WASHINGTON – The White House is moving to take more direct control over pardons and commutations, with President Donald Trump aiming to limit the role of the Justice Department in the clemency process as he weighs a flurry of additional pardon announcements, according to people familiar with the matter.
Trump, who granted clemency Tuesday to a group of 11 people that included several political allies and supporters, has assembled a team of advisers to recommend and vet candidates for pardons, according to several people with knowledge of the matter who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
The group, essentially an informal task force of at least a half-dozen presidential allies, has been meeting since late last year to discuss a revamped pardon system in the White House. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, is taking a leading role in the new clemency initiative and has supported the idea of putting the White House more directly in control of the process that in past administrations has been housed in the Justice Department, officials said.
Pam Bondi, the former Florida attorney general who served on Trump’s impeachment defense team, is also playing a significant role, vetting applications for potential pardon recipients. Kushner has personally reviewed applications with White House lawyers before presenting them to Trump for final approval, according to two senior administration officials.
Trump, who prefers granting clemency to people with compelling personal stories or lengthy sentences, is inclined to grant more pardons before facing voters in November, one official said.
“He likes doing them,” the official said, adding that the president was unfazed by criticism over his decision to grant clemency, including to former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, and financier Michael Milken.
The new effort comes at a pivotal time in Trump’s presidency, as he is seeking to more forcefully exert his executive powers in the wake of his impeachment acquittal while also campaigning for reelection. Trump has tried to make a direct appeal to minority voters by repeatedly touting his actions on criminal justice, including with a Super Bowl ad that featured Alice Johnson thanking the president for freeing her from prison.
The effort also represents an attempt to establish a more organized way for making clemency decisions. For most of Trump’s presidency, his decisions about whom to pardon appeared to be based more on cues from celebrities, political allies and Fox News segments than a thorough vetting of the merits of the case. It also led to criticism that only the well-connected were being considered, rather than the thousands of applicants who were pressing their cases through the official Justice Department process.
“Trump brags about criminal justice reform, but instead of helping any of the 13,000 federal inmates who have petitioned for clemency – many of whom are serving overly harsh sentences and deserve mercy – Trump helped political supporters, the wealthy and well-connected, those championed by Fox News, and contestants on his TV show,” the Democratic National Committee said in a statement following the recent pardon announcement.
Trump’s decision to rely on conservative allies for clemency decisions also risks further politicizing the pardon process at a time of fraying confidence in the ability of the Justice Department to carry out its duties without political interference.
While several of the pardons Trump granted Tuesday went to well-connected or wealthy associates, the president also commuted the sentences of three women who had been convicted of nonviolent offenses – part of the new task-force effort.
The women were recommended by Johnson, who had her life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense commuted by Trump in 2018. Johnson has been working with the White House’s new clemency effort after Trump publicly asked her last year to submit a list of names of other people who deserved commutations, officials said. She recommended Crystal Munoz, Tynice Hall and Judith Negron, who each had their sentences commuted by Trump on Tuesday.
Johnson is a member of the informal network of advocates providing clemency recommendations. Former acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker, Democratic commentator Van Jones and Brett Tolman, a former U.S. attorney in Utah, are also part of the group, according to a senior administration official.
The informal effort ramped up after Johnson reached out to lawyers and other criminal-justice advocates to help her seek commutations for women she knew in prison, said Inimai Chettiar, legislative director for the Justice Action Network, a bipartisan group pushing for criminal justice change and represented on the informal task force by Tolman.
Johnson reached out to these people “and they started meeting with the White House,” Chettiar said. “Alice Johnson helped coordinate this.”
A move by Trump to ramp up the clemency process and seize control from the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney would be welcome by criminal-justice advocates, said Mark Holden, general counsel of Koch Industries, the private company controlled by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, whose political network worked closely with the White House on legislation to reduce sentences for nonviolent offenders.
“I think the shift would be great,” said Holden, who worked with Johnson and the White House to help secure commutations for Munoz, Hall and Negron. “No disrespect intended to the Department of Justice, but having them decide who gets freed after they’re the ones who locked people up with these ridiculous sentences? There seems to be some bias there.”
Democrats have criticized Trump’s willingness to use the presidency’s almost unlimited pardon authority to bestow clemency to high-profile allies convicted of fraud, lying and corruption.
Trump’s commutation of Blagojevich, who was convicted on corruption charges in 2011 related to trying in 2008 to sell President-elect Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat, received criticism from some Republicans, as well as Democrats.
Kushner was supportive of the Blagojevich commutation, while other White House and campaign aides argued heavily against it, according to three administration officials.
Trump added to the sense of confusion Tuesday by indicating he decided to commute Blagojevich’s sentence after seeing his wife advocate for his release on television.
A set of White House talking points released to supporters Wednesday defended Trump’s decision to grant clemency to Blagojevich, who had served eight years of a 14-year sentence, and others.
“The Americans granted pardons and commutations by President Trump were recommended and selected based on factors such as excessive sentencing, their rehabilitation, and more,” the talking points said, without describing how the recommendations were made.
Several officials familiar with the matter said the White House has been discussing ways to revamp the clemency process for months, amid growing consensus that the role of the Justice Department should be minimized. The White House has been disappointed with the Justice Department’s process, officials said. While the Justice Department has traditionally received clemency petitions, the new process involves direct submission of applicants to the White House Office of American Innovation, which is led by Kushner, according to people familiar with the matter.
Ja’Ron Smith, the deputy director of the Office of American Innovation, has also been involved in the pardon process, officials said.
Paul Larkin, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation who has worked with the White House on criminal-justice issues, said Kushner and others in the administration have held discussions about changing the clemency process since 2018.
Larkin said the discussions he participated in, including one led by Kushner in 2018, included proposals for reducing or eliminating the role of the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney in the clemency process.
Marc Levin, who leads the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Right on Crime initiative, said changing the presidential pardon process has long been on the agenda of advocates on both sides of the aisle.
“In most states, as you know, the parole and clemency process is not vested with prosecutors,” he said, noting that Obama also tried to make changes, though those efforts still took place within the Justice Department. “Both sides recognize that the traditional process needs to be reformed.”
The foundation’s executive, Kevin Roberts, was listed by the White House as someone who advocated for the release of Hall, Munoz and Negron.
It’s not clear how the people in Trump’s informal network will select people to recommend for clemency, or whether any of the thousands of inmates with pending applications will be able to get the attention of Trump’s allies.
Larry Kupers, who led the pardon office during the first two years of the Trump administration, noted that a record-setting number of nearly 13,000 people are waiting for responses to their clemency requests. Many of them have no access to the president, and it’s not clear how they would fare under a new clemency process that cuts out the career officials at the Justice Department.
“I would urge President Trump to look closely at thousands of federal inmates who really deserve clemency,” Kupers said, “rather than focusing on his cronies.”
“Rod Blagojevich did not sell the Senate seat. He served 8 years in prison, with many remaining,” Trump wrote in a tweet tagging Fox News. “Thank you to @LisaMarieBoothe who really ‘gets’ what’s going on!”
Justice Department officials in the past have worried about how Trump handled pardons.
There was so much concern about subversion of the traditional pardon process under Trump that then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein instructed the department’s pardon attorney that they reported only to him, the attorney general and the president, a person familiar with the matter said. Rosenstein told the pardon attorney that if anyone else from the White House called and asked for a pardon warrant, the pardon attorney must first seek his approval, the person said.
The person said Rosenstein was deeply concerned that well-connected friends and benefactors were getting special access. The issue arose in particular when the White House proposed clemency for Oregon ranchers, and Rosenstein insisted officials first hear from prosecutors on the case, the person said.
The president appeared to be paying close attention to how his set of pardons and commutations were being received in the media Wednesday.
After Blagojevich held a news conference in which he declared himself a “Trumpocrat,” the president tweeted at the Fox News panel that offered decidedly mixed reviews of the president’s decision to pardon of the former governor. He praised one of the panelists who defended him.
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The Washington Post’s Beth Reinhard, Anne Gearan and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.