- President Donald Trump announced a spree of pardons and sentence commutations on February 18 that continued his track record of using his clemency powers on controversial figures.
- Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois was notably among the newest group of those who received clemency from Trump.
- The president previously said he was “thinking very seriously” about commuting Blagojevich’s 14-year sentence.
- Blagojevich was convicted in 2011 on multiple corruption charges, though Trump said he believed Blagojevich was treated “very unfairly.”
- Trump has frequently used his clemency powers on political allies or people who have been championed by the media or celebrities.
- The Constitution grants the president sweeping powers to pardon people or grant clemency.
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In August 2019, President Donald Trump floated a sentence commutation for Rod Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor who served half of his 14-year prison sentence for corruption.
“He’s been in jail for seven years, over a phone call where nothing happens,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One. “He shouldn’t have said what he said, but it was braggadocio, you would say. I would think that there have been many politicians – I’m not one of them, by the way – but that have said a lot worse over telephones.”
Blagojevich was convicted of multiple corruption charges stemming from a scheme to sell the Senate seat left vacant by Barack Obama, who was elected president in 2008.
More than seven months after voicing his consideration of cutting Blagojevich’s sentence, Trump made it official February 18 along with 10 other pardons and commutations.
Trump’s clemency power is sweeping – he can decide to legally forgive or free anyone convicted of federal crimes.
Pardons essentially forgive people who have been convicted of crimes, removing any remaining punishments and restoring their rights. Commutations, on the other hand, merely reduce a prisoner’s sentence.
A number of Trump’s clemencies fall in line with a recent trend of granting pardons to political allies, as well as people who have been championed by conservative media, prominent Republicans, or celebrities.
Here’s everyone Trump has granted clemency to so far.
Nahmani had originally been sentenced to 20 years in prison for distributing synthetic marijuana, according to the Office of the Pardon Attorney.
His commutation garnered widespread support from lawmakers from both parties, notably from Democratic Reps. Hakeem Jeffries and Ted Lieu and Republican Reps. Mark Meadows and Matt Gaetz.
The White House said in a statement that Nahmani’s case had certain “extenuating circumstances,” namely that he was a nonviolent, first-time offender whose wife had terminal cancer and who had five young children.
Nahmani’s 11-year-old daughter, Ariella Nahmani, wrote Trump a letter pleading with the president to help her family, saying she feared what would happen if her mother died.
“Our lives have become so sad and miserable,” she wrote. “And now mother being sick I am so scared of her getting worse.”
But perhaps the most moving letter came from Mr. Nahmani's 11-year old daughter Ariella who pleaded with the President to free her dad so their lives wont be so "sad and miserable" anymore. pic.twitter.com/RznYkG5L3m
— Shlomo Schorr (@OneJerseySchorr) July 29, 2019
Trump pardoned Ted Suhl today — a former operator of a behavioral health company in Arkansas who was convicted on medical bribery and fraud-related charges in July 2016, stealing millions from Medicaid. https://t.co/doaqkLGAxo
— ???????????????????????????????? (@DemocracyJourno) July 29, 2019
Suhl, an Arkansas businessman, was sentenced in 2016 to seven years in prison for his role in a bribery scheme to boost Medicaid payments to his company. He was set to be released in 2023, but Trump’s commutation set him free four years early.
A White House statement about Suhl’s commutation noted that federal prosecutors in Arkansas declined to pursue the criminal case against him but prosecutors in Washington did.
The Arkansas Times, which investigated the allegations against him, reported that Suhl made millions in public money from his faith-based outpatient facilities.
Suhl’s clemency request was strongly supported by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a vocal Trump ally.
Five July 29 pardons
- Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Trump granted five pardons for people with whom he didn’t appear to have a direct connection, unlike many of his other clemencies.
One of those people, Michael Anthony Tedesco, was pardoned by President Barack Obama in 2017. But because of a clerical error, his fraud conviction was not pardoned until Trump corrected the issue, according to the White House.
Another pardon went to John Richard Bubala, who pleaded guilty in 1990 to improperly transferring automotive equipment in an effort to “help the town,” according to the White House.
Rodney M. Takumi, a member of the Navajo Nation, was pardoned for his 1987 crime of working at an illegal gambling parlor.
Trump also pardoned Roy Wayne McKeever, who was arrested in 1989 for transporting marijuana from Mexico to Oklahoma and who is now an “active member of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas,” according to the White House.
The final pardon went to Chalmer Lee Williams, who in 1995 helped a friend steal and sell weapons from checked luggage through his work as a baggage handler. The White House said his supervised release from prison was lifted one year early, and his voting rights were restored by Kentucky’s governor in 1995.
Black is a former newspaper publisher and Trump admirer, who wrote a laudatory biography of Trump in 2018 titled “Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other.”
Black served 3 1/2 years in prison after being convicted of fraud in 2007, the Associated Press reported.
In a National Post op-ed article, Black described the phone call he received from Trump announcing the pardon:
“When my assistant said there was a call from the White House, I picked up, said ‘Hello’ and started to ask if this was a prank (suspecting my friends in the British tabloid media), but the caller spoke politely over me: ‘Please hold for the president.’ Two seconds later probably the best-known voice in the world said ‘Is that the great Lord Black?’ I said ‘Mr. President, you do me great honour telephoning me.’ He could not have been more gracious and quickly got to his point: he was granting me a full pardon that would ‘Expunge the bad rap you got.'”
On May 15, 2019, Trump pardoned Patrick Nolan, the former Republican leader of California’s state assembly who pleaded guilty to racketeering in 1994 after being caught up in a corruption sting by the FBI.
Nolan is friends with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who spearheaded the White House’s push for the First Step Act to help overhaul the criminal-justice system.
“Mr. Nolan’s experiences with prosecutors and in prison changed his life,” the White House said in a statement announcing his pardon. “Upon his release, he became a tireless advocate for criminal-justice reform and victims’ rights. In fact, it was because of this work that the president learned of Mr. Nolan’s case.”
On May 6, 2019, Trump pardoned Behenna, a former US Army Ranger convicted in 2008 of murdering an Iraqi prisoner.
Though Behenna was originally sentenced to 25 years in prison for the “unpremeditated murder in a combat zone” of Ali Mansur, the military’s clemency and parole board reduced his sentence to 15 years, then released him on parole in 2014, five years after his sentence began.
A top military appellate court raised concerns about the trial court’s handling of Behenna’s self-defense claim, and Behenna garnered widespread support among military officials and lawmakers in his home state of Oklahoma.
Behenna was accused of fatally shooting Mansur in retaliation for his alleged connection to an IED attack that killed two of Behenna’s fellow soldiers.
Military court filings say Behenna shot Mansur during an impromptu interrogation after saying, “This is your last chance to tell the information or you will die,” according to The New York Times. Behenna has said he shot Mansur only after he reached for his gun.
Dwight and Steven Hammond
- YouTube/KOIN 6
Trump pardoned the Oregon cattle ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond in July 2019, both of whom were serving five-year prison sentences for arson.
The ranchers had long clashed with the federal government over public land, and the length of their sentences infuriated many conservatives, who saw the prosecutions as an example of federal overreach.
The Hammonds’ cases even sparked the controversy that led to a 41-day standoff in 2016 at Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by a group of armed protesters who argued that federal control of public lands was unconstitutional.
In a statement, the White House noted that Dwight and Steven Hammond had already served three and four years in prison, respectively, and had paid $400,000 to the federal government in a related civil case.
“The Hammonds are devoted family men, respected contributors to their local community, and have widespread support from their neighbors, local law enforcement, and farmers and ranchers across the West,” the White House said.
Alice Marie Johnson
- Courtesy of Amy Povah and Clemency for All Nonviolent Drug Offenders (CAN-DO).
Trump granted his second-ever commutation to Alice Marie Johnson in June 2019, freeing the 63-year-old great-grandmother from a life sentence in prison.
Johnson was given the sentence in 1996 over nonviolent drug offenses she had committed several years earlier. Her case received nationwide attention after the reality-television star Kim Kardashian West championed her release and paid a visit to Trump in a high-profile White House meeting.
“Ms. Johnson has accepted responsibility for her past behavior and has been a model prisoner over the past two decades,” the White House said in a statement. “Despite receiving a life sentence, Alice worked hard to rehabilitate herself in prison, and act as a mentor to her fellow inmates. While this administration will always be very tough on crime, it believes that those who have paid their debt to society and worked hard to better themselves while in prison deserve a second chance.”
“I have been literally shaking ever since I heard this news – this is the best present anyone could have gave me in my life,” Johnson’s daughter Catina Scales told Business Insider the Wednesday afternoon she was en route to pick up her mother from the Aliceville correctional facility in Alabama, where Johnson was released. “Nothing will ever trump this feeling.”
- Wikimedia Commons
Trump granted an unexpected pardon to the conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza in May.
D’Souza pleaded guilty in 2014 to illegally using straw donors in 2012 to donate to a Republican Senate candidate in New York. He used the straw donors to funnel his funds to the candidate under their names to try to get around campaign-finance laws.
Though D’Souza admitted to knowingly violating the law, he lashed out at prosecutors at the time, arguing he was being singled out because of his conservative beliefs.
Though he was spared prison time, D’Souza was sentenced to five years of probation and a $30,000 fine. A pardon relieved D’Souza of any remaining punishments stemming from his conviction and would restore certain rights, such as his right to vote.
Trump granted a rare posthumous pardon on May 24 to Jack Johnson, the American heavyweight boxing champion who died in 1946 and was convicted in 1913 of taking his white girlfriend across state lines.
Johnson’s conviction reeked of racism and injustice at the height of the Jim Crow era. An all-white jury found Johnson guilty of violating the White Slave Traffic Act, also known as the Mann Act, which criminalized transporting women across state lines “for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.”
Johnson’s conviction and one-year prison sentence have prompted debate for years – and Trump is not the first president to consider a pardon.
President Barack Obama faced the same decision, but his Justice Department recommended against one, so as to focus more on pardons that could benefit living people, a former Obama administration official told The New York Times.
Johnson’s case received a publicity boost from the actor Sylvester Stallone, who visited the Oval Office to watch Trump sign the pardon.
Lewis “Scooter” Libby
Trump in April 2019 pardoned Libby, a former Bush administration official convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice after a special prosecutor’s investigation into the 2003 leak of the CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity.
Libby was originally sentenced to 30 months in prison, but President George W. Bush commuted it. Despite intense pressure from Vice President Dick Cheney, who had hired Libby as his chief of staff, Bush declined to grant Libby a pardon.
Trump said in a statement announcing the pardon that he didn’t know Libby but that “for years I have heard that he has been treated unfairly.”
Libby’s case contained echoes of Trump’s own legal battles – the president was the subject of a similar investigation by a special counsel, Robert Mueller.
In March, Trump pardoned Saucier, a former Navy sailor who took photos of classified areas inside a nuclear submarine in 2009. Saucier pleaded guilty in 2016 and served one year in prison.
He has previously said he took the photos merely as mementos for his military service. But federal prosecutors accused him of undermining national security by taking the photos and then obstructing the investigation by destroying a laptop and a camera.
Conservative media outlets such as Fox News had compared Saucier’s case with that of Hillary Clinton, who used a private email server while she was secretary of state but was never prosecuted.
Trump used Saucier’s case during his 2016 presidential campaign as a means to portray the perceived double standard of Saucier’s treatment by federal investigators with that of Clinton’s.
“Now you can go out and have the life you deserve!” Trump tweeted after granting Saucier’s pardon.
In late 2017, Trump issued his first commutation to Rubashkin, an Iowa meatpacking executive convicted of bank fraud in 2009 and sentenced to 27 years in prison.
Rubashkin had served eight years by the time Trump commuted his sentence and set him free.
Unlike Trump’s other clemencies, the decision to commute Rubashkin’s sentence had earned widespread bipartisan support, including from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah.
Rubashkin’s clemency bid also received the support of more than 100 legal professionals, including US attorneys general and federal judges.
They argued in a letter to Trump that Rubashkin was a first-time, nonviolent offender who received a much tougher sentence than many people sentenced to “murder, kidnapping, sexual abuse, child pornography, and numerous other offenses exponentially more serious than his.”
In August 2017, Trump gave his first-ever pardon to Joe Arpaio, the bombastic former sheriff of Arizona’s Maricopa County.
The 85-year-old ex-lawman is best known for illegally detaining Latinos and keeping inmates in brutal jail conditions during his 24-year tenure as sheriff. His aggressive tactics ultimately led to a criminal conviction after he violated a court order to stop racially profiling Latinos.
Arpaio had been an early and vocal supporter of Trump during his presidential campaign, often parroting Trump’s hardline stance on immigration, so the move was widely expected.
Yet it was still an unusual pardon, as Arpaio had not even been sentenced at the time. Though Trump may pardon whomever he wishes, people who petition for presidential pardons are told by the Justice Department to wait at least five years after completing their prison sentences before they file applications.
- REUTERS/Carlos Barria
On October 11, 2019, Trump awarded a posthumous pardon to Jeffries, a leading metal scientist who is credited with helping to secure a victory for Allied nations in World War II.
Jeffries was indicted in 1941 on antitrust charges and later convicted and fined $2,500 in 1948. Trump’s pardon was the second presidential honor Jeffries received, as President Harry S. Truman awarded him the Presidential Medal for Merit in the same year he was convicted.
Mathew Golsteyn and Clint A. Lorance of the US Army
On November 15, 2019, Trump intervened in three military cases. He granted clemency to two US soldiers, one charged with and one convicted of war crimes.
Maj. Mathew Golsteyn was charged by the Army with murder in December 2018 after he admitted killing an Afghan man he suspected of being a Taliban bomb maker in 2010. The man was released from US custody before Golsteyn shot him off the base because he believed the man’s “activities would continue to threaten American troops,” the White House said at the time.
In a December 2018 tweet, Trump had praised Golsteyn as a “US Military hero.”
Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance was convicted in 2013 on two counts of second-degree murder and sentenced to 19 years for ordering soldiers to fire on unarmed Afghan civilians, killing two.
Lorance has maintained this act was in self-defense, and in a statement on the pardon, the White House said Lorance was operating “under difficult circumstances and prioritizing the lives of American troops.”
Trump also restored the rank of now-retired Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher, who was found not guilty of murder over the death of an Islamic State fighter but was convicted on one count for posing with the dead fighter’s body.
February 18 pardons
On February 18, 2020, Trump granted full pardons to seven people.
- Edward DeBartolo Jr., the former owner of the San Francisco 49ers, was convicted in 1998 for failing to report a felony regarding payment on a riverboat casino license. DeBartolo never served jail time but was sentenced to two years’ probation.
- Michael Milken, a financier known as the “junk bond king,” was charged with insider trading in the 1980s. Milken paid a $600 million fine and was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1990, of which he served 22 months.
- Ariel Friedler, a technology entrepreneur who pleaded guilty in 2014 to conspiracy to access a protected computer without authorization, served two months in prison before dedicating his life to supporting issues related to veterans and former prisoners, the White House said in a statement.
- Bernard Kerik, now known as a regular guest at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort and on Fox News, is the former New York police commissioner who was sentenced in 2009 to 48 months in federal prison after pleading guilty to charges of tax fraud and lying to White House officials. Kerik, a close associate of Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, served just over three years.
- Paul Pogue, a construction company owner who was guilty of under paying his taxes by near half a million dollars. Pogue’s son and his wife gave more than $200,000 in donations to the Trump Victory PAC and Trump’s official presidential campaign. The White House cited Pogue’s philanthropy as a reason for granting the pardon.
- David Safavian, who previously served as a top data official under President George W. Bush, was convicted of obstruction of justice and sentenced to a year in prison in 2009 for covering up ties to lobbyists.
- Angela Stanton, an author and media personality who has been a recent vocal supporter of Trump, was pardoned from her past sentence of six months of home confinement in 2007 for her role in a stolen-vehicle ring, the White House said.
February 18 sentence commutations
On the same day as his flurry of pardons, Trump also granted four commuted sentences.
Tynice Nichole Hall, a 36-year-old mother, was cleared of the four remaining years in her 18-year sentence. She was convicted for allowing her apartment to be used to distribute drugs, according to the White House.
Crystal Munoz was arrested on “conspiracy” charges and sentenced to 18 years in 2007 after a map she drew by hand of Big Bend National Park was used in a large marijuana trafficking operation.
Also on Trump’s list was Judith Negron, a 48-year-old who has served eight years of the 35-year sentence she received for aiding a $200 million healthcare fraud scheme.
Perhaps the most noticeable name among the commuted sentences was Blagojevich, who was set for release in 2024 and has insisted throughout his prison term that he is innocent, according to news outlets that have interviewed him.
Trump said in August 2019 that he believed Blagojevich had served enough time and that he was moved by watching Blagojevich’s wife defend him on television, hinting at the clemency that would come months later.
“I watched his wife, on television, saying that the young girl’s father has been in jail for now seven years, and they’ve never seen him outside of an orange uniform,” Trump said. “Not a friend of mine. He’s a Democrat, not a Republican. It’s Illinois. I think he was treated very, very unfairly, just as others were. Just as others were.”
Who could be next?
The Constitution grants presidents the power to pardon, so Trump can pretty much decide to legally forgive or free anyone who’s been convicted of a federal crime.
“He shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment,” Article II, Section 2 says.
The February clemency spree sparked concerns that Trump would soon look to pardon Roger Stone, a former member of his campaign’s inner circle who is awaiting sentencing after he was convicted in November 2019 on seven charges, including lying to Congress and obstructing House and FBI investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Trump has also weighed pardons and commutations for a variety of other high-profile cases.
He told reporters last May he was considering pardoning Martha Stewart.
A jury found Stewart guilty in 2004 of obstructing justice and lying to investigators about the reasons she sold shares of a company. She served five months in prison.