For the past month, President Donald Trump’s political allies and friends, as well as various lawyers, have been rushing against the clock to convince him to fulfill a lengthy wish list of pardons and commutations before Joe Biden takes office in late January.
“We’ve been flooded with requests,” said a senior White House official, who added that a lot of the appeals have been nakedly political and partisan, as is expected at the end of a presidency.
Late last month, Trump finally pardoned his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who less than a week later circulated a petition calling for Trump to declare martial law and undo the election in the wake of a Biden victory. The pardon, a longstanding demand by the Trump faithful, had been in the works for quite some time. According to a person with direct knowledge of the matter, Jason Miller, a senior Trump aide on the campaign, had even suggested to the president in early August that on a national security-themed night of the 2020 Republican National Convention, he should pardon Flynn on-stage during the live TV broadcast. Trump, however, shot down the idea, saying it was “too gimmicky,” the source added.
The president and his lieutenants are now weighing similar interventions for other former advisers, including the convicted former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. ABC News reported that the idea for preemptive pardons for the Trump family has been floated internally. Two people with knowledge of the matter tell The Daily Beast that in the weeks since Election Day, the president has also casually discussed with some confidants the idea of a self-pardon. The sources insisted, however, that Trump was chatting about it as a hypothetical, or relaying what he’s heard “some people” saying he could consider, and that they had no knowledge of this being seriously explored at the White House.
But buried elsewhere in the vast clutter of requests and considerations are reams of documents sent by advocates to the White House counsel’s office requesting pardons or clemency for drug offenders and longtime federal inmates who grew up under harsh circumstances and have turned their lives around behind bars. Behind the scenes, a loose coalition of unexpected allies are sprinting to get the president’s ear and put many of these cases before him and his White House lawyers. Some are the president’s confidants, MAGA diehards, and Trump advisers. Others are criminal justice reform advocates who’ve learned to love him. Others have long loathed him and his policies.
On Friday Nov. 20th, Alice Johnson, a criminal justice reform advocate whose life sentence was commuted by Trump two and a half years ago, visited the president for a 30-minute meeting, during which she outlined some of the cases she and her allies had already forwarded to the White House for vetting.
“It was a very good meeting,” Johnson told The Daily Beast, publicly confirming the discussion for the first time. “I went to the White House in order to present cases before the president in the Oval Office, for people I know are very deserving people… There are around 30 names that I’ve already sent to the White House counsel. I talked about some of the individual cases during the meeting with President Trump, but also discussed them collectively, in the sense that they all have outstanding rehabilitation records and outstanding prison records, and none of them pose a danger to the public.”
Johnson said Trump asked questions and expressed concern and receptiveness. She believes he supports issuing more clemencies this year. “We are also in the process of vetting and compiling packets for at least 100 more incarcerated individuals,” she said. “We are in warp speed right now, to get as many through as possible, as quickly as possible.”
Other friends and associates of the president and his inner orbit are also trying to get his attention on specific cases in the weeks before the curtain falls on the Trump era. Stephen Moore, a conservative economist who advises Trump, said in an interview that in the past few weeks he’s been sending notes to contacts in the West Wing, including Trump’s son-in-law and senior aide Jared Kushner. He’s also trying to book a meeting with the president or White House Counsel Pat Cipollone to lobby for Trump to intervene on behalf of Mitchell Rutledge, an Alabama prisoner who was convicted of murder when he was 21 years old. Rutledge is the subject of the book, Death on Hold: A Prisoner's Desperate Prayer and the Unlikely Family Who Became God's Answer.
“He’s led an exemplary life in prison, and been a real model citizen, totally reformed himself… He reminds me of the Morgan Freeman character in The Shawshank Redemption,” Moore said, adding that historian and Death on Hold co-author Burton Folsom helped introduce him to Rutledge’s story. “It would be a great thing for Trump to do [before he leaves office]. Mitch does these videos to try to steer kids away from crime. He would pose no danger whatsoever, according to almost everyone involved.”
Activist Weldon Angelos, a former music producer and onetime federal inmate with contacts in the Trump White House, said he met with Moore in Washington, D.C. to discuss Rutledge and how to bring his story to the Trump administration’s attention. Angelos said that since “it’s a state case,” not federal, “the president could come out and support this, but he can’t actually commute the sentence. But if he tweeted about it, he could potentially influence the decision in that case, given that it’s a conservative state [of Alabama].”
Angelos is currently working to flag other cases, as well, for this White House, and last month submitted a letter to Kushner’s office featuring “low-level cannabis charges or people who were following state law but got prosecuted by the federal government anyway.”
But even as Moore tries to lobby the president and senior staff, he realizes that Trump has his hands full and may not be receptive to this or other cases. “I’m a little worried that it might get crowded out,” Moore conceded.
This is a dilemma faced not just by friends of the president, but by numerous reform advocates who have worked, or tried to work, with this White House for the past four years. Activists on the issues of criminal justice reform and clemency widely view the Trump administration as—at best—a mixed bag when it comes to federal policy and rhetoric. Many are actively looking forward to working with the Biden administration instead, despite the president-elect’s past record. It is also unclear how much the outgoing president will end up delivering on these kinds of commutations and pardons, in large part because Trump is still consumed by pet grievances and his hopeless Rudy Giuliani-led legal effort to nullify Biden’s decisive 2020 win.
According to various activists and organization leaders who’ve spoken to The Daily Beast, their missions to reduce mass incarceration and advance reform have too often been impeded by Trump’s own ego.
“It has been common knowledge during this presidency that you would not get invited to certain meetings or events if your group wasn’t praising Trump enough in public,” said one reform advocate. “It happened all the time, and everyone knew it: if your group said something perceived to be too critical about this president, you risk being shut out of any White House roundtables or public events focused on reform. Groups that were publicly praising Trump ‘enough’ would always have a seat at the table.”
White House spokespeople did not provide comment for this story.
Still, high-profile figures in criminal justice reform circles are urging petitioners to quickly try to wring whatever they can out of Trump’s clemency powers before it is too late.
Reform advocate Jason Flom, a well-known record executive and a Democratic donor, said in an interview on Thursday, “This is one of the only issues where there’s some meaningful agreement between the left and the right. And I’m hoping that because there are conservative groups advocating alongside other organizations for clemency that the president will grant a significant number of them before he leaves office.”
Kevin Ring, president of the nonprofit group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said, “We’re encouraging everyone to seek clemency at this time. We know that this time at the end of an administration is the time to do it… We know there are going to be grants that make people scratch their heads and wonder whether that’s the best use of President Trump’s clemency authority. But we hope that for every one of those, there are 10 or 20 grants for people who are serving excessive sentences and deserve to be home.”
Trump’s record on this has at times carried the same blend of tumult and outrage as the rest of his presidency. He has caused strife and turnover at the upper ranks of his administration over his sustained push to grant clemency to American servicemen accused or convicted of war crimes. And as The New York Times reported, the Justice Department scrutinized Elliott Broidy, once a major fundraiser for Trump, and Abbe Lowell, a lawyer connected to Kushner, this summer over allegations of a convoluted plot to facilitate a bribe in exchange for a pardon.
But the president has also used his pardon and clemency powers for individuals with greater nonpartisan appeal and sympathetic stories—such as Johnson—and routinely touted his signing of the First Step Act, reform legislation that was praised even by numerous liberals who work on these policy issues.
As Christmas approaches, Johnson and her allies in this cause are holding out hope that President Trump will show some “mercy” to incarcerated victims of the war on drugs and of a broken justice system.
“I would love to see families having their loved ones free. I think that would be such a beautiful Christmas gift not just for families but for communities, too, for their loved ones to come home,” Johnson said. “My mother used to always ask me while I was incarcerated, no matter what time of year, it could be the Fourth of July, it could be Labor Day: ‘Do you think you’ll be home for Christmas?’… She held on. My mother never stopped hoping and praying and believing that I would come home. Even though she was told I had a life sentence, my mother never accepted that. But she passed away in 2013, before I got to spend my first Christmas reunited with my family after my incarceration. I wish she had lived to see it.”
Johnson continued, “We need some good news right now in the midst of all this COVID. I don’t think there are many people who don’t celebrate when you see this kind of mercy, when a family gets brought back together in this way.”