Trump pardons first black heavyweight champ posthumously for Mann Act conviction

If you had Joe Arpaio, Scooter Libby, and Jack Johnson as the first three pardons of the Trump presidency, come collect your winnings. My money for number four is on Mike Flynn.

This is a good deed by POTUS. Jack Johnson’s story is increasingly well known: He wasn’t just the first black heavyweight champion, he was a black man who dated white women without apology, a cultural affront to the country circa 1910 that seems unimaginable. He got pinched twice in 1912 under the Mann Act, a federal law that prohibits transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes. That sounds like a human trafficking statute but it wasn’t really, as it didn’t matter legally if the woman was of legal age or if she had consented. It was aimed at deterring prostitution, and the woman whom Johnson was convicted of transporting did work as a prostitute — but the two had been in a steady relationship. He was found guilty anyway by an all-white jury, almost certainly for offending sensibilities of the time by having sex with a white woman.

Over the years his family and various politicians, including John McCain, lobbied the White House for a pardon. Last year McCain and Cory Booker introduced a Senate resolution formally calling for one. You would think that’d have been a no-brainer for the first black president, but Obama passed. The Daily Beast asked around to see why:

Gavin Parke, a former senior leadership staffer for Reid, said that his early impression was Obama didn’t want to act on Johnson out of political discomfort. “[R]eading between the lines,” he emailed The Daily Beast, “our conjecture was that they didn’t want to engage in divisive racial issues that were largely symbolic.” But the main reason that Obama held back, Parke added, was out of a rigid dedication to preserving norms. “The Obama White House was stringently opposed to the pardons process becoming politicized in any way. They felt so strongly about that, it may have extended even to posthumous pardons.”

Such a position seems, as one Obama veteran conceded, “quaint” in the Trump years. But it was a thing. As one senior official, who asked to speak on background not to characterize the president’s thinking, put it: “President Obama relied on the Department of Justice to make recommendations and it is against DOJ’s general policy to accept posthumous pardons.”

According to Justice Department policy, “processing posthumous pardon petitions is grounded in the belief that the time of the officials involved in the clemency process is better spent on the pardon and commutation requests of living persons.” Trump, though, has ignored the formal pardon process in the three he’s granted thus far, going around the DOJ to issue each for very different political reasons. The other two were dodgy but I’m surprised, actually, that we don’t see more politically-driven posthumous pardons. There’s no chance of the subject embarrassing the president by misbehaving after he’s freed, after all, which is the main deterrent to granting standard pardons. If you can correct a high-profile racial injustice from the past and earn yourself a little goodwill in the process, why wouldn’t you? No need for the DOJ to get involved.

I don’t understand why Obama didn’t feel that way, particularly as he was leaving office. The “racial division” potential is overstated since he had prominent Republicans like McCain standing by to back him up. I suspect we’ll hear some sotto voce grumbling from O alums in the next day or two that he should have seized this opportunity.

By the way, some Trump critics are handling this better than others. This is a real tweet, meant earnestly, I believe:

Sigh. Before you ask — yes, that is Sylvester Stallone over Trump’s left shoulder in the clip. Lennox Lewis and current heavyweight champ Deontay Wilder were also there. It was Stallone, POTUS said last month on Twitter, who put this on his radar by lobbying him for the pardon. That’s the Trump-y element here, that it took a Hollywood star famous for playing a fictional boxer to make this a priority for the White House. But whatever. The right thing is the right thing.