Convicted felon Dinesh D’Souza was at home in Houston, Texas, on Wednesday afternoon, working in his study, when his telephone rang and flashed “UNKNOWN NUMBER.”
“I picked it up and an operator said, ‘Is this Mr. Dinesh D’Souza? Hold for the president of the United States.’ On comes Trump and we talked for about five to seven minutes,” D’Souza recounted Thursday in an interview with The Daily Beast.
The 57-year-old right-wing controversialist—still on probation and doing community service after pleading guilty four years ago to violating campaign finance laws, for which he had already spent eight months with hardened criminals in a halfway house in California—was describing the conversation in which Donald Trump informed him that he was about to receive a presidential pardon.
“He was in the Oval Office with [White House chief of staff] John Kelly,” continued India-born D’Souza, a naturalized U.S. citizen, “and basically Trump said, ‘You’re a great voice for America. I knew from the beginning that you got screwed. What you did was a technicality. You should have gotten a fine. But these people went after you hammer and tong. It’s outrageous. And I’m gonna set it straight. I’m gonna clear your record. I’m gonna pardon you. I’m gonna sign it tomorrow morning. This way you’ll have a clean slate, and you can be a bigger voice than ever for freedom and for America.’”
Once formalized, the pardon will restore D’Souza’s right to vote—he’ll be casting his ballot for Trump in 2020—permit him to travel out of the country without seeking the approval of a federal judge, own a firearm, prematurely end his five-year probation and relieve him of the obligation to continue devoting eight hours each week to teaching English as a Second Language to immigrants from Latin America and other nations.
On D’Souza’s suddenly pristine criminal record, it will be as if he never transgressed in the first place.
What will remain, of course, is D’Souza’s hair-raising history of toxic provocations and hostile rhetoric. As The Daily Beast has previously reported, he has demeaned the impact of civil rights icon Rosa Parks as “absurdly inflated”; repeatedly claimed falsely that Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros, a financial supporter of liberal causes, “served as a collection boy for Hitler and the Nazis” when he was a Jewish child during World War II; and tweeted this about a photograph of sobbing Florida school-shooting survivors when the state legislature initially voted down an assault weapons ban: “Worst news since their parents told them to get summer jobs… Adults 1, kids 0.”
Stunningly, he also claimed: “Hitler was NOT anti-gay. He refused to purge gay Brownshirts from Nazi ranks saying he had no problem as long as they were good fighters.”
“Of course I do” have regrets, D’Souza told The Daily Beast. “I probably tweet between three and five times a day. Twitter is a little bit of the Wild West. And so you get involved in these edgy and emotional debates. I’m obviously tweeting on hot-button issues. And there are times when I’ve crossed the line, and there are times when I’ve had to apologize for it”—for his mockery, for instance, of Florida high school students who witnessed the mass killings of 17 students and teachers.
Yet he continues to portray Soros as a teenage Nazi collaborator.
During a press gaggle Thursday aboard Air Force One, which coincidentally was preparing to land in Houston for a Republican fundraiser, the president told reporters that D’Souza—a poison-pen polemicist, tendentious tweeter, and ideological filmmaker—“almost had a heart attack” from the surprise phone call. (D’Souza confirmed that it came as “a bolt from the blue.”)
“I don’t know him, I never met him, I called him last night [Eastern Time]. First time I’ve ever spoken to him. I said, ‘I’m pardoning you,’” the president recounted, according to the pool report. “‘Nobody asked me to do it.’”
However, like a great many things that Trump asserts, that last claim wasn’t quite true. According to D’Souza, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a political ally and social friend, had personally lobbied the president while other supporters had been campaigning on social media and circulating a “Pardon Dinesh D’Souza” petition for the better part of a year.
“I stayed away from it, because I thought that having anything to do with it was unseemly—campaigning for my own pardon,” D’Souza said, adding that various people “in and around Trump” had periodically told him that they were trying to secure the presidential decree. “Then, a month ago, my wife [Republican crusader Debbie Fancher] and I had dinner with Ted Cruz and his wife [Goldman Sachs investment manager Heidi Cruz]” at the Cruz home in Houston’s posh River Oaks neighborhood.
When the senator told D’Souza that he intended to raise the pardon issue with Trump to correct “a grave injustice,” the dinner guests were apprehensive. “Debbie and I both realized that Ted Cruz had opposed Trump in the primaries, and we didn’t know how Trump would react. Then, Cruz called me about two weeks ago and said, ‘I raised it with Trump and he was very receptive.’ However, Cruz told me I shouldn’t say a word about it to anyone ‘until you get it.’”
D’Souza, who dutifully kept the secret until Trump tweeted the news on Thursday, admitted in federal court four years ago that he broke the law in 2012, when he was president of Manhattan’s Christian-oriented King’s College, by arranging for illegal campaign contributions to Senate candidate Wendy Long, a Dartmouth College classmate running from New York, and filing false statements about the donations.
The Southern District of New York office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara—an Indian-American like D’Souza—charged that D’Souza flagrantly exceeded the legal limits by attempting to hide a personal donation of $20,000 through reimbursed checks written by his mistress Denise Joseph, whom the long-married D’Souza frequently introduced as his fiancée, and Joseph’s brand-new husband.
“I knew that causing a campaign contribution to be made in the name of another was wrong and something the law forbids,” D’Souza told the court as part of his guilty plea. “I deeply regret my conduct.”
More recently, however, D’Souza has portrayed himself as a political martyr who was personally targeted by President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder as payback for an anti-Obama movie he directed, for which he traveled to Kenya and grilled Obama’s African kinfolk and got them to say embarrassing things. As news of the pardon broke, D’Souza couldn’t resist gloating on his Dartmouth classmate Laura Ingraham’s radio show and sticking it to the Trump-fired Bharara: “File this in the ‘karma’s a bitch’ department.”
Bharara responded on Twitter: “The President has the right to pardon but the facts are these: D’Souza intentionally broke the law, voluntarily pled guilty, apologized for his conduct & the judge found no unfairness. The career prosecutors and agents did their job. Period.”
D’Souza told The Daily Beast that far from “voluntarily” pleading guilty, he was coerced by the prosecutors who threatened to charge him with the more serious crime of filing false documents, which carried a possible 5-year-sentence instead of the 2-year maximum for busting the legal donation limits. “Preet is a slimy character doing Obama’s bidding, and now he’s playing the neutral observer,” D’Souza said. “He’s the guy who poisoned the water supply, pretending to be the water commissioner.”
Trump’s pardon was cause for general cheering among D’Souza’s friends and allies. Yet not all conservatives were praising the action.
“Whoever told Trump to do this is an idiot,” a well-known conservative emailed The Daily Beast, asking not to be further identified. “Dinesh engaged in obvious, intentional law-breaking for a moronic reason. This is Hillary-style in-your-face law-breaking, not Michael Cohen-style mistakes.”
The prominent right-winger continued: “I don’t care if campaign finance limits are dumb, [late Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin] Scalia would have prosecuted Dinesh. He had [people including] his mistress all give the maximum to Dinesh’s old Dartmouth pal, Wendy Long, all of whom he then reimbursed. Pro tip: If you’re going to break the law, don’t involve your mistress, whose husband will have an incentive to drop a dime on you … Dinesh ought to go to prison for life for stupidity.”
D’Souza chuckled softly when the email was read to him.
“To be honest, there is a grain of truth to that,” he said, “in the sense that I am probably one of the stupidest lawbreakers in the world.”