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The Real Message of Trump’s Latest Clemency Binge

The president showered mercy on a rogues’ gallery led by disgraced former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.

Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich arrived home from prison on February 19. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Throughout the Ukraine scandal, President Donald Trump’s defenders argued that his freeze on military aid sprang from a “legitimate interest” in anti-corruption efforts in that country. It was a disingenuous claim on its face all along, not only because Trump’s stated goal was to undermine a political rival’s candidacy but also because no president in American history has ever been less interested in fighting corruption.

The president underscored that point on Tuesday with his latest batch of pardons and commutations. Most of the beneficiaries of Trump’s mercy are well-heeled, well-known, or well-connected. They include former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who tried to sell a Senate seat in 2008; former NYPD Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who didn’t report a $250,000 bribe he had received to the IRS; Michael Milken, the “junk bond king” of the 1980s; and former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., who gave up the team in the 1990s after pleading guilty as part of a gambling bribery scandal in Louisiana.

Trump’s acts of clemency serve multiple purposes. They punctuate his growing sense of political invulnerability after the Senate’s acquittal vote in his impeachment trial two weeks ago. They send an implicit signal of support to Trump’s allies who are still in legal and criminal jeopardy, especially after the Justice Department’s upper ranks intervened last week to request a lower sentence for former adviser Roger Stone. More than anything else, the pardons aim to discredit the idea of federal anti-corruption prosecution itself—a campaign by Trump that serves his short-term political ends and, possibly, his long-term legal goals as well.

This isn’t the first time that Trump has used executive clemency to advance his personal goals. In some instances, the White House handed out pardons and commutations to reward staunch political supporters like conservative filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza and former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio. Other acts of presidential mercy served as implicit critiques of federal prosecutors, such as his pardon of former George W. Bush aide Scooter Libby during the Russia investigation in May 2018. Some even served as policy statements: Trump roiled the Pentagon last December by intervening in the military-justice system to free or shield three U.S. service members who were accused or convicted of war crimes.

Trump’s latest acts of clemency largely follow the same pattern. Perhaps the most prominent name on the list this time is that of Blagojevich, the disgraced ex-governor of Illinois. Before Trump intervened, Blagojevich was serving a 14-year prison sentence after an Illinois jury convicted him in 2011 for a scheme to auction off then President-elect Barack Obama’s Senate seat after the 2008 election. Even in a state known for high-level political corruption, it was a stunningly brazen abuse of power.

Blagojevich and his family began campaigning for Trump’s intervention after the Supreme Court rejected his last appeal in 2018. In op-eds and Fox News appearances, they claimed he had been the victim of overzealous Justice Department prosecutors who sought to criminalize everyday politicking. “Our system of government [has] a system of checks and balances for a reason, and sometimes the courts and these prosecutors get it wrong, and it takes a strong leader like President Donald Trump to right those wrongs,” Patricia Blagojevich, the ex-governor’s wife, told Fox host Jeanine Pirro in a June 2018 appearance. It was an incredible grift.

Trump likely found new reasons to sympathize with the disgraced governor in the wake of the Ukraine scandal. The broad outlines of Blagojevich’s crimes—an incriminating phone call, a thinly veiled quid pro quo, the corrupt misuse of official power—strongly resemble the misdeeds described in the two articles of impeachment against Trump last December. Patrick Fitzgerald, the former U.S. attorney who prosecuted Blagojevich, is also a longtime friend of former FBI Director James Comey and serves as his attorney. “It was a prosecution by the same people—Comey, Fitzpatrick [sic]—the same group,” Trump told reporters before boarding Air Force One on Tuesday. (Comey worked in private practice during the Blagojevich case.)

Blagojevich’s commutation drew swift criticism from Illinois. “Illinoisans have endured far too much corruption, and we must send a message to politicians that corrupt practices will no longer be tolerated,” Governor J.B. Pritzker said in a statement. “President Trump has abused his pardon power in inexplicable ways to reward his friends and condone corruption, and I deeply believe this pardon sends the wrong message at the wrong time.” Four prosecutors who worked on the Blagojevich case said that despite Trump’s actions, the ex-governor’s conviction “serves as proof that elected officials who betray those they are elected to serve will be held to account.”

The other high-profile acts of clemency effectively double as rewards for some of his closest political supporters. The White House said that DeBartolo’s pardon came at the request of multiple NFL icons as well as New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, both of whom have supported Trump. Kerik had served as New York’s top police commissioner during the mayoralty of Rudy Giuliani, who now works as Trump’s legal fixer. Milken received a raft of endorsements from Trump’s political allies, including GOP megadonors Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, Fox News Channel owner Rupert Murdoch, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

Those rewards send a powerful signal to Trump’s allies who are still caught up in the criminal justice system. There’s ample evidence that the president has dangled his clemency powers as a means to keep associates from testifying against him. Trump publicly floated the idea of pardoning Paul Manafort in 2018 while his former campaign chairman was under pressure to testify in the Russia investigation. One of Trump’s lawyers reportedly discussed a pardon for former national security adviser Michael Flynn with Flynn’s lawyers two years ago. The president even personally raised the possibility of pardoning Roger Stone, who is set to be sentenced for lying to Congress on Thursday, to his advisers in recent weeks. Tuesday’s pardons and commutations help normalize what is surely coming to his long-suffering loyalists after the 2020 election, if not sooner.

Trump himself will also personally benefit from the clemency spree. With the stroke of his pen, he all but negated thousands of man-hours spent by the Justice Department over the past three decades to convict defendants who stood accused of serious offenses: bribery and corruption, fraud and tax evasion, lying to investigators and deceiving the public, and more. Trump can’t reverse the financial and personal toll that those cases imposed on their targets. But he can delegitimize the federal government’s anti-corruption efforts and undermine the notion that it can hold the wealthiest and most powerful Americans accountable for their actions.

These are all salient benefits for a scandal-ridden president. With a tamed Justice Department under Attorney General Bill Barr and a submissive Republican-led Senate, Trump is all but above scrutiny by or consequences from any other institution at the moment. I’ve noted before, however, that his de facto immunity expires the moment he leaves office, whether in 2021 or 2025. It’s no secret that Trump is under investigation by New York prosecutors. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren also plans to create a DOJ task force to review his time in office if she defeats him in November. Trump isn’t waging the last war. He’s fighting the next one.