WASHINGTON (AP) — An Obama administration critic pardoned by Donald Trump said Friday that the president told him he was being cleared because the campaign finance charges filed against him were “fishy.”
Trump pardoned Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative author and filmmaker, on Thursday and announced he’s thinking about clemency for Martha Stewart, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, among “lots” of other people.
D’Souza said he was surprised when he got a call at his office from the president.
“The president said ‘Dinesh, you’ve been a great voice for freedom. I got to tell you man-to-man you’ve been screwed,'” D’Souza told “Fox & Friends in an interview.
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Conservatives rallied around D’Souza, saying he had been singled out in a politically motivated prosecution by President Barack Obama’s Justice Department. D’Souza was sentenced to five years’ probation in 2014 after pleading guilty to violating federal election law by making illegal contributions to a U.S. Senate campaign in the names of others.
D’Souza claimed his conviction was politically motivated because Obama was angry over a movie he had made about him. D’Souza, who spent eight months in a halfway house in San Diego, said he was grateful he is no longer labeled a felon and can vote again.
It was the latest example of Trump using his presidential pardon power to right a perceived wrong. The move makes it ever clearer that, in the Trump administration, the odds of a pardon are better for those with a celebrity backer, those who have become a cause celebre among conservatives and those with a reality TV connection.
Trump has been particularly drawn to cases where he believes there was a political motivation to the prosecutions — a situation that may remind him of his own predicament at the center of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election meddling, which he insists is nothing but a “witch hunt.”
Watchdog groups criticized D’Souza’s pardon, saying it signaled contempt for the rule of law.
“Donald Trump has sent a message to his friends and cronies that if you break laws to protect him or attack our democracy, he’s got your back,” said David Donnelly, president and CEO of Every Voice.
Trump said he was seriously considering commuting the sentence of Blagojevich, the Democratic former governor serving a 14-year prison sentence on numerous counts of corruption, including trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat that was vacated by Obama. The president also said he was considering a pardon for Stewart, the celebrity lifestyle guru who served a stint in federal prison after being convicted of charges related to a stock sale.
Both had connections to Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” reality television show: Blagojevich was a contestant in 2010 and Stewart hosted the 2005 spinoff series, “The Apprentice: Martha Stewart.”
Trump also pardoned Jack Johnson, boxing’s first black heavyweight champion, whose case had been brought to his attention by actor Sylvester Stallone.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said it was unfair to suggest the only people winning pardons under Trump are those connected to him or with a celebrity backer. “The president is making decisions based on the merits of the individual cases and what he thinks is the right thing to do,” she said.
Trump has issued five pardons as president. In addition to D’Souza and Johnson, Trump has pardoned former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a top Trump supporter during the 2016 campaign. Arpaio was spared the prospect of serving jail time after a conviction stemming from his use of racially targeted immigration patrols.
He also has pardoned Navy sailor Kristian Saucier, who had taken photos of classified portions of a submarine. Trump often mentioned Saucier’s case on the campaign trail as he criticized his former Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, for her use of a private email server. Saucier had claimed his prosecution was driven by sensitivity about classified information driven by Clinton’s case.
Also pardoned was former White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. A former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, Libby was convicted of lying to investigators and obstruction of justice following the 2003 leak of the covert identity of a CIA officer. The Libby case was taken up by conservatives who argued he was the victim of an overly zealous and politically motivated prosecution by a special counsel.
That pardon, especially, was seen as a sign that Trump might be willing to pardon former aides caught up in the Mueller inquiry.
“The president’s ad hoc use of the pardon power is concerning enough. But the possibility that he may also be sending a message to witnesses in a criminal investigation into his campaign is extremely dangerous,” tweeted Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.
Associated Press writers Jonathan Lemire, aboard Air Force One, Zeke Miller and Kevin Vineys in Washington, and Michael Tarm in Chicago contributed to this report.