When Donald Trump suddenly gave pardons or commutations to 11 people on Tuesday, you only had to glance at several of the names to know that Trump was doing favors for people in his social circles—people like him. Now we’re getting more information on how Trump made his decisions and on his clemency plans going forward, and it’s all classic Trump.
Bernard Kerik, the corrupt former New York City police commissioner, got a call early Tuesday morning giving him just hours to get supporters to sign a letter backing a pardon. He worked the phones and got some prominent Republicans like Geraldo Rivera and Rep. Peter King to sign, and just before noon he got a personal call from Trump giving him the news. David Safavian, the former Bush administration official who called Kerik and told him to pull together the letter, also got a pardon for his role in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Safavian works at the American Conservative Union, which is headed by the husband of a Trump adviser.
Another of Trump’s corrupt-rich-white-guys-like-me pardons went to Paul Pogue, whose family has given $200,000 to Trump’s reelection effort and whose son and daughter-in-law hang out with Don Jr. And so on. Trump did grant clemency Tuesday to a few people who weren’t corrupt rich white guys—but even they had an inside connection in the form of Alice Johnson, the woman whose sentence Trump commuted in 2018 after lobbying by Kim Kardashian West.
Since Trump seems to enjoy giving clemency—favoring personal phone calls to people not expecting clemency so he can soak up the shock and gratitude—he’ll be doing more of this in the coming months. And he has no plans to revert to the traditional process where the Justice Department vets petitions. Instead the White House is doing the Trump White House thing and having pardons overseen by “essentially an informal task force of at least a half-dozen presidential allies.” OBVIOUSLY Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner is heavily involved, as is former Florida attorney general and impeachment defense team member Pam Bondi.
Mass incarceration remains out of control and it’s reasonable for presidents to use executive power to mitigate some of the harm while Congress drags its feet about making the degree of change that’s really needed. But that should look like what President Obama did, taking a hard look at excessive sentences and using an actual process to grant clemency to 1,715 people, the vast majority of them nonviolent drug offenders. Obama should have done more, because there was so much to be done, but he did do more than the 12 presidents before him—combined. Trump, instead, is treating the pardon power like another way to do personal favors and soak up the adoration he craves. It’s not about justice, it’s about Donald Trump’s ego.