Donald Trump has used his powers to pardon and commute criminal sentences liberally, and the pattern of how he dispenses presidential mercy reveals much about his mindset. Put simply, Trump doesn’t believe in fraud. Or, more accurately, he doesn’t believe that fraud is really a crime worth punishing. Perjury either. Or corruption in government office. Or war crimes. In Trump’s mind, none of those things is a real crime. And everyone on Fox News deserves a second chance.
It’s no big surprise that Trump pardons convicted fraudsters, perjurers and corrupt government officials, given Trump’s own life as a career huckster who feathered his nest by defrauding business partners, dodging creditors, falsely promising to pay vendors, and lying to tax authorities about the value of his assets. He lies habitually and comfortably, so it undoubtedly troubles him to see fellow self-styled alphas serving time and living with criminal records when all they did was cheat to make some ill-gotten gains. “What’s so wrong about that?” you can hear Trump saying. “It’s just business.”
For Trump, giving out pardons and commutations to the corrupt is very much on-brand. And make no mistake – Trump’s decisions to pardon or commute sentences are part of his branding strategy. Trump’s pardons and commutations send a deliberate message – through which Trump seeks to normalize white collar crime, and put a teflon shine on corruption.
Among the convicted criminals recently receiving pardons or commutations from Trump:
Former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik – he pled guilty in 2010 to eight felonies, including tax fraud and lying to White House officials. As a result of Trump’s pardon, Kerik gets to keep the $108,000 in restitution he still owed the IRS for cheating on his taxes. But in Kerik’s defense, he’s friends with Rudy Giuliani, and he was a frequent guest on Fox News.
Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich – he was convicted of trying to sell the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when Obama was elected president. But in Blagojevich’s defense, he was a contestant on “The Celebrity Apprentice,” a reality TV series hosted by Trump. Also, Blagojevich’s wife pled her husband’s case on Fox News. So like the TV screen–addicted simpleton Chauncey Gardiner from the film Being There, Trump justified his decision by saying, “I watched his wife on television.”
Former San Francisco 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr. – he pled guilty in 1998 to concealing an extortion plot by a former governor of Louisiana, in which DeBartolo agreed to pay $400,000 to secure a riverboat gambling license. In DeBartolo’s defense, he owned a football team and Trump loves football (although he says he liked it way more back when the NFL didn’t try to protect players from permanent brain injuries). Moreover, and likely more important, although the DeBartolos owned a football team in San Francisco, they come from Youngstown, Ohio and made their fortune in Ohio real estate. They remain popular in that critical election battleground state.
Former financier Michael Milken – he pled guilty to securities fraud and conspiracy charges and was sentenced to ten years in prison, though his sentence was later reduced to two years. In Milken’s defense, and in all seriousness, he actually has devoted his post-Wall Street life to serious and generous philanthropy.
Paul Pogue – he pled guilty to underpaying his taxes by $473,000 and was sentenced to three years probation. But in his defense, Pogue’s family donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in direct contributions and in-kind air travel to the Trump inauguration party committee, including over $200,000 in donations by Pogue’s son and daughter-in-law.
David Safavian – he was convicted of obstruction of justice and making false statements for covering up his ties to the lobbyist Jack Abramoff. In Safavian’s defense, he is a Republican.
Judith Negron – she was convicted of orchestrating a $205 million Medicare fraud scheme, and was found guilty of 24 counts of conspiracy, fraud, paying kickbacks and money laundering. In Negron’s defense, her long sentence attracted widespread media attention in the election battleground state of Florida, and she is part of a key voting constituency that Trump is trying hard to win over: Hispanics.
Minimizing crimes of corruption, normalizing fraud and tax evasion, repaying political donations, and currying favor with voters in key election states: these are the philosophical underpinnings of Trump’s pardon policy. His pardon decisions, like so much of his presidency, corrode the country’s respect for the rule of law, and send the message that lying and cheating are just business as usual in America, particularly when the only victim of your crime is the federal government, i.e., “the Deep State.”
Trump’s pardons also reflect who Trump is. As Trump sees characters like Blagojevich, Milken, and Kerik, he must say to himself, “There but for the grace of Roy Cohn go I.”
Meanwhile, Trump still hasn’t apologized or expressed remorse about demanding the death penalty for five innocent black teenagers who were wrongfully convicted for raping a white jogger in Central Park. And he never will. Which itself is unpardonable.