WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Tuesday granted clemency to 143 people, using a final act of presidential power to extend mercy to former White House strategist Steve Bannon, well-connected celebrities and nonviolent drug offenders, but he did not preemptively pardon himself or his family.
Among those who were pardoned or who had their sentences commuted on Trump’s final full day in office were the rapper Lil Wayne and former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, a Democrat who has been serving a 28-year prison on corruption charges.
Trump also granted clemency to Casey Urlacher, brother of former NFL star Brian Urlacher, who pleaded not guilty in March to charges that he helped run an illegal offshore gambling ring.
Trump signed the documents shortly before midnight, after he spent part of Tuesday consumed with indecision over whether to extend clemency to Bannon, who has been charged with defrauding donors to a charity established to fund the building of a wall on the southern border, according to two aides.
Some inside the White House believed Monday that Bannon would not get a pardon, but Trump continued to consider the matter, balancing Bannon’s previous help to him and potential to help him in the future against what he viewed as disloyal behavior at times.
Bannon, 67, and three others were accused last year of making fraudulent representations as they solicited more than $25 million in donations for a fundraising campaign called “We Build the Wall,” much of it from Trump’s supporters.
He had served as chief executive of Trump’s 2016 campaign, then White House chief strategist until he was ousted in August 2017 amid clashes with other White House aides. In recent months, Bannon had reestablished ties with Trump, promoting his reelection campaign and attempts to overturn the November results, and speaking to him in recent weeks, aides said.
The last-minute clemency extended to Bannon underscores how Trump has used his presidential power to benefit allies and political backers. He previously pardoned or commuted the sentences of his former campaign chairman, former national security adviser and a former campaign foreign policy adviser.
Trump also granted a pardon to GOP megadonor Elliott Broidy, 64, who pleaded guilty in October to acting as an unregistered foreign agent and lobbying the Trump administration on behalf of Malaysian and Chinese interests. A Los Angeles-based investor, Broidy helped raise millions for Trump’s campaign before serving as the Republican National Committee’s national deputy finance chairman.
“Even Nixon didn’t pardon his cronies on the way out,” Noah Bookbinder, executive director of the government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said in a statement. “Amazingly, in his final 24 hours in office, Donald Trump found one more way to fail to live up to the ethical standard of Richard Nixon.”
Advocates for criminal justice policy changes have lamented that many deserving people were overlooked in the clemency process because the president appeared focused on handing out political favors.
“They all had something Trump wanted or benefited him in some kind of way,” Nichole Forde, 40, who hand-wrote her clemency petition in 2016 and is serving a 27-year sentence for nonviolent drug crimes, wrote in an email from federal prison in Pekin, Ill. “I am not part of the Trump elite.”
While Trump had in recent weeks been considering extending preemptive pardons to his adult children or to himself in the wake of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, White House counsel Pat Cipollone and other advisers persuaded him that doing so would amount to an unnecessary admission of guilt, given that none has been charged with any crime or is known to be under federal investigation.
Trump’s lawyers argued to him that he could not pardon people without naming the potential crimes for which they were being pardoned and that preemptively granting people mercy before they were formally accused of a crime would set a bad precedent, a senior administration official said.
Advisers had been particularly opposed to Trump attempting to become the first president to pardon himself, believing the move might be unconstitutional and could further tarnish his legacy as he leaves office. They feared it could also antagonize Senate Republicans before they vote at his upcoming impeachment trial for allegedly inciting the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol.
A Washington Post-ABC poll released this week found significant public opposition to the move, with 68% of adults – including 34% of Republicans – opposed to a presidential self-pardon.
The president’s pardon power does not extend to investigations by state authorities, such as one underway by the Manhattan district attorney’s office into the business practices of the Trump Organization.
Trump ultimately decided against a series of other pardons that he had been considering, including for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden and the president’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, who has not been charged with a crime but whose consulting business has come under scrutiny as part of an investigation by federal prosecutors in Manhattan.
Trump had also considered pardoning Sheldon Silver, the powerful former Democratic speaker of the New York State Assembly convicted of corruption who held deep ties to the real estate community. But the final list did not include his name.
And he decided against a pardon for the star of the Netflix reality show “Tiger King,” known as “Joe Exotic,” despite such optimism from the zookeeper’s camp that it stationed a stretch limo near the prison where he is incarcerated to squire him home if his pardon were granted.
Trump had for weeks queried aides, friends and others associates about whether they’d like a pardon, reasoning that his political enemies would investigate anyone associated with his administration after he leaves office.
The process by which the final list came together was scattershot but ostensibly led by Cipollone, his White House counsel, who repeatedly sought to talk the president out of some of pardons he considered particularly problematic, aides said. Many of those acts of clemency that Trump did grant were recommended by his daughter Ivanka Trump, her husband Jared Kushner and Alice Johnson, a woman whose sentence for a drug conviction was commuted by Trump in 2018 after lobbying by the celebrity Kim Kardashian West.
Aides were prepping a news release and potential pardons after 11 p.m. on Tuesday, trying to discern which ones Trump had signed.
Trump has enjoyed the wide latitude the nearly unfettered constitutional power and in recent days, as his term came to a close, appeared to use lengthy discussions over whom to pardon as a distraction from thinking about his election loss. Aides described a last-minute scramble on Wednesday, with the mercurial president still weighing individual cases and lawyers racing to complete the paperwork.
Among those who received clemency was Dwayne Carter Jr., better known as the rapper Lil Wayne, who pleaded guilty in December to carrying a loaded gold-plated .45 caliber Glock handgun from California to Florida on his private jet. He was barred from owning the gun because of felony convictions including a weapons charge. He had not yet been sentenced.
Trump’s final round of clemency also included commutations of the sentences of a number of nonviolent drug offenders whose requests were championed by criminal justice advocates.
Some of those petitioners had sought clemency unsuccessfully from President Barack Obama, who granted a record-setting 1,715 commutations during his two terms in office under a sweeping initiative that prioritized nonviolent drug offenders.
Among the drug offenders newly freed from prison was Chris Young, 32, who is serving a life sentence for drug crimes and whose case was brought to Trump by Kardashian.
The federal judge who sentenced Young, Kevin Sharp, expressed regret for the life sentence after he left the bench. “What I was required to do that day was cruel and did not make us safer,” he said.
Despite relishing his pardon power and frequently querying aides and friends about to whom he should grant presidential mercy, Trump had until this week issued only 95 grants of clemency – fewer than most previous presidents who served one term or less.
The only modern-day, one-term president who gave out fewer was President George H.W. Bush, who granted 74 pardons and commuted three sentences. President Jimmy Carter granted 534 pardons and commuted 29 sentences. John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford, who did not serve full terms, granted far more petitions than Trump – 572 and 404, respectively.
President Bill Clinton awarded 140 pardons and commutations on his final day in office in 2001, sparking condemnation from Republicans, who conducted a detailed Congressional investigation into Clinton’s pardons. A criminal investigation was launched as well, ultimately finding no wrongdoing.
Trump has gone further in using the power to reward loyal allies, rather than reserving acts of clemency for ordinary people wronged by the justice system or who demonstrated that they have been rehabilitated after committing crimes.
“Donald Trump conducted his presidency for his profit, making virtually every policy decision on a transactional basis – not what the Constitution required, not what benefited our country and our people, but only what increased his power, wealth and status,” said Larry Kupers, who served as acting pardon attorney and deputy pardon attorney during Trump’s first two years in office but quit in 2019 because of how Trump was using the power.
“That approach was most evident in how he employed the pardon power, likely because that power is not subject to checks and balances.”
Trump’s first pardon, in August 2017, went to former sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz., a political ally who had been convicted of criminal contempt of court for conducting roundups of immigrants in violation of a court order.
Most of Trump’s pardons have come since he lost the November election, including people who had been convicted of crimes as part of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. He pardoned his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, his longtime confidant Roger Stone and his onetime national security adviser Michael Flynn, all of whom were convicted of crimes in the probe.
He also pardoned Charles Kushner, the father of his son-in-law, and three Republican former members of Congress accused of white-collar crimes. He pardoned ex-service members and military contractors convicted of wartime crimes overseas, including four contractors who were involved with the killing of 14 unarmed civilians in Iraq.
Trump has largely eschewed the Justice Department process that allows convicted criminals to apply for pardons, a system that was designed to impose some fairness on otherwise potentially arbitrary decisions. About 14,000 people have pardon applications pending with the Justice Department.
Instead, he has taken recommendations from his personal orbit of friends, consultants, lawyers and lobbyists, some of whom have been paid to promote pardons. Many of his pardons and commutations went to people who had not even applied through the Justice Department or met its guidelines.
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The Washington Post’s Amy Brittain, David A. Fahrenthold, Tom Hamburger, Michael Kranish, Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Steven Rich contributed to this report.