President Donald Trump, noted corruption fighter, on Tuesday sent a crystal-clear message to anyone considering public malfeasance or exploiting the power of their public trust: Not on my watch. In a thunderous East Room speech, Trump blasted anyone who would besmirch the noble calling of public service with even the hint of corruption, self-dealing, fraud, deception, tax avoidance, or abuse of power.
The president condemned in the harshest terms any government employee who would borrow money from foreign lenders, lie on security questionnaires, and continue to manage their private businesses while in office. Corruption, he said, was fundamentally corrosive to America’s norms, institutions, and values.
Oh, who the fuck am I kidding?
The most lawless president of our lifetime on Tuesday pardoned former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich—and a coterie of other white-collar criminals—because of course he did.
This wasn’t the president choosing some worthy case where a miscarriage of justice had left a man or woman wrongly accused to rot in prison. It wasn’t a case where prosecutorial misconduct was evident, proven, and egregious and demanded redress. It wasn’t a case where racial bias from the cops, prosecutors, or jury led to an unjust sentence.
No, this was a scumbag, freeing a fellow traveler. Game knows game.
Trump said of Blagojevich: “He served eight years in jail, a long time. He seems like a very nice person, don’t know him. I watched his wife on television. I don’t know him very well. I’ve met him a couple of times. He was on for a short while on Apprentice years ago. Don’t know him.”
Remember, this was a governor who literally tried to sell the U.S. Senate seat Barack Obama gave up to take the presidency. “I’ve got this thing, and it’s fucking golden. I’m just not giving it up for fucking nothing,” Blago famously said while the FBI was listening in. He was heavy-handed even by Cook County standards, and his career was littered with other examples of the same kind of mercenary zeal.
This is not going over well, even with Republicans in Illinois. Representatives Darin LaHood, John Shimkus, Adam Kinzinger, Rodney Davis, and Mike Bost—none of them members of the ragged edge of the Never Trump movement, to put it mildly—said today in a joint statement, “As our state continues to grapple with political corruption, we shouldn’t let those who breached the public trust off the hook. History will not judge Rod Blagojevich well.”
There are several large reasons, and a few trivial ones, why Trump is on a pardoning and clemency spree.
Let’s get the biggest reason out of the way first: These pardons and clemency decisions are part of a long march by Trump through anything with the fingerprints of Jim Comey or Robert Mueller present.
His consciousness of guilt pumping out of every pore means he’s always obsessing over Mueller and the pre-Barr DOJ. Trump knows without Barr to choke out the Mueller Report and defend the Office of Legal Counsel memo he’d be staring at a much different world right now. By the time this is over, Trump will order Betsy DeVos to defund Comey’s high school.
Next, it’s as much about Roger Stone as it is about Blago.
Trump was sending Roger the second message in two weeks. The first message was, of course, when Attorney General Heavy B stepped in with the courts in a clumsy and ultimately counterproductive attempt to reduce Stone’s seven-to-nine-year sentence to something still punitive but more reasonable, like forcing Stone to wear a poly-cotton-blend golf shirt from Walmart. The Barr operation blew up spectacularly, as so many of the Keystone Krime Family’s plays do.
No, Trump was trying to tell Stone (and Manafort, Gates, Flynn, et al.), and the inevitable chain of aspirational pre-indicted scumbags dragging behind his garbage-barge presidency that if you keep quiet, you’ll be OK. Keep your vow of Orangemerta and he’ll either pardon you or commute your sentence. This was also a message to future campaign staffers, Cabinet members, and everyone else in his orbit that as long as they’re kicking their piece of the vig up to the boss and keeping their mouth shut, they’re good.
It’s good to be the king.
The next Trump fascination isn’t simply with executive power; it’s with regal power, and the pardon and clemency power itself seems to have a particular fascination and utility for him. It’s because pardons make him feel royal.
Monarchs have the power of life and death, of telling the courts, the juries who render verdicts, and the judges who pass down sentences that the king has the last vote. Pardons exist for a reason, and the use of pardon powers has been—as the Framers intended—narrow, infrequent, and in cases where the pardon serves to illustrate some civic lesson.
Running back to an obsession that seemed to blossom around the time of Ivana, Trump has a consistent through line of wanting to be considered a royal. From the Saddam’s Palace decorating style to the phony family crests, he has always seemed one second from buying the title from some defunct Eastern European royal family. Now that he’s in office, he feels less need for a piece of parchment from a Walachian title mill proclaiming him the Baron of Saxe-Douchebage.
No, now he’s got real power, backed up by a supine attorney general with a monomaniacal obsession with ensuring Trump remains in power. Barr’s vision of the Executive Branch’s power—vast, puissant, and superior to the legislative and judicial—is too complex for Trump’s wee mind to fully grasp, but Trump does appreciate, deep in his feral brain, the power Barr has given him, and the degree to which Barr has enabled him to seek vengeance, reward fealty, and edge ever closer to ermine robe and scepter territory.
When Trump declared on Tuesday that “I’m actually, I guess, the chief law enforcement officer of the country,” Barr’s Justice Department didn’t roar into action to protect the longstanding tradition of the attorney general in that position. I mean, how could they? Barr acts like an employee at best, a toady at worst. Old and busted: rule of law. New hotness: L’etat, c’est Don.
Finally, and saddest of all, is that Trump sees Blagojevich as a fellow traveler from his real homeland: the world of reality television. He sees Blago as a resident—albeit vastly below his own lordly stature—of what the late Clive James once called “The Fame Planet.” The only thing that matters to Trump is image, and the source of his image is television. If you’re a current Trump staffer looking for that pardon down the line—and odds are, you’ll need one—get on a reality show, pronto.