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When Presidential Pardons Become an Exercise in Showmanship
U.S. presidents are afforded the legal right to pardon (or commute the sentence of) anyone they want to, at any time they want to. They don't need a reason. They aren't required to explain themselves. Still, such decisions often face public scrutiny, and President Trump has recently raised eyebrows over some of the individuals he has chosen (or is considering choosing) to help out with his legal authority.
Last Thursday, Trump announced that he would be pardoning controversial author/filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza for a felony guilty-plea over a violation of federal campaign-finance law. Months earlier, the president pardoned Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona who had been found guilty of criminal contempt of court relating to racial profiling.
These two have a few things in common, other than their unrelated run-ins with the law. Both are conservative-media celebrities, both are outspoken critics of the American Left, both are noted conspiracy theorists, and both are staunch supporters of President Trump.
And while we're on the topic of celebrities, Trump also said this week that he is considering pardoning Martha Stewart, and commuting the sentence of disgraced former Illinois Governor, Rod Blagojevich (who's still serving time for federal corruption over — among other things — the attempted sale of Barack Obama's old Senate seat). Both are alumni of Trump's old NBC reality show, The Apprentice.
Now, it would be silly to suggest that it's a mere coincidence that of the several thousand individuals who go through the process of applying for presidential clemency, the ones Trump seems most focused on are provocative celebrity figures whose legal leniency would assuredly spawn lots of media interest and national discussion. Our president, after all, is a showman. He loves to generate mainstream attention. He loves to have lots of people talking about him. And that kind of thing is far less likely to happen when his pardoning powers are used to help some poor schmuck, who no one's ever heard of, that got at unfair shake from our legal system.
That's not to say that Trump won't eventually get around to extending such grace to some of those unfortunate souls, like Matthew Charles from Tennessee, whose unjust situation seems tailor-made for a presidential commutation. But celebrities (the more provocative the better) are clearly Trump's priority.
With that in mind, Mr. Charles does have one big thing going for him. Kim Kardashian (who's been a vocal Charles advocate) recently met with President Trump at the White House, to discuss prison reform of all things. That celebrity link may well be the difference in whether Charles is sent back to prison (to finish his sentence) or allowed to live the productive, admirable life he's been living on the outside.
But for now, it's people like D’Souza, Blagojevich, and Stewart who are earning the president's sympathies. And one could argue that they've done little (if anything) to garnish special consideration.
As The Washington Examiner's Becket Adams reminded people in a recent piece, D'Souza (who reportedly didn't even ask or apply for clemency) used straw donors to funnel an estimated $20k to a senate candidate. He never served any time for his crime other than in community confinement, and his continued insistence (long echoed by fellow media-conservatives) that he was targeted — for being an Obama critic — has never held water. Regardless, the White House's stated rationale for commutation was that D'Souza was "a victim of selective prosecution".
It should be noted that this "victim" hasn't exactly suffered from his prosecution (which again, he plead guilty to). In fact, he's been making a pretty good living off of conservative speaking engagements.
Rod Blagojevich is in prison not just for trying to sell Obama's old senate seat, but also for shakedowns of multiple individuals and a children's hospital. He epitomizes "the swamp" that Trump was supposed to have been elected to "drain," despite the president's insistence the other day that Blago was merely in prison "for being stupid and saying things that every other politician, you know, that many other politicians say."
And of course, Stewart, after her short prison sentence, has remained extremely wealthy and at the top of her professional game. She's not exactly a damsel in distress.
None of this is to say that Trump's interests on this front are particularly egregious. They're not, especially in comparison to what other presidents have done over the years. Bill Clinton's infamous pardoning of Marc Rich (the billionaire financier with ties to the Democratic Party) and Barack Obama's commuting of Chelsea Manning's sentence (she was convicted of espionage) are examples of far worse abuses. That goes without dispute.
Still, it sure would be nice if Mr. Trump (whose enthusiastic supporters insist is a champion of the forgotten man and a slayer of the elites) would resist the urge to treat his pardoning power like a story-line from a reality-television script. There are true victims of flaws and injustices in our legal system who are much more deserving of (and desperate for) his help.
They just haven't had the benefit of being discussed on Fox and Friends.