Donald Trump’s presidency died on Wednesday as it lived: in a last-minute torrent of corruption. His final batch of pardons doled out mercy to a motley crew of personal and political allies, rap artists, well-connected ex-businessmen and financiers, and a few deserving recipients. Hours later, he signed an executive order to remove restrictions on his ex-aides serving as lobbyists in Washington. It was a remarkably self-serving end to a remarkably self-serving presidency.
Long ago, in the distant mists of the 2016 election, Trump had fashioned himself as an anti-corruption crusader. He argued that his supposed wealth and purported outsider status would insulate him from the day-to-day grime of Washington politics. He vowed to “drain the swamp.” He condemned the Citizens United ruling. He railed against “Crooked Hillary.” Then he transformed his business empire into a vehicle for access and influence, abused his power to sabotage his opponents, and obstructed justice for himself and his friends. It was perhaps the greatest grift in American history.
If you are a fan of white-collar criminals, Trump’s final pardons were like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The marquee recipient was Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist who urged Trump to take steps toward a coup over the last few months. Why did Bannon need a pardon at all? Because he was arrested last August for his role in a scheme to defraud Trump’s own supporters by soliciting private donations to build Trump’s wall on the Southern border. Trump did not bother trying to rationalize the decision. He didn’t even pardon the other people indicted in the scheme. He reportedly just thought Bannon might be useful to him in the future, and so he goes free.
Other pardon recipients include well-connected Republican lawmakers. Duke Cunningham kept a “bribe menu” that documented how much he would receive in exchange for official favors, starting with $140,000 and a yacht for a $16 million defense contract, with an additional $50,000 bribe required for every additional $1 million on the contract. Rick Renzi extorted a mining company by threatening to block a federal land deal unless it bought land from one of Renzi’s business associates to whom he was indebted. They join three other former GOP members of Congress who were convicted of federal corruption offenses only to be pardoned by Trump years later.
Other wealthy and well-connected people received pardons and commutations, as well. Elliot Broidy, a former Republican National Committee financier, had his conviction for acting as an unregistered foreign agent wiped away. Salomon Melgen, a Democratic donor in Florida convicted of health care fraud who played a key role in the Bob Menendez corruption scandal, also received a pardon from the president. Trump handed out acts of clemency to some well-deserving recipients, including criminal justice reform advocates and a few first-time drug offenders. But the overarching theme of his acts of clemency was that the rich and powerful play by a different set of rules than the rest of us.
Despite this, Trump’s final batch also showed some restraint. He previously asserted that he had the “absolute right” to pardon himself for any federal crimes, and reportedly considered it as the days and weeks ticked down toward his departure. But no such self-pardon appeared in the final list. Trump may have been deterred by warnings that it would hurt him in the upcoming Senate impeachment trial. Some advisers warned that it would increase the odds that the Biden Justice Department would file some sort of charges against him—if only to knock down the awful precedent that a presidential self-pardon would set.
Trump also decided against preemptive pardons for top allies like Rudy Giuliani and various White House aides. Nor did he hand them out to his two oldest sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, who have led the family business for the past four years while it was under investigation by New York prosecutors. He did not give them to GOP lawmakers who reportedly sought them for their role in the Capitol Hill riot. And he declined to issue a mass amnesty to the Capitol Hill rioters who tried to stage a putsch on his behalf earlier this month. Multiple participants in those riots had publicly begged him for help, to no avail.
Other friends and associates also weren’t so lucky. National Rifle Association leader Wayne LaPierre, who is under investigation for federal tax crimes, did not receive one. Nor did Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is under investigation by the FBI for abusing his office on a donor’s behalf. Paxton tried to get the Supreme Court to throw out the election results; he was also the only attorney general in the nation not to join a statement condemning the Capitol Hill riot. Sheldon Silver, the former speaker of the New York State Assembly, did not receive an anticipated pardon for his own part in a state corruption scandal. Nor did WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who played a key role in Russian election interference four years ago and has been indicted on other federal charges since then.
Trump is hardly the only president to hand out dubious pardons in his final days in office. Bill Clinton’s list of last-minute pardons in 2001 even drew a Justice Department investigation. But no other president could match Trump’s sheer cynicism when it comes to one of the president’s most sweeping powers. He used pardons as rewards for loyal supplicants and as gifts to co-conspirators. He gave one to Paul Manafort after praising him for not cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller’s office in the Russia investigation and to Roger Stone for lying on his behalf to Congress about the same matters. Even by his standards, it was shameless.
What did Trump’s supporters get from all this? Four hundred thousand Americans have already died from a coronavirus pandemic that Trump largely failed to confront, and the economy is worse now for many Americans than it was four years ago. Only 47 miles of the 2,000-mile border wall was built by the time Trump left office; Biden is ordering a freeze to further construction on his first day. America’s reputation around the world has never been lower and may never recover. The Affordable Care Act remains the law of the land. One of Trump’s Supreme Court nominees helped expand the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to protect gay and transgender Americans. Even owning the libs turned out to be fleeting. Thanks to Trump’s failures, those libs now control the White House and both chambers of Congress.
For Trump, the hard reality doesn’t matter. He largely dwelled during his presidency in a fantasia built by conservative media outlets and his own magical thinking. His last official act as president was perhaps his most fitting one: a pardon for Al Pirro, who was convicted of conspiracy and tax fraud in 2009. Pirro is not a victim of prosecutorial misconduct, a miscarriage of justice, or a symbol of deeper flaws in the American criminal justice system. But he was once married to Fox News personality Jeanine Pirro, who said nice things about Trump on TV for four years. That’s all that ever mattered to him.