by David M. Reutter
The president has unfettered discretion under the U.S. Constitution to grant pardons and clemency to persons convicted of federal crimes. President Trump has used this power to grant mercy to people to whom he feels have been treated “unfairly” by the judicial system.
Trump’s first commutation was issued to Sholom Rubashkin, who ran the Iowa headquarters of a family business that was the nation’s largest kosher meat-processing company. Rubashkin was convicted in 2009 on federal bank fraud charges and sentenced to 27 years in prison. He also faced state child labor law violations. Trump’s action did not vacate Rubashkin’s conviction, but it ended his imprisonment, which the White House said in a statement “many have called excessive in light of its disparity with sentences imposed for similar crimes.” The commutation left in place the term of supervised release and a “substantial restitution obligation.”
Trump also pardoned former heavyweight boxer Jack Jackson posthumously. Jackson, an African-American boxing champion who died in 1946, was convicted 1913 of taking his white girlfriend across state lines. An all-white jury convicted Jackson of violating the White Slave Traffic Act, which criminalized transporting women across state lines “for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.”
Former Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio was a huge Trump supporter due to candidate Trump’s stance on immigration. Arpaio, whose reign of brutal jail conditions was chronicled by PLN, was convicted of violating a court order to stop racially profiling Lations. The pardon came before Arpaio, 85, was sentenced by the federal district court.
Lewis “Scooter” Libby was granted clemency on his 30-month sentence for obstruction of justice into a special prosecutor’s investigation into the 2003 leak of CIA operative Valerie Plume’s identity. In a statement, Trump said “for years I have heard that [Libby] has been treated unfairly.”
He felt the same about Kristian Saucier, a former Navy sailor who took photos of classified areas of a nuclear submarine in 2009, which he said were merely mementos of his military service. Prosecutors said he obstructed justice by destroying a laptop and camera. Trump said the case illustrated a double standard when compared with actions by Hillary Clinton, who used a private email server while Secretary of State.
Trump also appears to have a soft spot for conservatives who violated the law. Dinesh D'Souza pleaded guilty in 2014 of using straw donors to funnel donations to a Republican Senate candidate in New York. While D’Souza avoided jail time, he was sentenced to five years’ probation and a $30,000 fine.
Oregon cattle ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond found favor with Trump, too. They were serving five-year sentences for arson when Trump pardoned them. The Hammonds had long clashed with the federal government over the use of federal land.
On May 6, 2019, Trump granted full clemency to former Army 1st Lt. Michael Behenna. He was convicted in 2009 of the unpremeditated murder in a combat zone of killing a suspected al-Qaida terrorist in Iraq. Behenna was paroled in 2014 and scheduled to be on parole until 2024. The military supported the move.
For unknown prisoners, the June 2018 commutation of the life sentence of Alice Johnson provides hope. Johnson, 63, was sentenced in 1996 after being convicted for facilitating communications in a cocaine-trafficking operation. While in prison, Johnson focused on rehabilitation and became a model prisoner and mentor to other prisoners. She also became a playwright and pastor. Her case became highlighted by Kim Kardashian and mic.com.
In talking about Johnson’s commutation, Trump said, “I would get more thrill out of pardoning people that nobody knows — like Alice.” The pardon power is always publicized and politicized when used. That is why it has traditionally been used sparingly. With the presidential campaign season heating up, it is anybody’s guess whether Trump will wait in seeking that thrill until he enters into a second term or prepares to leave office.
Sources: The Associated Press, CNN, Business Insider, NPR.com
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