It’s beginning to look a lot like … Pardon-mas. For the second evening in a row, Donald Trump has issued clemency actions to more than two dozen people, but three in particular will grab headlines. In another rebuke to Robert Mueller, Trump has given full pardons to Paul Manafort and to Roger Stone, the latter of whom already had received a commutation (via Jeff Dunetz):
President Donald Trump on Wednesday pardoned over two dozen people, including longtime confidant Roger Stone, former campaign manager Paul Manafort and Charles Kushner, the father of his son-in-law.
Trump previously commuted Stone’s sentence in July of this year but offered a full pardon to Stone, citing his age and health conditions. Manafort, who was sentenced to 47 months last year on fraud and tax charges, was also offered a full pardon.
The White House also alleged “prosecutorial overreach” in Manafort’s case and “potential political bias” in Stone’s jury trial.
The pardons for Kushner and Stone had been widely predicted, but the one for Manafort is still a bit surprising. Manafort’s conviction came on charges that the Department of Justice had developed in 2014 but never pressed as part of a wider investigation of corruption in Ukraine. Mueller used the old charges — as well as new charges related to the Foreign Agent Registration Act — as leverage against Trump, but ended up with nothing at all.
In both explanations for their pardons, Trump explicitly attacked Mueller’s special-counsel operation. “As a result of blatant prosecutorial overreach,” the White House statement declares, “Mr. Manafort has endured years of unfair treatment and is one of the most prominent victims of what has been revealed to be perhaps the greatest witch hunt in American history.” Before Mueller, the statement claims to quote the trial judge, “Mr. Manafort had led an “otherwise blameless life.”” Er, that’s not entirely true, as the pre-existing DoJ investigation made clear.
As for Stone, Trump argues, the special counsel team treated him “very unfairly.” He also claims that the jury could have been politically biased at Stone’s trial; if so, Stone might well have contributed to that with his PR antics before and during the trial. The judge had to tell him more than once to quit going to the media.
As for Charles Kushner, well … you know.
Still, the parameters of pardons and commutations rest entirely with the president. The explanations are only necessary for public relations, and for an exiting president, necessary is far too strong a word. The good news is that Donald Trump is clearing the decks in earnest now, which means he probably thinks it’s barely necessary to explain it, too. Trump apparently now recognizes he’s on his way out, and wants to take every opportunity to stick his finger in the eyes of all his enemies on the way.
Update: Someone’s pretty happy about it:
History will record that your Presidency accomplished more in 4 years than any of your modern-day predecessors.
— Paul Manafort (@PaulManafort) December 24, 2020
Update: Someone else is very unhappy about it:
— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) December 24, 2020
Before addressing Senator Ben Sasse’s comment, let me include a related thought from a longtime reader:
When did it become dogma on the right that “if I can do it, then it makes it right to do it?”
— adub (@AlanWindham) December 24, 2020
Who said it was right? It’s certainly open for criticism, but under the Constitution in Article II Section 2, this power is plenary for presidents. It cannot be reviewed, and cannot be undone once issued. The purpose of this was to allow presidents (and governors, in some states) to take potentially unpopular decisions to right injustices. Exercising this power does not make the Constitution a “dead document”; it’s an exercise of authority explicitly and exclusively granted in the Constitution to the president. It doesn’t even require a report, let alone an explanation.
That doesn’t mean clemency actions can’t still be “rotten,” but that’s a political consideration rather than a legal one. The only way that it might become a legal problem is if evidence emerges that a president took a bribe to issue a clemency action, which certainly doesn’t apply to Trump in any of these cases. He’s clearly operating from his personal animus to Mueller and his familial connection to Kushner. If presidents issue “rotten” pardons, then voters can vote against him/her in a re-election bid … which is why the “rotten” pardons usually only emerge in the final days of a presidency.
For what it’s worth, I think the pardons for Manafort and Stone are ill-considered, even if they were expected. I’m wondering now whether we’ll see pardons for Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. Those seemed doubtful to me, but I also thought that the best Manafort would get would be a commutation.