this week — when he was pardoned by Trump.

Buti’s New York attorney, Valeria Calafiore Healy, declined to comment Wednesday.

Around 55 people who received clemency were drug offenders, the vast majority of them described as nonviolent. Many of them had been recommended by Alice Johnson, whose own prison sentence after a drug conviction was commuted by Trump in 2018 following lobbying by the celebrity Kim Kardashian West.

Johnson, who appeared in a Trump campaign ad about a year ago, said in an interview that she stood by her support for the president, despite his incitement of violence in an effort to overturn the election.

“I won’t ever regret having worked with the president,” she said. “It’s saving people’s lives. How could I possibly regret that?”

Tom Hamburger, Amy Brittain, Michael Kranish, Michelle Ye Hee Lee, Jonathan O’Connell, Steven Rich, Alice Crites, Julie Tate, Emily Yahr, Tim Elfrink and Timothy Bella contributed to this report.