In early November, President Donald Trump learned that he would only have 10 more weeks to use the power of the presidency. Amid a deadly pandemic and a massive economic downturn, he decided to mostly deploy that power in two ways: to challenge the foundations of U.S. democracy, and to boost himself, his political agenda and his personal allies in ways he can’t after Jan. 20.
He is particularly focused on one tool: the presidential pardon. Before he leaves office, Trump can forgive anyone convicted of committing a federal crime, technically wiping their record clean. He can even issue prospective pardons for people who have yet to face any charges.
Trump signaled his intentions with his first post-election pardon on Nov. 25, when he issued an extremely broad reprieve for his former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Trump both cleared Flynn of charges he had already received for lying to federal investigators and shielded him from accountability for any other crimes he committed that are connected to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
In the run-up to Christmas, as Trump upended congressional efforts to send aid to struggling Americans and ignored the thousands-strong daily death toll of the coronavirus, he issued 41 pardons on Dec. 22 and Dec. 23 to people ranging from his daughter’s father-in-law to war criminals responsible for a massacre in Iraq. He is expected to intervene in more cases in the days ahead.
“This is rotten to the core,” Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska, said of the pardons on Dec. 23.
Here are some of the notable beneficiaries of Trump’s controversial pardoning spree.
Nicholas Slatten, Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty and Paul Slough are responsible for one of the most brutal episodes in the U.S. occupation of Iraq following the 2003 U.S. invasion of that country.
On Sept. 16, 2007, the four men were in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad working for the private security firm then known as Blackwater, which was founded by Trump ally Erik Prince. They were in a four-vehicle convoy that was assigned to protect State Department officials. Then, starting with Slatten, they began firing on unarmed Iraqi civilians in a crowded traffic circle. They killed at least 14 people, including multiple children.
On Oct. 22, 2014, a jury in Washington convicted Slatten of murder and the other three men of voluntary manslaughter and other charges. They appealed, with some success, but ultimately all received long prison sentences.
Trump’s decision horrified Iraqis, as well as other observers in the U.S. and abroad, and reflected how he celebrates brutality while claiming he wants to end wars and how little he thinks of the lives of most people, particularly foreigners.
“I’m really shocked,” Hassan Salman, one of the Iraqis shot by the Blackwater employees, told NPR after the White House announced the pardons. “The American judiciary is fair and equitable. I had never imagined that Trump or any other politician would affect American justice.”
The White House statement on the pardons praised the men for “a long history of service to the nation” ― echoing Trump’s narrative that extreme violence defying long-held American ideals is evidence of patriotism ― while making a passing reference to the “unfortunate deaths and injuries of Iraqi civilians.”
Mueller Investigation Subjects
Robert Mueller’s monthslong investigation of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election was an existential threat to the Trump presidency — fears of federal law enforcement attention into the matter were, by Trump’s own account, the reason he fired then-FBI Director James Comey in 2017. The subsequent controversy and Mueller’s appointment as special counsel put several top Trump officials and even the president in serious legal jeopardy.
While Trump avoided criminal charges himself, others weren’t so lucky. Mueller’s team ultimately brought charges against 34 people, obtaining eight guilty pleas and one conviction. In many cases, people were convicted for obstruction or similar efforts to thwart Mueller’s probe. As an apparent reward for their help, Trump is now pardoning almost all of those people.
Trump has so far pardoned Flynn, George Papadopoulos, Alex van der Zwaan, Roger Stone and Paul Manafort for crimes related to the Mueller probe. Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign in 2016, pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about his contacts with people who claimed to be Russian officials. Van der Zwaan, the grandson of a Russian billionaire, pleaded guilty to lying to Mueller’s team about contacts with the Trump campaign. Flynn twice pleaded guilty to lying to Mueller’s team about conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S.
Stone was convicted in 2019 of obstructing a congressional investigation into Russia’s role in the election, as well as threatening a witness. Trump had previously commuted his sentence, in July. In 2018, after Stone proclaimed he would never testify against Trump, the president tweeted “Nice to know that some people still have ‘guts!’”
Manafort, Trump’s onetime campaign manager, was placed on home confinement for a raft of charges ranging from financial crimes to obstruction of justice and witness tampering. Manafort very clearly accepted a longer prison sentence of seven and a half years instead of cooperating against Trump. The president praised him during the investigation and trial for refusing “to break,” and according to some reports, Trump made it clear to Manafort that a pardon awaited if he didn’t give Mueller any help. That has now come to pass.
Law Enforcement Officers
Several of Trump’s pardons were for law enforcement officers accused of violence against people of color. Trump has long claimed that law enforcement ― immigration officers especially ―are wrongly limited in their ability to do their jobs.
He pardoned Stephanie Mohr, a former police officer in Prince George’s County, Maryland, who was convicted of a federal civil rights violation after letting her dog attack a homeless Mexican immigrant in 1995, even though he was not resisting arrest. Prosecutors said she had a history of racist actions. During one police home search, she threatened a woman living there that she would release the dog to bite the woman’s “black ass,” according to a court filing at the time. (Mohr denies this.)
Trump also pardoned Joseph Occhipinti, a former agent with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, a precursor to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Occhipinti was convicted in 1991 for violating the civil rights of Hispanic store owners by conducting illegal searches and then lying to cover it up. President George H.W. Bush commuted Occhipinti’s sentence the following year after urging from a political ally. “Bush insulted the whole community,” Jose Liberato, one of the store owners who filed a complaint against Occhipinti, told The New York Times at the time. “He threw the law into the garbage.”
Gary Brugman, a former Border Patrol agent, was pardoned after violating the civil rights of an immigrant by kicking and hitting him even though he was complying with officers’ orders. Brugman got some high-profile help to gain his pardon: conservative commentators Laura Ingraham, Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs took up his cause, as did immigration hardliners including Reps. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) and Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn of Texas. In 2001, Brugman and other border agents chased down a group of people who crossed the border illegally. The men sat down when a Border Patrol agent ordered them to, but Brugman beat two of them anyway, pushing them to the ground and assaulting them even though they did not fight back or resist, according to court filings.
Trump also pardoned former Border Patrol agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean, who were found guilty of offenses including deprivation of rights, assault with a dangerous weapon and tampering with an official proceeding. In 2005, the men shot at a Mexican man who was smuggling drugs. Ramos hit and wounded the man, but the agents did not report the shooting; instead, they removed shell casings from the ground to cover up the crime scene, according to a 2009 report by the Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s office. President George W. Bush commuted their sentences in 2009, but conservative figures continued to push for a pardon.
And, of course, there are gifts for people with deep personal ties to the president. Trump pardoned Charles Kushner, the father of his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner. The elder Kushner pleaded guilty in 2004 ― prosecuted by then-U.S. attorney, former New Jersey governor and Trump ally Chris Christie ― for tax evasion, illegal campaign donations and a failed scheme against his sister’s husband.
After he learned his brother-in-law was cooperating with federal authorities, Charles Kushner hired a prostitute to lure the man to a motel room, where a hidden camera would record their encounter. Kushner planned to send the tape to his sister. The goal, according to Christie, was to intimidate his sister from testifying against him before a grand jury. Christie described the matter as “one of the most loathsome, disgusting crimes that I prosecuted when I was U.S. attorney.”
Trump also pardoned John Boultbee and Peter Atkinson, who were convicted of a fraud scheme in 2007. Their pardon was at the urging of Lord Conrad Black, a former media mogul and their co-defendant, whom Trump pardoned last year. Black is a longtime Trump toady: he wrote a piece in 2005 entitled “Trump is the good guy,” and a fawning 2018 book called ”Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other.”
Some of Trump’s notable pardons and commutations were for Republican political figures, including two of his first endorsers in Congress: then-Reps. Duncan Hunter and Chris Collins.
Trump pardoned Hunter (R-Calif.) and his wife, Margaret Hunter, who pleaded guilty in 2019 to conspiracy to steal campaign funds. The two were involved in a scheme that involved using campaign money on personal expenses, including costs involved in the congressman’s extramarital affairs, according to prosecutors. They also spent campaign donors’ money on, among many other things, trips to Italy and Hawaii, home improvement, an NFL game package and flights for their pet bunny, according to an Office of Congressional Ethics report.
Thanks to Trump’s pardon, Collins, a former congressman from upstate New York, served only 10 weeks of a prison term that was supposed to last 26 months. Collins pleaded guilty to two insider trading charges on Oct. 1, 2018 ― after being caught on camera giving his son a tip on a biotechnology company from the White House grounds during the 2017 edition of the annual Congressional Picnic. Soon after he was charged, Collins actually said a pardon from Trump would be “inappropriate.”
John Tate and Jesse Benton, two former campaign staffers of former Texas Rep. Ron Paul whom Trump pardoned, indirectly made payments to an Iowa state senator to endorse Paul’s failed 2012 presidential campaign. Paul’s son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Lee Goodman, former chair of the Federal Election Commission, supported the pardon. Goodman argued that the “reporting law violated was unclear and not well established at the time.” Both men were convicted in 2017 of causing false records to be filed, causing false campaign expenditure reports, engaging in a false statements scheme and conspiring to commit the offenses. A federal appeals court upheld their convictions in 2018.
Mary McCarty, who was elected five times as county commissioner in Palm Beach, Florida, was pardoned after pleading guilty in 2009 to a federal charge of honest services fraud. This followed her steering lucrative business deals to her husband and accepting free or discounted hotel rooms from a company that she supported in building a hotel. The White House, in explaining her pardon, argued that McCarty’s actions may not be criminally prosecuted today due to a more narrow interpretation of the law by the Supreme Court. Her pardon was supported by former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who was a member of Trump’s legal team during his impeachment trial, and Christopher Ruddy, who is the CEO of the conservative website Newsmax Media.
Former Texas Congressman Steve Stockman, who was convicted in 2018 of misusing $1.25 million charitable funds for personal expenses, had the remainder of his 10-year prison sentence commuted by Trump on Tuesday. The White House cited “humanitarian and compassionate grounds” for his release, reasoning that Stockman is 64 and “has underlying pre-existing health conditions that place his health at greater risk during the COVID epidemic,” though Stockman already contracted the virus behind bars, the announcement said. He will remain subject to a period of supervised release and will still be required to pay more than $1,000,000 in restitution.
Other GOP figures who received pardons include Utah state Rep. Phil Lyman ― who was convicted in 2015 for organizing an illegal ATV ride on archaeologically sensitive land ― and former U.S. Rep. Mark Siljander (R-Mich.) ― who served time for undisclosed work with an Islamic nonprofit.