What Trump pardons show about his idea of presidency

Why We Wrote This

Offering pardons is perhaps the closest thing the president has to absolute power, and in using this power Tuesday, President Trump gave glimpses of how he sees himself.

Paul Beaty/AP
Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich shakes hands with a supporter as he arrives home in Chicago on Feb. 19, 2020. He was released from a Colorado prison late Tuesday after President Donald Trump cut short a 14-year sentence for political corruption.

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In providing legal relief to former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and 10 other persons convicted of federal crimes, President Donald Trump on Tuesday lit off a national conversation on the nature of his use of the powerful pardon tool – and what it might reveal about his conception of the presidency itself.

The president defended his actions as a dispensation of justice for those who had been unfairly convicted or already served adequate time for their sins. He presented himself as legally positioned to shape the U.S. legal system as he sees fit.

“I’m allowed to be totally involved,” he told reporters. “I’m actually, I guess, the chief law enforcement officer of the country.”

Those more critical of the pardons framed his decisions as impulsive, isolated from the long-standing Justice Department procedure for considering pardons, and aimed largely at white-collar criminals whose relatives or representatives were able to lobby for relief on Fox News. The moves, they add, could lay the groundwork for pardons that would benefit himself.

President Trump has already complained about the “unfairness” being visited on his political associate Roger Stone, who will be sentenced Thursday for felonies including obstructing the FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

In 2010, Donald Trump fired Rod Blagojevich from “Celebrity Apprentice” because the former Illinois governor didn’t learn enough Harry Potter trivia for a marketing assignment. In 2020, President Trump commuted Mr. Blagojevich’s prison sentence for public corruption with perhaps the closest thing he has to a Potter-esque magic wand: his Constitution-based power to “grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States.”

In providing legal relief to Mr. Blagojevich and 10 other persons convicted of federal crimes, President Trump on Tuesday lit off a national conversation on the nature of his use of the powerful pardon tool – and what it might reveal about his conception of the presidency itself.

President Trump defended his actions as a dispensation of justice for those who had been unfairly convicted or already served adequate time for their sins. He presented himself as legally positioned to shape the U.S. legal system as he sees fit.

“I’m allowed to be totally involved,” he told reporters. “I’m actually, I guess, the chief law enforcement officer of the country.”

Those more critical of the pardons framed his decisions as impulsive, isolated from the long-standing Justice Department procedure for considering pardons, and aimed largely at white-collar criminals whose relatives or representatives were able to lobby for relief on Fox News.

Anyone looking for a pattern or a plan in the pardons is looking in the wrong place, argues political scientist Jonathan Bernstein in a Bloomberg News column.

“He wants what he wants, and he treats the presidency as something he won that allows him to do stuff he wants,” Mr. Bernstein writes. “Pardons are great for that, because they’re the closest thing to an absolute power the president has.”

Relatively few pardons

Besides the commutation for Mr. Blagojevich, who was sentenced in 2011 to 14 years in prison for, among other things, trying to auction off Barack Obama’s Illinois Senate seat after he was elected president, President Trump pardoned Edward DeBartolo Jr., a former owner of the San Francisco 49ers who pleaded guilty to concealing an extortion plot in 1998; Bernard Kerik, a former New York City police commissioner who was sentenced to four years in prison after conviction on eight felonies including tax fraud; and Michael Milken, the former “junk bond king” who pleaded guilty to securities fraud in 1990, among others.

President Trump pointed to the length of Mr. Blagojevich’s 14-year sentence as an indication that leniency was deserved.

“That was a ... ridiculous sentence, in my opinion,” the president told reporters.

President Trump has previously granted clemency to Alice Marie Johnson, a black woman serving a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense, his supporters point out. And the president has used his power in this area sparingly so far, pardoning just 25 people while commuting the sentences of six more.

“Please, by all means educate me on abuse of power,” wrote Donald Trump Jr. in a tweet comparing his father’s pardon numbers with higher ones of past presidents.

The dangers critics see

Critics replied that one way the president was abusing the pardon power was to use it as a means of laying the groundwork for pardons that would benefit himself.

President Trump has already complained about the “unfairness” being visited on his political associate Roger Stone, for instance. Mr. Stone will be sentenced Thursday after his conviction on seven felonies, including lying to Congress and obstructing the FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

And the president implicitly compared himself to Mr. Blagojevich, noting that the former Illinois governor was caught on a phone call trying to sell Mr. Obama’s vacant seat, reflective of the now-famous phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

“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,” President Trump told reporters.

Bypassing presidential norms?

In general, President Trump’s use of his pardon powers also at times appears to reflect aspects of his approach to the presidency that Democrats and other critics have charged break American political norms.

For one thing, it ignores the advice of the bureaucracy – or the “deep state,” as Trump supporters might call it. There is no indication that for Tuesday’s actions the president consulted the Department of Justice’s pardon office, which normally carefully sorts and vets applications for relief to ensure the president gets accurate information to inform decisions.

Instead, the president said he acted on “recommendations” in making his decisions, referring apparently to the loose network of friends, former officials, and Mar-a-Lago members who grab his arm at a dinner or catch him on the phone at odd hours.

Those who weighed in on Mr. Kerik’s pardon, for instance, included Rudy Giuliani, broadcaster Geraldo Rivera, and former Navy SEAL and accused war criminal Eddie Gallagher, whose demotion President Trump overturned last year. Celebrity Kim Kardashian urged relief for Ms. Johnson. Former San Francisco 49er players argued for Mr. DeBartolo. 

Second, what the president sees on Fox News heavily influences his decisions. Mr. Kerik has been a regular commentator on Fox, for instance. Patti Blagojevich, Mr. Blagojevich’s wife, has appeared on Fox directly calling for sentence relief for her husband. Allies of Mr. Stone have pleaded with President Trump through the Fox screen for a Stone pardon.

Critics say that in total the way President Trump goes about pardons positions him, not as the head of a government working toward decisions, but as a quasi-king who alone makes the call.

He is dispensing largesse, seemingly at random, by his own whims, rather than pursuant to any legal system, writes legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker.

“That’s the real lesson – a story of creeping authoritarianism – of [Tuesday’s] commutations and pardons by President Trump,” Mr. Toobin writes.

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