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- The sweeping power to pardon was written into the Constitution, allowing the president to “grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States.”
- But controversial pardons over the past 225 years have sometimes raised questions about this broad authority.
- On Tuesday, President Donald Trump issued multiple pardons and commutations for controversial individuals, including former Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, who was convicted on corruption charges.
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Since taking office, President Donald Trump has issued numerous pardons and commutations for individuals who have committed federal crimes.
Among this diverse list includes a former New York City police commissioner, the former governor of Illinois, and a Wall Street billionaire. Each pardon has been met with varying levels of scrutiny.
But Trump isn’t the first to issue a controversial pardon.
Since the early days of the republic, presidents have been forgiving crimes committed by friends, family members, and public figures. Some have even used the power in an effort to prevent national dispute, and some have been accused of abusing their authority.
The Constitution’s Article II, which lays out the powers of the presidency, gives the executive the “power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.”
From Gerald Ford’s shocking pardon of Richard Nixon, to Trump’s ongoing list, here are some of the most notable pardons in American history.
George Washington issued the first presidential pardon by excusing two men who participated in the Whiskey Rebellion.
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In 1795, Washington made the difficult choice to forgive two Pennsylvania men sentenced to death for treason after participating in protests known as “The Whiskey Rebellion.”
The rebellion came after Washington proposed a tax on whiskey in order to shrink the national debt after the Revolutionary War. But when poor farmers in Pennsylvania realized the tax was hurting them and favoring the rich, they refused to pay the price and staged a series of violent protests.
Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s treasury secretary and a major supporter of the tax, encouraged the president to exert the “full force of the Law” against the protesters. But to his dismay, the president made the controversial decision to pardon the men and put an end to the civic disruptions.
President Andrew Jackson pardoned George Wilson after he received death sentences for endangering a life and committing robbery.
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But Wilson knew people in Washington, and those people convinced Jackson to issue a pardon. Jackson obliged and quickly forgave Wilson for his capital crimes, reducing his punishment from execution to a 22-year prison sentencing.
It seemed like a buttoned-up victory, but in a shocking twist of fate, Wilson refused to accept the pardon.
After a great deal of legal disputes, Wilson’s friends realized they couldn’t force him to accept the pardon, and Wilson was eventually hanged.
In 1868, President Andrew Johnson fully pardoned every soldier who fought for the Confederate Army.
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On Christmas Day, Johnson made a massive gesture of forgiveness by granting full pardons to all soldiers who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Though many thought he was being far too lenient to people who were considered traitors to the Union, Johnson believed it was time for the country to reconcile with the past.
President Gerald Ford pardoned his predecessor, Richard Nixon, in 1974.
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Facing the threat of impeachment from the Watergate scandal, Nixon resigned in August 1974 and his vice president Ford took office.
A month later, the nation was shocked when Ford announced his decision to pardon his disgraced predecessor.
Congress was preparing to investigate Nixon for obstruction of justice, but Ford decided it would only polarize the country further.
This decision was met by an onslaught of criticism, and many believe it’s the reason why Ford didn’t win a second term in 1976.
President Jimmy Carter pardoned Peter Yarrow, member of the musical group “Peter, Paul, and Mary” in 1981.
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As one-third of the folk rock group “Peter, Paul, and Mary,” Peter Yarrow was a leading figure in the protest and music scene of the 1960s. But he fell from grace in 1970 when he was convicted of behaving indecently with a 14-year-old fan.
Yarrow was sentenced to three months in jail, but on his last day in office, Carter issued a pardon for the musician.
President Ronald Reagan pardoned George Steinbrenner, the former owner of the New York Yankees.
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Steinbrenner pleaded guilty to the contributions, and to obstructing justice. He was forced to pay a $15,000 fine for his crimes. Though he never went to jail, Reagan issued him a pardon in 1989.
President Bill Clinton pardoned Patty Hearst in 2001.
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Patty Hearst, the daughter of the newspaper giant William Randolph Hearst, became an international news sensation when she was kidnapped by members of a revolutionary terrorist group, the Symbionese Liberation Army, in 1974.
After spending 57 days locked in a cupboard where she testified to being blindfolded, raped, and assaulted, Hearst claimed that she joined the SLA in an attempt to regain her freedom. Things got complicated when footage revealed Hearst committing a slew of armed robberies with the SLA, and a tape was sent to the authorities claiming she had joined the group on her own accord.
She was later arrested and charged for these crimes – and though she claimed she was brainwashed by her captors, she was found guilty and sentenced to seven years in prison. In 1979, Carter lowered her sentence, and in 2001, Clinton granted her a pardon altogether.
Clinton pardoned his half-brother Roger Clinton in 1984.
In what was seen as a pretty clear case of nepotism, Clinton issued a pardon for his half-brother Roger Clinton after he served a year in prison for pleading guilty to cocaine distribution charges.
The pardon was one of 140 Clinton issued on his last day in office.
But it didn’t stop Roger Clinton from committing more crimes. Less than a month later, he was arrested for driving drunk and disturbing the peace. He took a guilty plea to pay a fine and serve two years probation.
President George H.W. Bush pardoned six people involved in the Iran-Contra arms scandal.
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Toward the end of his term in 1992, Bush was condemned for pardoning Caspar Weinberger, the former secretary of defense, along with five others, for their crimes involved in the Iran-Contra scandal.
The scandal happened during Reagan’s second term, and involved the secret selling of arms to Iran – which was under an embargo at the time – in order to fund the Contras, a Nicaraguan insurgent group that was attempting to defeat the Sandinistas and prevent the spread of communism.
Bush was vice president at the time, and his decision to pardon these crimes was met with severe backlash from his opponents.
President Barrack Obama commuted the remainder of Chelsea Manning’s 35-year prison sentence in January 2017.
Manning had been in prison for seven years out of her 35-year sentence when Obama commuted her charges.
In 2010, the former Army Intelligence analyst was convicted of leaking documents that revealed classified information on controversial military and diplomatic activities around the world.
Obama’s decision to grant Manning a reprieve was seen as highly controversial, but this was hardly the only case to receive scrutiny.
Obama issued the most pardons since Harry S. Truman. Throughout his presidency, Obama granted clemency to nearly 2,000 individuals, including 212 pardons and 1,715 commutations. Most of these were for low-level, nonviolent drug crimes, which disproportionately affect African American men, and were Obama’s way of pushing for criminal justice reform.
In a letter to 46 people whose sentences he commuted in 2015, he wrote:
“The power to grant pardons and clemency is one of the most profound authorities granted to the President of the United States. It embodies the basic belief in our democracy that people deserve a second chance after having made a mistake in their lives that led to a conviction under our laws.”
Donald Trump has issued over 19 pardons and seven commutations so far.
On February 18, Donald Trump announced a slew of pardons and sentence reductions for some controversial individuals, furthering his track record of forgiving those with powerful connections.
Among this list includes Bernard Kerik, a former New York City police commissioner who was sentenced to four years in prison after pleading guilty to charges of fraud and lying to the government, and Rod Blagojevich, the former governor of Illinois who was convicted of corruption and sentenced to 14 years in prison.
But Trump has also granted clemency to lesser known figures, including Alice Marie Johnson, a 64-year-old grandmother who was serving a life sentence for nonviolent drug offenses. Kim Kardashian helped bring her case to Trump’s attention.