Just weeks after federal prosecutors in the Russia investigation raided the home of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort last year, President Donald Trump pardoned political ally and fellow “birther” Joe Arpaio.
Within days of his personal lawyer’s offices being searched in April, Trump pardoned Lewis “Scooter” Libby of his 2007 perjury and obstruction of justice conviction for his role in disclosing the name of a CIA agent.
And hours after revelations that a former FBI official had turned over a potentially damaging memo to special counsel Robert Mueller, Trump on Thursday morning announced his pardon of conservative activist Dinesh D’Souza.
Setting the new case apart from the others: D’Souza had actually pleaded guilty to the charges against him ― making his pardon, say Trump critics, a clear sign to the handful of former Trump aides who have pleaded guilty in the Russia probe and are now cooperating with Mueller’s team.
“The president is sending a blazing signal to his surrogates and associates that they will be rewarded if they stay loyal,” said Lisa Gilbert, head of legislative affairs for the open government group Public Citizen. “The precedent is particularly frightening as the important Mueller investigation into obstruction of justice and collusion continues and seems likely to have ongoing indictments and charges of those in the president’s orbit.”
A senior White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, denied D’Souza’s pardon was a message to anyone. “No. Not at all,” the official said.
Trump defenders outside the White House said there was no need for the D’Souza pardon to carry a political message because it had already been sent.
“I thought that was Scooter,” said one Republican close to Trump.
“What is he supposed to do, not exercise his power because people might misinterpret it?” asked Rudy Giuliani, a pardon attorney in President Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department and now Trump’s lawyer in the Mueller probe. “If you’re looking at it that way, he already sent that message with Scooter Libby.”
One former White House aide, though, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that “of course” that was the message Trump was sending.
“What is he supposed to do, not exercise his power because people might misinterpret it?”
“It could be construed that the president will take action, eventually, to take care of those who’ve been targeted because they are associated with Trump,” agreed Sam Nunberg, who had worked for Trump for years before he was fired from the campaign in late 2015. “They are attacking us, all Trump associates, like we’re Mafia.”
Thus far, former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, former campaign deputy chairman Rick Gates and former national security adviser Michael Flynn have pleaded guilty in Mueller’s probe. Former campaign chairman Paul Manafort is under indictment and awaiting trial.
From the start of the Russia investigation, Trump has labeled it a “witch hunt.” He has said it is treating him unfairly ― a characterization he has used for the way all three of his politically oriented pardon recipients were prosecuted.
Arpaio was convicted of criminal contempt of court for refusing to stop racially profiling people he thought looked like illegal immigrants when he was sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona.
Libby was tried and convicted in the case of Valerie Plame, a former CIA agent whose name was leaked to the media by the George W. Bush administration after her former diplomat husband cast doubt on the White House’s claim that Iraq had sought nuclear material.
D’Souza pleaded guilty in 2014 to asking associates to make donations to a Senate candidate, and then reimbursing them ― thereby exceeding campaign finance limits.
He, like Arpaio and Trump, for years trafficked in the racially charged “birther” lie that former president Barack Obama was not born in the United States and was therefore ineligible to serve in the White House.
Trump announced his latest pardon on Twitter Thursday morning: “Will be giving a Full Pardon to Dinesh D’Souza today. He was treated very unfairly by our government!”
A few hours later, aboard Air Force One en route to Texas, he told reporters: “What should have been a quick minor fine, like everybody else with the election stuff. ... What they did to him was horrible.” (He added that he was also considering pardoning Martha Stewart, who was convicted of securities fraud, and commuting the sentence of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was convicted of trying to sell an appointment to a vacant U.S. Senate seat.)
The Department of Justice confirmed that the D’Souza pardon did not follow the established process for clemency ― the same way the Arpaio and Libby pardons had not.
Giuliani justified Trump’s actions, pointing out that a president has the authority to pardon anyone without using any formal process at all. He added that former President Bill Clinton did worse in the final hours of his tenure by pardoning a fugitive hedge fund manager indicted on tax evasion and wire fraud charges.
“It sure beats the Marc Rich pardon, my friend,” Giuliani said.