On Wednesday evening, reality TV star Kim Kardashian visited former reality TV star and current president Donald Trump in the West Wing to plead the case and advocate for the pardon of Alice Marie Johnson, a grandmother serving a life sentence for a drug conviction.
Half a day later, Trump took action. Only, it wasn’t the 62-year-old cause célèbre of criminal justice reformers whom he helped out. Instead, the president pardoned a pro-Trump, right-wing conspiracy theorist and race-baiter, while suggesting he may soon do something similar for a fellow television personality, and a Democratic governor of Illinois convicted of corruption.
The announcements, given with virtually no forewarning, underscored the extent to which the two main factors that have long motivated Trump—personal vindictiveness and a love of celebrity—have manifested themselves in presidential policy.
“He has a gravitational pull towards [pardoning celebrities] because that is the world he used to exist in—a lot of those folks are people who used to be his friends,” Scottie Nell Hughes, a former top Trump ally and fixture on cable news, told The Daily Beast. “However, I believe this is opening a door, and if he doesn’t follow through with [more] people who are not well-known, I think that will be extremely disappointing.”
Trump’s pardon of conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza and his floatation of one for Martha Stewart and a commutation for Rod Blagojevich appeared tied together by several threads. In each case, the beneficiaries and would-be beneficiaries were well-known figures with direct ties to Trump or his allies. In addition, each subject was prosecuted by a prominent legal or political enemy of the president.
In D’Souza’s case, Trump’s ire appeared to be directed toward Preet Bharara, the former U.S. Attorney whose office secured the verdict and who was, in early 2017, fired by the president. But sources who spoke with Trump also noted that he didn’t just try to absolve a political ally and stick it to Bharara—he also had Rosie O’Donnell on his mind.
D’Souza, whose wife credited Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) for championing his cause to Trump, has compared his own case to a series of excessive campaign contributions made by O’Donnell. He couldn’t have chosen a more perfect foil. In the arena of Trump foes, few loom larger than Rosie. Last year, the president took another jab at her on Twitter, and has said in the past that he would “probably sue” her “because it would be fun [and] I'd like to take some money out of her fat-ass pockets.”
Sure enough, sources say that in private conversations with those close to him, Trump has echoed D’Souza and others’ point, wondering why if “what Rosie did was so terrible,” she is a free woman and D’Souza was saddled with a criminal record, referencing what he had seen on TV.
In fact, what O’Donnell did is routine. Political campaigns, including Trump’s, regularly refund excess contributions, which are minor civil infractions. It was also categorically different from D’Souza’s felonious effort to conceal excessive contributions to a U.S. Senate candidate in New York by reimbursing donations made in the name of an employee and a girlfriend. The candidate, longtime D’Souza friend Wendy Long, lost the general election by 43 percentage points.
“I’ve always felt he was very unfairly treated,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One on Thursday. “And a lot of people did, a lot of people did. What should have been a quick minor fine, like everybody else with the election stuff….what they did to him was horrible.”
On that same plane ride, Trump also revealed that he was weighing a pardon for Stewart and a commutation for Blagojevich, two potential recipients with even more celebrity appeal. The former Illinois governor appeared on Trump’s NBC show Celebrity Apprentice, and Stewart had hosted her own failed spin-off of The Apprentice. And, like D’Souza, both also happen to have ties to Trump’s current bete noires: Stewart was prosecuted by former FBI director and US Attorney James Comey. Blagojevich was sent to prison by Comey’s friend and former deputy, Patrick Fitzgerald.
“Obviously, we are hopeful that President Trump will pardon Mr. Blagojevich, or commute the remainder of his sentence,” Leonard Goodman, the former governor’s attorney, said in a statement emailed to The Daily Beast. “President Trump has the power to correct this.”
Presidents are given the power to pardon and commute sentences with little to no checks at all. But few, if any, have used it in the same fashion as Trump. Prior presidents have been criticized for overtly political decisions, namely Bill Clinton’s pardoning of financier, and indicted tax evader, Marc Rich towards the very end of his time in office. But, by in large, a formula has been followed for determining who receives such reprieves.
A pardon starts with a formal submission, which then goes to the Office of the Pardon Attorney at the Department of Justice, who then makes a recommendation to the Deputy Attorney General’s office, who then makes a recommendation to the White House Counsel's office, who then makes a recommendation to the president. Years can pass. In an expedited time frame, it would be a matter of many months.
President Barack Obama rankled social justice advocates by moving slowly in his adherence to this policy. Trump, by contrast, seems to have virtually abandoned it.
Mary Price, general counsel of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), acknowledged that what the current president was doing was unorthodox. But she remained hopeful that he’d recognize the pardon power could be used towards a greater end.
“I don’t want to pretend to look into the heart of Donald Trump. I don’t know what is there. The best use of a pardon or commutation as the founders laid out is to temper justice with mercy,” said Price. “The best use of the power is when it is used to send a message to the system.”
Critics of the administration believe that a message to the system is already being sent. The federal investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election has already netted guilty pleas for some former Trump associates, with others being prosecuted by Robert Mueller, the special counsel. Trump’s sudden rash of pardons, the theory goes, is a signal to, individuals ensnared in the probe that Trump is willing to reward loyalty.
That’s what some Trump supporters hope, anyway. Asked for his thoughts on D’Souza’s pardon, Roger Stone, a former political adviser to Trump, told The Daily Beast on Thursday, “I hope Gen. Flynn is next,” referring to former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, who pleaded guilty last year to lying to federal investigators.
Inside the White House, however, the pardons are viewed less as a broader strategic play in the Russia probe and more as statement of political rebellion. According to several sources, the pardon of D’Souza was seen widely as an attempt by Trump to—at least in part—troll his critics by benefiting a political figure widely reviled by respectable people. It wasn’t the first time the president did so either. His pardon of former Maricopa County, Arizona, sheriff Joe Arpaio generally pleased and enraged all the same suspects.
Another recipient of a Trump pardon, former Dick Cheney aide Scooter Libby, had been prosecuted by Fitzgerald. But his political legacy was in being a black mark on George W. Bush’s record for that president’s refusal to fully clear his name before leaving office.
The pardon of the late boxing champion Jack Johnson last week seemed to have no element of trolling at all, having come a the behest of a sustained lobbying campaign by Rocky star and Trump friend Sylvester Stallone. But even then, the president could not help himself in throwing in a dig at yet another enemy.
In his statement on the pardon, Trump stressed that Congress had supported resolutions regarding Johnson but “no president ever signed it,” adding that many people thought and had hoped “it was going to be signed in the last administration, and that did not happen, so it was disappointing for a lot of people.”
In fact, Trump is so determined to pardon allies and friends that he’s even reportedly promised such a pardon where he has no authority to give it. Boxing legend Mike Tyson reportedly said last year that Trump had promised to help relieve him of his 1992 rape conviction. But whether or not either of them knew it, President Trump cannot do so: Tyson was convicted in Indiana state court, not under federal law.
—With additional reporting by Andrew Kirell.