The power of the president to grant pardons as stated in the Constitution is unconditional, as President Donald Trump has observed. But as he prepares to bestow that favor on Roger Stone and perhaps other felons who have protected him, someone should advise him that a corrupt pardon is nevertheless a crime that can be prosecuted, if not overturned.
So Bill Clinton learned soon after he pardoned Marc Rich on the last day of his presidency, Jan. 20, 2001. Public anger exploded within days after Clinton granted a conditional reprieve to the infamous “fugitive financier,” who had skipped to a Swiss chateau, evading trial on charges of tax evasion, sanctions violations and conspiracy. Among those most infuriated by Clinton’s surprise decision were the federal prosecutors who spent years chasing Rich.
Suspicion centered on generous political and charitable donations by Rich’s ex-wife over a period of years to various Clinton campaigns and the Clinton Foundation. Mary Jo White, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, swiftly announced that her office had opened a criminal investigation of Clinton — the president who had appointed her. That probe continued for a few years under the watchful eye of James Comey, chosen by then-President George W. Bush to replace White.
No doubt Comey and his boss, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft — who had voted to convict Clinton in his Senate impeachment trial — would have relished indicting the former president. The investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing, however. Clinton’s actual motive was to reward then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who personally called the Oval Office three times seeking a pardon for Rich in the midst of peace talks with the Palestinians. (As usual, under the “Clinton rules,” the former president’s eventual exoneration went unnoticed in major media outlets.)
But the immediate outrage over Rich’s pardon inflamed media outlets for weeks, setting the stage for both congressional and prosecutorial inquiries. Today the same politicians of both parties who screamed about Clinton are silent.
Have none of them noticed the massive flows of donor money surrounding the Trump pardons? Never mind the blatant influence peddling by former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and various other presidential cronies and supporters. If the Rich donations were suspect, what about the cash poured into Trump’s coffers by those seeking pardons and their advocates?
Dallas Republican donor Doug Deason and his billionaire father gave more than a million dollars to the pro-Trump America First PAC. Their generosity seems to have greased the pardon of David Safavian, a former federal official convicted of obstruction and perjury in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.
Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam Adelson, have given more than $200 million to Republican causes, including at least $30 million to Trump-related committees in recent years and $500,000 to a defense fund for Trump aides coping with special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe. They asked that Trump pardon junk-bond crook Michael Milken and got their wish. (Mrs. Adelson also got the Presidential Medal of Freedom.)
And then there’s the Pogue family, also from Dallas, which forked over $85,000 last year jointly to the president’s reelection committee and the Republican Party — and got a gift-wrapped pardon for its patriarch, Paul Pogue, a construction magnate convicted of tax fraud. Pushing the Pogue pardon was former Sen. Rick Santorum, the Pennsylvania Republican who brayed loudly about the Rich case.
If the Trump pardons look sketchy, consider the fact that Trump simply ignored the Justice Department process that is traditionally employed in evaluating such requests. He knows that the law enforcement apparatus headed by Attorney General William Barr will let him abuse his power freely, while perhaps uttering a feeble protest. Or not.
We will soon see how far Trump will go in abusing the pardon authority. He appears to be preparing to do far worse than handing out clemency for cash. The judge who sentenced Roger Stone to almost four years in prison accused the dirty trickster of lying to “protect the president.” When Trump pardons Stone, Paul Manafort and others implicated in the Russia scandal, he will cap the most troubling cover-up in American history.
If Clinton was subject to investigation and possible prosecution, then Trump should be too.
To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.