“I can apologize for all mistakes except my own.” These words from Cato of Elder have long been the leitmotif of presidents who have resisted the temptation to apologize for themselves. There has been plenty of abuse of that power, but that’s a shame the presidents have spared the country. With no last-minute pardon, Trump will step down without adding that ignoble distinction. He did not grant himself, his family or close associates like Rudy Giuliani any mercy. What is so telling is that we’ve been so shocked by the past four years that this act of restraint was a cause for celebration and praise. In particular, the lack of self-forgiveness may not be welcomed by critics as it may seem. There is now no barrier to indictment of incitement, a much touted potential charge that some of us believe will fail in court at either trial or appeal.
I was admittedly a critic of President Trump’s pardon protocol from his first foray into the President’s grace. Additionally, there are many worthy and righteous pardons issued by Trump in this final list. Many came through the traditional Pardon and Justice Department process to identify cases of excessive conviction or issues of innocence. However, today’s pardons will add to Trump’s troubled legacy regarding grace.
Some presidents have used pardons to reinforce their policies, such as Barack Obama, who pardoned hundreds of nonviolent drug offenders. However, the signature category for Trump was political corruption. Indeed, Trump has pardoned those charged with acts similar to the charges he faced during this presidency. His legacy is heavily laden with officials convicted or charged with misconduct. He had previously granted dubious pardons to former California GOP MP Duncan Hunter and former GOP MP Chris Collins, as well as Joe Arpaio, the highly controversial former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona.
This pattern continued on his final day of pardons for ex Arizona Representative Rick Renzi, who was convicted of extortion, bribery, insurance fraud, money laundering, and extortion. He also added the former representative. Robert Cannon “Robin” Hayes, chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party and chairman of the National Council of Presidents of the Republican Party. He was convicted of making a false statement to investigators. He also added former California Representative Randall “Duke” Cunningham, who accepted bribes while in public office.
The list also included political activists such as Paul Erickson, the Conservative man who pleaded guilty to charges of fraud and money laundering, and Robin Hayes, a North Carolina political donor who was convicted of attempted bribery. There’s Elliott Broidy, the former vice national finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, convicted of conspiracy as an unregistered foreign agent. The most notable political player, however, is former adviser Steve Bannon, who has not even been tried for serious fraud related to an online fundraiser called “We Build the Wall”. He faced a conspiracy to commit wire fraud and a conspiracy to commit money laundering, each with a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. In particular, Bannon was pardoned, but not his alleged co-conspirators – which made the grace seem more like a crude personal favor. Bannon’s pardon follows a long list of former Trump employees who have received such relief, including Roger Stone and Paul Manafort.
The political beneficiaries were not all Democrats. Trump granted mercy to Kwame Malik Kilpatrick, one of the country’s most corrupt Democratic mayors. In Detroit, Kilpatrick was convicted of extortion and bribery in office.
Pardons in many ways reflect the presidents and their time. Some have been curative acts, such as Thomas Jefferson’s pardoning those convicted of the infamous Alien and Sedition Act; Gerald Ford’s forgiveness from Richard Nixon; and Jimmy Carter’s pardon for Vietnamese dodgers. Other pardons reflect the corruption of our time and our presidents. President Warren Harding has been accused of selling pardons, including to the mob enforcer Ignacio Lupo, known as “Lupo the Wolf”. George HW Bush apologized to those involved in the Iran-Contra affair, including Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. Bill Clinton used his last day in office to devalue that power with an apology to his own brother Roger Clinton and girlfriend (and fellow business partner of Whitewater) Susan McDougal. He also pardoned a man widely considered to be one of the least deserving pardons in modern history: the volatile financier and Democratic donor Marc Rich. The list of infamous characters pardoned by presidents is a virtual villain gallery.
Donald Trump’s pardons are arguably the most reflective of all American presidents. Trump had the lowest percentage of acts of grace for a president. However, if you were a corrupt politician, political ally, or celebrity, Trump seemed inclined to both sympathy and mercy. Indeed, Trump seemed comfortable using power openly to reward friends, allies, or family members. Trump signed a previous scholarship for Jared Kushner’s father, one of the most shameful pardons ever given by a president. Charles Kushner has been described as “one of the most heinous, disgusting crimes” he has ever prosecuted as a US attorney. The case involved the use of a prostitute, a hidden camera, and an attempt to intimidate his own brother-in-law but send the film to his own sister. Most presidents would have burned Kushner’s petition in a proactive act of purge. Trump instead granted an act of grace from the president.
Trump also continued his fondness for celebrities. This includes rapper Lil Wayne, who pleaded guilty to federal district court in 2020 of illegally possessing a loaded, gold-plated 45-caliber pistol while flying a private jet to Florida in 2019, as well as a range of drugs. He also pardoned rapper Kodak Black, who was convicted of federal gun charges. However, he was a supporter of the campaign. No one would credibly claim that these pardons were based on anything other than celebrity status.
The pardon list is also characterized by the fact that no overarching topic is missing except personal or political ties. For example, while Trump was moved by Lil Wayne, he was not moved by Julian Assange, who is being prosecuted by the Justice Department for posting classified information on Wikileaks. (In full disclosure I worked with the Assange defense team in London). Assange’s case raises grave concerns about freedom of the press and freedom of speech. What he doesn’t have a gold album – or a gold-plated pistol for that matter. Obviously, someone acting for the public interest or freedom of speech finds less resonance with Trump than those charged with fraud, political corruption, or personal excess.
It’s bizarre that our expectations of the president regarding pardons have fallen so far that there’s a sense of gratitude that Trump didn’t abuse power with grants to himself or his children. While I have long claimed that the constitution does not prohibit self-forgiveness, I also see it as an abuse of that power. This was a rare act of restraint. It will also force the hand of many Trump critics. For example, the DC Attorney General and a host of legal experts have alleged that Trump could be charged with criminal incitement. I believe such an indictment would fail in court on the grounds of freedom of speech. If so, it could ultimately be used as a justification for Trump on his second impeachment. In not forgiving himself, Trump has now forced the hand of those characters who insisted they want to bring such cases. However, these claims would now have to be asserted in real courts instead of addressing parts of the electorate.
Trump’s pardons show a disregard for law enforcement for political corruption and a great respect for his personal friends and political allies. There is little redemption in this record. Indeed, the most redeeming moment in the end was the absence of the additional abuse of proprietary trading. Like other aspects of his presidency, Trump can point to this strange distinction as redemption. Like to argue that he never fired Robert Mueller, it is a distinction by omission. However, when it comes to his legacy, “it could have been worse” is hardly an inspirational political epitaph to the President’s mercy.
This column was also published on Fox.com.