The lame-duck presidency still has at least a little flight time still left in it, even though by noon on Wednesday, Donald Trump will no longer hold office. His influence on Congress has gone to nil, even without the Capitol riots almost two weeks ago. Any executive orders can and almost certainly would be immediately countermanded by Joe Biden after the inauguration takes place.
According to CNN and the Washington Post, Trump and his team spent yesterday focusing on the only official acts that Trump can still conduct. By tomorrow at the latest, the White House will release the last of Trump’s clemency actions — as many as 100 pardons and commutations. So who gets the golden tickets? Let’s start with the Washington Post:
President Trump is preparing to pardon or commute the sentences of more than 100 people in his final hours in office, decisions that are expected to be announced Monday or Tuesday, according to two people familiar with the discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the plans.
Trump met Sunday with his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, daughter Ivanka Trump and other aides for a significant amount of the day to review a long list of pardon requests and discuss lingering questions about their appeals, according to the multiple people briefed on the meeting. The president was personally engaged with the details of specific cases, one person said.
Any discussion of who gets these last-minute pardons has to start in the Ts. Will Trump issue pardons for his children, and then for himself? The WaPo reporting team says nothing has been decided yet, although his staff continues to warn Trump about the potential backlash that the nation’s first self-pardon might create:
In the past week, Trump has been particularly consumed with the question of whether to issue preemptive pardons to his adult children, top aides and himself, said the people familiar with discussions.
But it remains unclear whether he will make such a move. Although he has mused about the possibility, no final decisions have been reached, and some advisers have warned against using his pardon power to benefit himself.
One issue, notes the WaPo, is that none of them have been charged with federal crimes or are the current targets of federal investigations. That doesn’t mean a president can’t issue a pre-emptive pardon, but it certainly would look smelly to do so when no investigation has been opened as of yet either. Trump has a long-running battle with the IRS, but that’s a civil matter, and the probe in New York is a state matter that a presidential pardon wouldn’t touch. Plus, a pardon would do nothing to stop the apparently upcoming impeachment trial, as the Constitution explicitly states that pardons don’t apply to impeachments.
Time is running out too. If Trump’s going to pull the self-pardon trigger, that one might come on Wednesday morning. It seems unthinkable that he wouldn’t at least attempt that, or at least issue pardons for Don Jr, Ivanka, and Jared. The bigger question would be whether any of them would refuse it. At least Don Jr and Ivanka might think they have a political career still ahead of them, and a sleazy last-minute pardon won’t do anything to help them.
The Post also raises the possibility of two other inner-circle pardons:
But it remains unknown whether he will grant clemency to Stephen K. Bannon, his former campaign adviser, who was charged last year with defrauding donors to a private fundraising effort for construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, or his personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, whose consulting business has come under scrutiny as part of an investigation that led to charges against two of his associates.
Both of them could use the clemency, but again, this will look pretty skeezy. Bannon is being charged with exploiting Trump’s policy to line his own pockets, while Giuliani attempted to line his pockets with outrageously high legal fees in exploiting Trump’s woes. At the moment Bannon might need the pardon more, but Giuliani might not be far behind if the Department of Justice decides to test the boundaries of an incitement charge. (We’ll have more on that later.)
CNN reports that the inner-circle pardons would almost certainly come separately. Their sources do not expect those to materialize at all, but if they do, they will only come out at the last moment. The bigger worry is that Trump might try to pardon people involved in the January 6 Capitol riots:
After the riots, advisers encouraged Trump to forgo a self-pardon because it would appear like he was guilty of something, according to one person familiar with the conversations. Several of Trump’s closest advisers have also urged him not to grant clemency to anyone involved in the siege on the US Capitol, despite Trump’s initial stance that those involved had done nothing wrong.
“There are a lot of people urging the President to pardon the folks” involved in the insurrection, Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham said Sunday on Fox News. “To seek a pardon of these people would be wrong.”
Trump should take that advice, strictly on the political/legal issues alone. A blanket pardon for Capitol Hill rioters might generate another article of impeachment, or at the least be used as evidence to support the original article of incitement to insurrection in the Senate trial. It would likely push more Senate Republicans toward conviction; it would certainly make it tougher to argue that the Constitution allows a president free rein during the last couple of weeks of his term as a result of the timing issues for impeachment and removal.
So who might get pardons in this last (or next-to-last) clemency dump? CNN suggests one big surprise — a Democratic fixer and sleazeball:
Dr. Salomon Melgen, a prominent eye doctor from Palm Beach, Florida, who is in prison after being convicted on dozens of counts of health care fraud, is currently expected to be included in the clemency list, three sources familiar tell CNN.
Melgen, who is noteworthy for being the co-conspirator in a since-dismissed corruption case against Democratic New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, was sentenced to 17 years for health care fraud in 2018.
Why Melgen? CNN attributes it to Melgen’s “wealthy and influential figure in south Florida,” but that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Melgen lost a lot of that wealth and almost all of his influence in his fraud conviction two years ago. Besides, Trump is a multi-billionaire; why would he need Melgen’s wealth and influence? He certainly doesn’t need it enough to spring Melgen, and he doesn’t have any other reason to favor Melgen either. Linking himself to Melgen on his way out the door is a curious way to set up a 2024 presidential run, too.
Or perhaps this is a signal that Trump has finally figured out that his run is over, regardless of what the Senate does later this week. Whatever chances he had to pull a Grover Cleveland and win back the White House in 2024 evaporated on Capitol Hill twelve days ago, especially with Trump’s initial “we love you” response to it. At this point, like all outgoing presidents, Trump doesn’t have anything to lose. That’s why we can bet the name “Trump” will appear on one of the pardons before noon on Wednesday.