Corruption is the rule. This week marks twenty-eight years since George H.W. Bush pardoned six defendants as part of the Iran-Contra cover up. One of whom, confessed criminal Elliot Abrams, was brought back into government by George W. Bush, and now serves as Trump’s Iran/Valenzuela envoy. Trump is not just using the pardon power as other presidents have, but pardoning people to send a clear signal to witnesses and prosecutors. Each of the pardoned miscreants was convicted of crimes that may have been committed by witnesses against Trump or by the president himself.
Trump’s pardons have broken with the longstanding practice followed by presidents of both parties. Most consult extensively with the federal pardon attorneys, and applicants go through an exhaustive process. Presidents long stood behind federal courts—even when they disagreed with the rulings. Think of Dwight D. Eisenhower sending federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce a federal ruling on school desegregation. Trump’s pardons send a different message: if you are a supporter, I’ve got your back...no matter what.
Trump and his defendants will say that he is taking a stand against the criminalization of politics. But there are far more ominous overtones. They offer a sneering rebuke to law enforcement as well. The specific crimes committed by the individuals Trump has pardoned may map the very charges that one could imagine being brought against Trump himself. The overall message couldn’t be clearer: public corruption isn’t really a crime. And the pardon power is there to be used to make sure that nobody is truly held accountable.
His defenders note that pardon power is in the Constitution. True. But a pardon that is given for improper reasons can still be a criminal act. In fact, the articles of impeachment against Richard M. Nixon that were passed by the House Judiciary Committee in 1974 included a count charging Nixon with dangling the clemency "carrot" before the burglars. Trump’s pardons amount to obstruction of justice. When it comes to abuse of power, Trump appears to have learned on the job.
Data since 1900 (from www.justice.gov/pardon/clemency-statistics)
It is interesting to note from the data above that the percentage of pardons given by the last three presidents combined fall short of the historical average. It is easy to understand why the percentage was so low for George W. Bush with his infamous statement regarding convicted people, “They’ve had full access to the courts. They’ve had full access to a fair trial.” He said this when he was governor of Texas. Yes, and the Christians had “full access” to the lions too. George W. Bush was not the brightest president in history.
Richard Nixon, who had the highest pardon percentage, ironically was himself pardoned. Finally, note that total petitions have trended downward since 1900 and criminal prosecutions and incarcerations have skyrocketed since the 1980s, making the true number of available pardons per capita even lower and the disparity between the percentage of pardons given and the people who truly deserve them greater that it was at the beginning of the last century.
Those most deserving of pardons are not always the ones who get them. The likes of Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and countless others do not share the reward of Trump’s loyal criminal enterprise. I can’t help but think about George Floyd who was accused of passing a bad $20 bill and a police officer decided he had to die for that on the day several rich white men who were found guilty of lying to the FBI, bank fraud, and tax fraud got pardoned. Corruption is the rule.