You can tell a lot about a president by how he uses his pardon powers. In the case of Donald Trump—whose presidency has been defined by cosa nostra levels of revenge, corruption, and demands of loyalty—the power of the pardon mostly lies in its use as a way to reward friends and allies, while sticking it to critics and enemies. Trump’s clemency grants Wednesday to Rod Blagojevich, Michael Milken, and the others were another exercise in ego tripping and muscle flexing, a tacit admission that greedy Wall Street cheats, political grifters, and tax evaders are his kind of people.
But like everything he does, Trump’s clemency grants are also a reflection of his racial outlook and his fundamental belief that some folks—wealthy white men whose white-collar crimes are in line with his own—are both above the law and beyond reproach.
It’s no secret that racism informs every Trumpian policy including criminal justice, but just lately, in the lead up November’s election, the administration has offered attempts at superficial denials. Just weeks ago, the Trump campaign aired a multimillion dollar Super Bowl commercial featuring Alice Johnson, a grandmother whose life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense was commuted by Trump after more than two decades served.
The money shot in that ad was its closing shot, when Johnson tearfully thanked Trump by name. At the same time, the president has attempted to recast himself as a criminal justice reformer, trumpeting his signing of the 2018 First Step Act, a bill aimed at lowering recidivism rates and reducing sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.
But these were mere gestures, or more specifically, sleights of hand meant to distract from the racism that drives Trump’s approach to all things. While Johnson’s gratitude to Trump is understandable, the commutation of her sentence was granted only because Kim Kardashian’s richness, whiteness, and celebrity hold sway with Trump. And while the president has made much of the First Step Act being passed, its passage was part of Trump (and the GOP’s) unilateral race war against Barack Obama. The bill sat on Mitch McConnell’s desk for the last two years of Obama’s term; he then decided to let it pass just to give Trump the chance to take bragging rights over his black predecessor.
But even as Trump consistently has used his criminal justice reforms as a bone tossed to potential black voters, his administration has dedicated itself to turning back the clock on criminal justice reform. When Trump promised back in 2016 to “maintain law and order at the highest level,” he was describing an America that would be made great again by even more harshly criminalizing, prosecuting, and punishing black and brown people.
For starters, the First Step Act has largely been about the illusory optics of criminal reform, given short shrift in funding as the Department of Justice works diligently to re-imprison the same people the initiative freed. Similarly, Trump’s DOJ has been fighting tooth and nail to bring back federal executions after a 16-year halt, a plan that has only been thwarted, so far at least, by a federal court.
The administration backed off its plan to ramp up background checks for applicants to federal jobs after bipartisan blowback made it a possible political liability. And in his endless quest to undo every Obama legislative success, Trump’s DOJ once again began contracting with for-profit prisons for federal inmates.
While doing all this, it’s worth noting, Trump has overseen a 62 percent decline in penalties from the Securities and Exchange Commission, and more than 70 percent fall-off in corporate penalties from DOJ criminal prosecutions.
There are also Trump’s own words on criminal justice. When this president disingenuously criticized Democratic candidate Michael Bloomberg for resurfaced audio praising the use of racist “stop-and-frisk” policing, numerous outlets quickly assembled receipts—tweets, mostly—demonstrating Trump’s vocal support for the policy dating back nearly a decade.
Just days ago, Trump lauded the use of the death penalty against drug dealers, citing China as inspiration. More than three decades and five exonerations after calling for the execution of the five black and Latinx teens falsely accused of rape in the Central Park 5 case, Trump recently suggesting he still didn’t think it was such a bad idea. He has also joked that police brutality is cool, and called Chicago—a town he employs as shorthand for black criminality—”embarrassing to us as a nation.”
By “us,” he means white people, though being of the law abiding sort isn’t necessarily a requirement. Trump believes that there are white guys like him—and Roger Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone—whose only offense is the endless acquisition of greed and money by any means.
On the other hand, there are “those people,” who by dint of race or class, deserve the full wrath of the law and its most punitive remedies. If Donald Trump were in any way truly committed to addressing the inequities of the criminal justice system with his pardons—of which he’s given precious few compared to predecessors, leaving 13,000 inmates in limbo—he’d actually focus on more people serving time for drug crimes and wrongfully convicted folks.
But this president is, fundamentally, actually opposed to righting the wrongs of criminal injustice or tackling the racism that taints this system. As the self-described “chief law enforcement officer of the country,” Trump believes the job brings with it a special mandate: policing poor folks, black folks, and brown folks so that we are always reminded that there is no justice for us.