They ask me why I drink in the morning. And I tell them: It’s the only way to understand the news anymore.
WATCH: Trump says he will ask NFL players who kneel during National Anthem for a list of those they feel should be pardoned pic.twitter.com/lWSTNXhxwG
— WSVN 7 News (@wsvn) June 8, 2018
He said this during a press gaggle this morning at which he also floated the idea of pardoning Muhammad Ali posthumously for his 1967 conviction for refusing to be drafted. The entire press corps (plus Ali’s lawyer) rushed to social media to remind him that Ali’s conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court a few years later. There’s no crime on the books, therefore there’s nothing to be pardoned. But they’re missing the forest for the trees. How they hell did we reach the point where a law-and-order populist who got elected appealing to white identity politics would take an interest in clemency for a black Muslim who refused to fight for America? His first pardon was Joe Arpaio, for cripes sake. Can you imagine Trump and Arpaio receiving the news of Ali’s refusal to fight in ’67?
It only makes sense through the prism of celebrity. Ali was for many years the most famous man in the world, a title which Trump has now inherited. If you’re going to hand out pardons like candy to the famous and to people championed by the famous, you might as well go really big.
That’s one way to understand his pitch to the NFL players, all of whom are celebrities too. But there are other ways, depending upon how sympathetic or unsympathetic you are to POTUS:
Earnest outreach. When Trump says he hates the sin of kneeling during the anthem but not the sinner, he means it. He’s willing to accept that the players have legit political grievances. His objection is to the form of protest, not to the content. Remember, this is the same guy who offered a plan for amnesty for nearly two million DACA-eligible young illegals, and he’s spoken warmly of DREAMers dating all the way back to the campaign. He’s not beyond sympathy for people on the other side of a political debate from him.
Political savvy. There’s no obvious way out of the anthem standoff, with Trump unwilling to relinquish an issue with lots of populist appeal and the NFL unable to force the players to stand at attention. He’s surely under lots of pressure from his friends among the NFL owners not to make the situation worse, too. So he chose to blast a hole in the wall dividing the two sides: If they’ll show good faith by standing, he’ll show good faith by remedying some of their grievances. He’s not exactly right when he says in the clip that unjust convictions are why they’re protesting — ending police brutality against blacks is the chief cause — but it’s a part of racial injustice and something the players are interested in. If they refuse to engage with him, they’ll look petty. Another win for Trump.
Ego. He likes the idea of some of his most defiant antagonists on the public stage having to swallow hard and approach him as supplicants. Pardons are the perfect commodity for him — they’re priceless, they cost him nothing, and there’s an almost infinite supply. He can purchase significant goodwill with any enemy by handing them out, at least until someone he frees reoffends by killing someone and then he has to answer for it.
The wrinkle is that, in most cases that are likely to be brought to his attention by the players, his pardon power won’t work. If your criminal charity case went down on a state charge rather than a federal one, as most American prisoners do, well, you’re out of luck. But maybe not entirely: Trump owns the GOP right now, so if someone comes to him with a pardon-worthy case involving a prisoner in a state governed by a Republican, it’s entirely imaginable that POTUS would dial up the governor and ask him to consider it as a favor. And the governor would have reason to do so, knowing that (a) pleasing Trump pleases Trump’s voters, and Trump’s voters are probably the governor’s voters and (b) if the pardon backfires and the prisoner reoffends, it’s Trump who’ll take most of the battering from the media, not the governor. Could be pardonpalooza for the whole GOP soon!