On February 18, President Donald Trump granted presidential pardons or clemency to 11 people, ranging from former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to financial criminal Michael Milken (dubbed “The Junk Bond King”) to former New York City Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik (a long-time ally of Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani). Trump has drawn some praise from the left for pardoning two non-violent drug offenders, Crystal Munoz and Tynice Nichole Hall, but he reserved most his pardons for wealthy white males convicted of white-collar crimes. Sarah Chayes, author of the book “Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens National Security,” analyzes Trump’s recent pardon/clemency spree in an article for The Atlantic — and explains why the pardon of Blagojevich and others reminds her of the type of corruption she has studied in some developing countries.
“Donald Trump’s decision this week to pardon several Americans convicted of fraud or corruption has garnered condemnation from many in the political establishment,” Chayes explains. “The pardons were shocking to some, but to me, they were eerily familiar — straight out of the kleptocratic playbook I’ve experienced and studied in a dozen other countries.
Chayes cites Afghanistan as one of the “kleptocracies” she has studied. A “palace aide” in that country, Chayes recalls, was arrested for “extorting a bribe,” but the charge was dropped after Afghan President Hamid Karzai “made a call.”
“Corruption, I realized with a start, is not simply a matter of individual greed,” Chayes observes. “It is more like a sophisticated operating system, employed by networks whose objective is to maximize their members’ riches. And a bargain holds that system together: money and favors flow upward — from aides to presidents, for instance — and downward in return.”
The timing of Trump’s 11 pardons, according to Chayes, is especially troubling.
“Trump’s clemency came not at the end of his time in office, as is sometimes the case with such favors bestowed on cronies and swindlers, but well before that — indeed, ahead of an election in which he is running,” Chayes warns. “The gesture was not a guilty half-secret, but a promise. It was meant to show that the guarantee of impunity for choice members of America’s corrupt networks is an ongoing principle.”