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 Stephen K. 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, who has been serving a 28-year prison sentence on corruption charges.
Trump also pardoned two former Republican members of Congress, Rick Renzi of Arizona and Randall “Duke” Cunningham of California. Both had completed prison terms that stemmed from corruption convictions. A third, Robert “Robin” Hayes of North Carolina, was also pardoned after finishing a probation sentence for making a false statement during a federal investigation.
Before finally signing the paperwork shortly before midnight, the president spent part of Tuesday consumed with indecision over whether to pardon Bannon, according to two aides. The former Trump adviser was charged last year with defrauding donors to a charity established to privately fund the building of a wall on the southern border.
Some inside the White House believed Monday that Bannon would not get a pardon, but Trump continued to weigh the matter – balancing Bannon’s previous help to him, and potential to help him in the future, versus what he viewed as disloyal behavior at times.
Bannon, 67, and three others were accused 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.
The former Breitbart News chairman had served as chief executive of Trump’s 2016 campaign and then White House chief strategist until he was ousted in August 2017 amid clashes with other aides. In recent months, Bannon had reestablished ties with Trump, vocally supporting his reelection and attempts to overturn the November results and speaking to him in recent weeks, officials said.
The last-minute clemency extended to Bannon underscores how Trump has used his presidential power to benefit allies and political backers. He had previously pardoned or commuted the sentences of his former campaign chairman, former national security adviser and a former campaign foreign policy adviser.
On Tuesday, 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.”
On Wednesday, with less than an hour left in his term, White House officials said Trump signed one final pardon – for Albert Pirro Jr., the ex-husband of Fox News personality Judge Jeanine Pirro, a close Trump ally. Pirro was sentenced to serve 29 months in prison after being convicted of conspiracy and tax evasion in 2000.
Many of those who received clemency Tuesday had the backing of an ally of the president, such as former adviser Kellyanne Conway, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.,, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich or newly elected Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., who were among those cited in the White House statement as supporters of various pardons.
Advocates for criminal justice reform 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 in recent weeks had been strongly considering extending preemptive pardons to his adult children or even 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 in history 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 as well, with 68 percent of adults – including 34 percent 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 other controversial pardons that he had also been considering, including for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden and the president’s own personal attorney Rudolph W. 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 contemplated pardoning Sheldon Silver, the powerful former Democratic speaker of the New York State Assembly who was convicted of corruption. But the final list did not include his name.
And the president decided against a pardon for the star of the Netflix reality show “Tiger King,” known as “Joe Exotic,” despite high optimism from the zookeeper’s camp. On Tuesday, his supporters stationed a stretch limo near the prison where he is incarcerated to squire him home had his pardon been granted.
For weeks, Trump had queried aides, friends and associates about whether they would like a pardon, reasoning that his political enemies are likely to 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 the acts of clemency that Trump did grant were recommended by his daughter Ivanka Trump, her husband Jared Kushner and Alice Johnson, the woman whose own sentence for a drug conviction was commuted by Trump in 2018 following lobbying by the celebrity Kim Kardashian West.
Trump relished his pardon powers and in recent days, as his term came to a close, appeared to use lengthy discussions about who deserved clemency as a distraction from thinking about his election loss, officials said.
Aides described a last-minute scramble Tuesday, with the mercurial president still weighing individual cases and lawyers racing to prepare the paperwork as the night grew late. Officials were still prepping a news release about potential pardons after 11 p.m., trying to discern which ones Trump had signed. The final list was released after 1 a.m. Wednesday.
Among those who received a full pardon 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 due to a past felony conviction. He had not yet been sentenced.
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 also commuted the sentence of Salomon Melgen, a West Palm Beach, Fla., eye doctor who was sentenced in 2018 to 17 years in prison, accused of stealing $73 million from Medicare by persuading elderly patients to undergo unnecessary procedures.
Separately, Melgen had been accused of bribing Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., to intercede on his behalf in the Medicare investigation. Menendez, who denied the charges, was indicted on corruption charges but his 2017 trial resulted in a hung jury and the Justice Department dropped the case. Menendez supported clemency for Melgen, the White House said.
Another commutation went to Sholam Weiss, 66, who was serving an 835-year prison sentence stemming from his 2000 conviction in Florida for racketeering, wire fraud and money fraud related to his role in the collapse of the National Heritage Life Insurance Company. Weiss’s sentence was believed to be the longest ever given to a defendant convicted of white-collar crime.
Trump also pardoned Ken Kurson, a political consultant who was editor in chief of the New York Observer while it was owned by Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. Kurson had been charged in October with cyberstalking related to his divorce from his now ex-wife and had not yet gone to trial.
And the president issued a full pardon to Paul Erickson, a GOP political operative who had been sentenced to serve seven years in prison for wire fraud and money laundering after pleading guilty to a scheme to defraud investors in oil development company. Separately, Erickson was romantically linked to a Russian woman who pleaded guilty to conspiring to infiltrate conservative groups.
Trump’s final round of clemency also included commutations of the sentences of a number of nonviolent drug offenders whose requests had been championed by criminal justice reformers.
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: Chris Young, 32, who has served 10 years out of a 14-year sentence for drug conspiracy.
Young was initially sentenced to life, and the judge, Kevin Sharp, expressed regret for the extent of the 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 who deserved presidential mercy, Trump had until this week issued only 95 grants of clemency – fewer than most previous presidents who served only 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 only three sentences in all. President Jimmy Carter granted 534 pardons and commuted 29 sentences. Even 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 furious 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 repeatedly used the power to reward loyal allies, rather than reserving acts of clemency for ordinary people wronged by the justice system or who demonstrated 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 over 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 election. He pardoned his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, his longtime confidante 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 Jared, and three Republican former members of Congress accused of white-collar crimes. And he has 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 Matt Zapotosky, Tom Hamburger and Steven Rich contributed to this report.