“He was, look, he was not very popular then. Certainly his memory is popular now,” Trump told reporters as he prepared to leave the White House on Friday en route to a Group of Seven economic summit in Canada.
Trump said he was thinking “very seriously” about pardoning Ali as well as other “folks that have some sentences that aren’t fair.”
But Ron Tweel, an attorney for Ali, who died in 2016, pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Ali’s conviction in 1971. In a unanimous ruling, the court found that the Department of Justice had improperly told the draft board that Ali’s stance was not motivated by his Muslim religious beliefs.
“We appreciate President Trump’s sentiment, but a pardon is unnecessary,” Tweel said in a statement. “There is no conviction from which a pardon is needed.”
That notion was echoed by Walter E. Dellinger III, a professor at Duke University School of Law and an acting solicitor general during the Clinton administration.
“There is nothing to pardon!” Dellinger wrote on Twitter.
Trump’s musing about an Ali pardon was blasted by the Rev. Al Sharpton, who accused the president of “nothing more than grandstanding.”
Besides criticizing the president for offering something unnecessary, Sharpton said Trump’s past “anti-Muslim and Islamophobic policies and rhetoric” were an affront to Ali’s religion.
“You can’t stand up for Islam while simultaneously denigrating it,” Sharpton said.
Trump has used his clemency powers to pardon or commute sentences in a string of high-profile cases recently. Those have included the late Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champ, whose posthumous pardon was championed by actor Sylvester Stallone, among others.
Trump told reporters Friday that his administration is “looking at literally thousands of names of people that have come to our attention that have been treated unfairly or where their sentence is far too long.”
He also said that he is open to hearing recommendations from NFL players and other athletes, arguing it was a better outlet for their concerns about racial injustice than taking a knee when the national anthem is played.
“I’m going to ask them to recommend to me people that were unfairly treated, friends of theirs or people that they know about, and I’m going to take a look at those applications,” Trump said. “And if I find and my committee finds that they’re unfairly treated, then we will pardon them or at least let them out.”
Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.