I’ll grant you that Donald Trump, as president, has legal and constitutional right to pardon or commute sentences for whomever he wants.
Still, we should be able to understand what the message is that is being delivered.
Are we curtailing the excesses of prosecution? Are we dealing with unfair sentencing? Or is this favored treatment for Friends of Trump?
The cluster of 11 pardons and clemencies made public yesterday – former Democratic Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who tried to sell off a vacant Senate seat for personal profit, financier Michael Milken, who duped and stole from investors, Edward DeBartolo, the former San Francisco football team owner convicted in an extortion attempt, and Bernard Kerik, formerly Rudy Giuliani’s partner who lied to Congress and committed tax fraud – just says financial crimes don’t mean anything if you’re a big-enough wheel.
There were no explanations with the announcement of pardons or commutations of eight in all, so we are left adrift trying to understand if these decisions have any meaning other than personal influence with this president.
Perhaps this is notice to his closer political friends like Roger Stone, Paul Manafort and Michael T. Flynn that the White House will look charitably upon their more political cases as well. But who knows? There is no substantial explanation.
Indeed, I would argue that these pardons reflect a belief that financial crimes, white-collar crimes, don’t matter to Donald Trump, the guy who cites every individual violent crime by an undocumented immigrant. These are exactly the kind of crimes being looked at in Trump’s own seemingly fraudulent use of bank records and tax filings, emoluments violations arising from his own businesses, violations of immigration and campaign finance laws by his own organizations.
After all, Blagojevich called his prosecution as “witch hunt.” Sound familiar?
What we can conclude without reservation is that these are exactly the kinds of pardons that run counter to the claim that Donald Trump has any interest in “draining the swamp.” Each of these big names is swampy, and together, they present a panorama of big wheels who put their own personal gain over any public responsibility.
Actually, the only comments were about commuting the last six years of the 14-year sentence of Rod Blagojevich because he has “served eight years in jail, a long time. He seems like a very nice person, don’t know him.” Trump made it sound like compassion for Blagojevich’s wife, who has made appeals for her husband on Fox News. Blagojevich himself had appeared on Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice television show.
But then Trump mentioned that Blagojevich had been prosecuted by Patrick Fitzgerald, a former U.S. attorney who was a legal adviser to fired FBI director James B. Comey Jr.
In that oblique way, Trump seemed to be signaling that this is part of the Trump vengeance campaign against his lengthening list of political enemies.
Pundits were crawling all over the pardons looking for political explanations for the actions. The White House deputy press secretary even had former football team members on hand to help salute the pardon for DeBartolo, as if this was somehow a medal ceremony for a sports star.
Trump, of course, has played right into such speculation by neatly avoiding any nature of due process or legal review in these pardon cases. The White House and the Justice Department do, in fact, have a traditional set of questions and processes that they pursue – but they were ignored in these cases.
If anything, they may reflect various appeals he has seen on television, which he has chosen to recognize.
More to the point, this is another instance of the imperial Trump grinding anything close to justice under his presidential heel for no reason other than he can do so. It is difficult for skeptics like me to separate these pardons from Trump’s moves to intervene in the Justice system at large.
The Washington Post noted that the list of supporters for individual pardons was a who’s-who of the president’s elite orbit. For instance, Nelson Peltz, the billionaire who threw Trump a fundraiser Saturday night, backed pardoning Milken, along with Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Fox host Maria Bartiromo, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a range of Trump’s New York friends and Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao.
It is about whom you know, clearly. Or whom you see making pleas on Fox News.
Earlier, Trump had pardoned or commuted sentences for individuals whose cases he explained showed the excesses of our criminal justice system. Even those carried a strange whiff at times, because they came about as the result of intercession by a Kim Kardashian or other celebrity.
These pardons feel different, closer to the monarchy model, in which the Emperor gives us a thumbs-up or thumbs-down based solely on his personal preferences.
It is something that should make us all squirm. Trump is sticking his fingers in our eyes.