Sunday, December 27, 2020

Trump's Lame-Duck Pardons Put Reform on Agenda

             President Trump’s lame-duck spree of presidential pardons has been so blatantly abusive as to breathe real life into long overdue efforts to enact some legal safeguards around the up-till-now unchecked power. Trump’s Christmas-week flurry of forty-six pardons granted undeserved clemency to three corrupt Republican members of Congress, two former advisers who had maintained loyal silence about Trump’s failings in office, and four private security contractors responsible for the September 16, 2007, machine-gun massacre of fourteen Iraqi civilians in a crowded Baghdad square.

             Trump follows but far outstrips the examples of other presidents who used their final days in office to grant pardons to donors and political bedfellows, as the Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus noted in a column last week [Dec. 23]. President Clinton granted 140 pardons in all on his last day in office [Jan. 20, 2001], including clemency for his half-brother Roger Clinton for a 16-year-old drug conviction and for the fugitive financier Marc Rich.

The Rich pardon smelled of rank corruption, coming shortly after Rich’s ex-wife had “lavished donations” on the Democratic Party and Clinton’s presidential library, in Marcus’s phrasing. Rich had fled the United States after he and his partner were indicted in 1983 for 65 criminal counts in all, including tax evasion, wire fraud, racketeering, and trading with Iran during the U.S.-imposed oil embargo.

Eight years earlier, President George H.W. Bush had pardoned six people connected to the Reagan-era Iran-contra scandal on his final Christmas Eve in office in 1992. Bush preemptively pardoned two Reagan administration officials who had not yet stood trial: former Defense secretary Caspar Weinberger and former CIA official Duane Clarridge. The other four had all been convicted variously for perjury or withholding evidence, including former national security adviser Robert McFarlane, former assistant secretary of state Elliott Abrams, and two former CIA officials: Clair George and Alan Fiers.

Comparing Trump’s lame-duck spree to those examples, Marcus aptly concluded that Trump outranks them by far. “No president has ever misused the pardon power as thoroughly as Trump has,” Marcus wrote, “not to rectify wrongs and dispense mercy but to reward political allies, excuse corruption, and erase, as much as possible, the work of the special counsel who plagued his years in office.”

In the same vein, The New York Times declared in an editorial that Trump “corrupted the presidential pardon” and that Biden “must now repair it” after Biden takes office in January. Biden should make “this deeply important but long-abused power . . . work more as the founders intended: as a counterweight to unjust prosecutions and excessive punishments.” Indeed, the Framers saw the pardon power as an important safeguard against judicial abuse and, for that reason, included no guidelines or procedural rules for its use by the president.

The Times editorial notes that Trump has largely neutered the Justice Department’s pardons office while wielding the power on his own without waiting for Justice to weigh in. To counter DOJ’s prosecutorial bias, the Times backs a proposal by law professor Mark Osler for a free-standing pardon commission staffed by, among others, criminal justice experts, to report directly to the president.

Two of those Trump pardoned included two close advisers who had been convicted of trying to impede the special counsel’s Russia investigation: former 2016 campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Trump’s longtime political adviser Roger Stone. The White House’s statement on the 26 pardons granted on Wednesday, specifically blamed Manafort’s and Stone’s convictions on “prosecutorial overreach” and “prosecutorial misconduct” by the Mueller investigation.

Other lesser figures in the Mueller probe also gained pardons: George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in a plea bargain after agreeing to cooperate with the Mueller probe. He completed a 14-day prison sentence after Thanksgiving 2018.

            The three former Republican congressmen pardoned included New York’s Chris Collins, the first member of Congress to endorse Trump during the 2016 primaries, who had been sentenced to 26 months in prison on an insider trading charge. The others were California’s Duncan Hunter, who was sentenced to 11 months in prison after pleading guilty to misusing campaign funds for personal expenses, and Texas’s Steve Stockman, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being convicted of diverting charitable donations to his campaign fund.

            One reform well worth considering would be to eliminate lame-duck pardons altogether, just as Kenya’s constitution does. The Kenyan constitution limits the president’s use of various powers, including “the power of mercy,”  from the time that voting begins in the presidential election until a successor assumes office.

            Trump’s pardons prompted one Republican senator at least to speak out: “rotten to the core,” according to Nebraska’s Ben Sasse. In like vein, the Naderite watchdog group Public Citizen denounced the pardons of the three former congressmen as a “stunning rebuke of ethics in government.”

            The pardons for the four Blackwater contractors, convicted and sentenced to long prison terms for the indiscriminate machine-gunning of Iraqi civilians in 2007, are reminiscent of Trump’s very first presidential pardon. Eight months into office, Trump pardoned Arizona’s tough-talking sheriff Joe Arpaio, a Trump supporter who had been sentenced for criminal contempt of court because of his hard-line tactics in cracking down on illegal immigrants. Like Arpaio, Blackwater’s founder, Erik Prince, has been an influential Trump supporter.

No comments:

Post a Comment