President Donald Trump doled out clemency to a new group of loyalists Wednesday, wiping away convictions and sentences as he aggressively employed his power to override courts, juries and prosecutors to apply his own standard of justice for his allies.
One recipient of a pardon was a family member, Charles Kushner, the father of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Two others who were pardoned declined to cooperate with prosecutors in connection with the special counsel’s Russia investigation: Paul Manafort, his 2016 campaign chairperson, and Roger Stone, his longtime informal adviser and friend.
They were the most prominent names in a batch of 26 pardons and three commutations disclosed by the White House after Trump left for his private club in Palm Beach, Florida, for the holiday.
Also on the list released Wednesday was Margaret Hunter, the estranged wife of former Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif. Both of them had pleaded guilty to charges of misusing campaign funds for personal expenses.
Duncan Hunter was pardoned by Trump on Tuesday as part of a first pre-Christmas wave of grants of clemency to 20 convicts, more than half of whom did not meet the Justice Department guidelines for consideration of pardons or commutations. They included a former Blackwater guard sentenced to life in prison for his role in the killing of 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007.
Of the 65 pardons and commutations that Trump had granted before Wednesday, 60 have gone to petitioners who had a personal tie to Trump or who helped his political aims, according to a tabulation by Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith. Although similar figures do not exist for previous presidents, legal experts say that those presidents granted a far lower percentage to those who could help them personally and politically.
Trump’s use of his powers to grant clemency to allies and supporters drew criticism even from some Republicans. “This is rotten to the core,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb.
The pardons to Manafort and Stone on the same day will be particularly stinging for former special counsel Robert Mueller and his team.
Trump’s lawyer at the time, John Dowd, was said to have broached the topic of pardons with lawyers for Manafort in 2017. At the time, Manafort was considering whether to cooperate with prosecutors, who believed that if there had been a connection between Russian officials and the Trump campaign that Manafort or Stone would have known about it. Trump later expressed explicit support for Stone’s refusal to speak with investigators.
Some investigators were left to believe that private discussion of pardons and public statements by Trump may have compromised their ability to uncover the facts.
The wording of the pardons for Manafort and Stone reflected Trump’s grievances about the Mueller investigation, referring to the “Russian collusion hoax,” “prosecutorial misconduct” and “injustice.”
Manafort, 71, had been sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison for his role in a decadelong, multimillion-dollar financial fraud scheme for his work in the former Soviet Union.
Stone, 68, whose 40-month prison sentence had previously been commuted by Trump, has maintained his innocence and insisted there was prosecutorial malfeasance. He was convicted on seven counts of lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstructing the House inquiry into possible Trump campaign coordination with Russia.
The pardon of Kushner, the father-in-law of the president’s older daughter, Ivanka Trump, has been one of the most anticipated of the Trump presidency.
Kushner, 66, pleaded guilty in 2004 to 16 counts of tax evasion, a single count of retaliating against a federal witness and one of lying to the Federal Election Commission in a case that was also a lurid family drama. He served two years in prison before being released in 2006.
The witness he was accused of retaliating against was his brother-in-law, who along with his wife, Kushner’s sister, was cooperating with federal officials in a campaign finance investigation into Kushner.
In his plea agreement, Kushner acknowledged that he arranged to have a prostitute seduce his brother-in-law in a motel room in New Jersey where video cameras were installed. Kushner then had the videotape sent to his sister.
The case was prosecuted by then-U. S. Attorney Chris Christie, a longtime Trump friend who went on to become governor of New Jersey. Last year, Christie said Charles Kushner had committed a “loathsome” and “disgusting” crime.
Jared Kushner worked on criminal justice overhaul efforts in the White House in part because he was scarred, allies said, by his father’s time behind bars. And he had a tense relationship with Christie for years, helping to banish him from his role in running the transition almost immediately after Trump’s surprise election win in 2016.
Among the other clemency recipients announced by the White House on Wednesday were Mark Shapiro and Irving Stitsky, whose 85-year sentences for their roles in a real estate investment fraud were commuted by Trump.
Their case has been held up by some proponents of sentencing overhaul as an example of huge disparities between sentences offered in plea deals and those imposed after trials. Shapiro had been offered a plea deal with a sentence of five to seven years, and Stitsky a deal with a sentence of seven to nine years.
Their push for commutation had been supported by a number of groups and people who have been influential with Trump on clemency issues, including Alice Johnson, whose life sentence on drug charges was commuted by the president in 2018 at the urging of supporters including Kim Kardashian.
Others receiving pardons or commutations included a former K-9 police officer who served a 10-year prison term, the White House said, for releasing her dog on a burglary suspect who was badly bitten, and two former associates of Conrad Black, the former media baron who was found guilty of fraud and obstruction in 2007 and pardoned by Trump in 2019.
In pardoning Manafort and Stone, Trump continued to chip away at the work of the Mueller investigation, which the president and his departing attorney general, William Barr, have attacked for the past two years. Trump had already pardoned or commuted the sentences of three others who had been prosecuted by Mueller’s office, including two on Tuesday.
Barr, whose last day in office was Wednesday, has echoed Trump’s criticism of the investigation and ordered an inquiry into its origins, but to the president’s frustration he did not prosecute anyone for it before last month’s election.
Barr had also moved to reduce the sentencing recommendation for Stone and to overturn guilty pleas entered by Michael Flynn, the president’s first national security adviser.
But Barr supported the prosecution of Stone, whereas Trump commuted Stone’s sentence in July and pardoned Flynn last month.
The president has long publicly dangled the prospect of pardons for associates caught up in investigations in a way that critics argued amounted to a bid to persuade them to keep quiet about any wrongdoing they may have witnessed by Trump.
Even as he agreed to cooperate with the special counsel’s office, Manafort’s lead lawyer, Kevin Downing, continued to brief Trump’s personal lawyers, an unusual arrangement that raised questions about what side Manafort was on.
Some of Downing’s public statements also seemed aimed at generating sympathy for Manafort from the West Wing. Downing repeatedly said that prosecutors in the case had no evidence that the Trump campaign had conspired with Russia to influence the 2016 election, even though potential links to Moscow’s sabotage fell outside the purview of the trial.
Trump repeatedly expressed sympathy for Manafort, describing him as a brave man who had been mistreated by the special counsel’s office. After Manafort was initially sentenced in March 2019 to 3 1/2 years in the conspiracy case, the president said, “I feel very badly for Paul Manafort.”
Manafort was released early from prison in May as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and given home confinement instead.
Manafort is not completely out of legal trouble, with a state case in New York still not entirely resolved.
The Manhattan District Attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., charged Manafort with mortgage fraud and more than a dozen other state felonies in March 2019 in an effort to ensure that he would still face prosecution should Trump eventually pardon him. Presidential pardons only apply to federal, not state, laws.
But in December of that year, a New York trial judge ruled that the indictment violated the state’s double jeopardy law, a decision that was upheld by an appeals court in October of this year.
Vance’s office, which has sought leave to appeal that ruling to the state’s highest tribunal, the Court of Appeals, said in a statement Wednesday night that the president’s pardon of Manafort makes clear that the state charges should be upheld.
Other presidents have made extensive use of clemency power in their final days in office, sometimes benefiting political allies or people close to them.
President Bill Clinton on his last day in office in 2001 pardoned or commuted the sentences of more than 175 people, including his half brother Roger Clinton, who had been convicted on drug charges, and his former Whitewater business partner Susan McDougal, who had been locked up for refusing to cooperate with Ken Starr’s team investigating the president.
But Clinton came under especially intense criticism for his pardon of Marc Rich, a financier who had fled the United States to avoid tax charges and whose ex-wife donated large sums to Clinton’s future presidential library.
Among those particularly enraged by the pardon of Rich was Rudy Giuliani, who had been the U.S. attorney whose office prosecuted Rich and is now the president’s personal lawyer. “He never paid a price,” Giuliani said in 2001 about Rich.
After losing reelection in 1992, President George H.W. Bush pardoned former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and five others targeted by prosecutors in the Iran-Contra scandal. Bush was convinced that a new indictment against Weinberger that challenged the president’s account of his own actions issued days before the election helped seal his defeat. Independent counsel Lawrence Walsh accused Bush of a “cover-up.”
Such actions were sharply criticized at the time as abuses of power and in Clinton’s case even investigated for evidence of wrongdoing.
But a president’s pardon authority under the Constitution is expansive and not ordinarily subject to the approval of any other part of government. Some legal scholars have argued that the corrupt use of the pardon power — in response to a bribe, for instance, or to obstruct justice — could be a crime, but it has never been tested.