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Trump’s final pardon spree, explained

Bannon got a pardon. Corrupt politicians from both parties got clemency.

Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon exits Manhattan federal court in August 2020. Bannon has been charged with fraud in a GoFundMe scheme involving the border wall with Mexico.
Pablo Monsalve/VIEWpress via Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

President Trump has ended his term in office in a very appropriate way for him — by handing out pardons to some of his close associates and supporters for corruption crimes.

Perhaps the most notable of these pardons was the one given to Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign CEO and White House chief strategist, announced late Tuesday night. Bannon was awaiting trial on fraud charges — specifically, he was charged with defrauding donors to a crowdfunding campaign promising to build a wall on the US-Mexico border. Yes, that means Trump pardoned Bannon for allegedly defrauding Trump’s own supporters.

The clemency grant list released by the White House early Wednesday morning also included Elliott Broidy, a wealthy Republican donor, lobbyist, and former RNC finance committee member who had pleaded guilty to violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act in October. It included three former Republican members of Congress and a former Democratic mayor of Detroit, all of whom were charged with corruption crimes. Celebrity rappers Lil Wayne and Kodak Black also made the cut, as did dozens of lesser-known people (including some who seem to have genuinely deserved clemency).

Trump has now pardoned two of his campaign chiefs (the other being Paul Manafort), in addition to his first national security adviser (Michael Flynn), his longtime political guru (Roger Stone), and the first two members of Congress to endorse his 2016 campaign (former Reps. Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter).

In recent months, Trump considered going even further — he mused about offering “preemptive pardons” to people who haven’t even been charged with crimes, like his attorney Rudy Giuliani and several of his children, as well as a dubiously legal “self-pardon.”

These haven’t materialized. The big picture, though, is that Trump has brazenly used the pardon power to shield his associates from consequences for criminal wrongdoing in a way no president has for decades.

Trump’s pardons have been more political and ethically dubious than any president’s in decades

The list of pardon and clemency grants is the product of months’ worth of lobbying aimed at the president and the White House — a “lucrative market,” as the New York Times’s Michael Schmidt and Kenneth Vogel recently reported. The Justice Department had already looked into a potential bribery-for-pardon scandal from earlier in the Trump administration, and investigators will certainly be curious about whether there was criminal corruption behind any of these pardons.

Last-minute presidential pardons for political allies are hardly a new tradition, with George H.W. Bush having pardoned former administration officials charged in the Iran-Contra scandal and Bill Clinton having pardoned Democratic donor Marc Rich. The practice mostly fell out of fashion under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, but Trump has brought it back with a vengeance, using the power with less concern for norms of propriety than any president in recent memory.

Trump set the tone early. Back in 2017 and 2018, he pardoned Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, and former Bush White House aide Scooter Libby. Notably, Trump issued these high-profile pardons of political figures while special counsel Robert Mueller was investigating him and his aides, perhaps sending a message that those aides should stay strong rather than “flip” on him.

Indeed, when Flynn, Manafort, and Stone each became embroiled in the Mueller investigation, Trump openly hinted that pardons could be a possibility down the road for each if they remained loyal, and his lawyers also broached the topic behind the scenes. Conversely, if one of his associates seemed willing to cooperate with Mueller, like Michael Cohen, Trump would react with rage.

Soon enough, Mueller began investigating whether all this pardon-dangling amounted to obstruction of justice. But though his report seemed to imply that it did, he infamously chose not to offer an explicit conclusion on the matter. And Flynn, Manafort, and Stone each indeed ended up with full pardons — while Michael Cohen and Rick Gates (another Trump aide who cooperated with Mueller) have not.

Trump pardoned many political figures charged with corruption crimes

Beyond the pardons related to the Russia investigation, the most conspicuous pattern in Trump’s clemency grants is that many of them involve political figures accused of corruption.

In December, Trump had already pardoned two former Republican members of Congress convicted of corruption crimes, Chris Collins of New York (securities fraud) and Duncan Hunter of California (campaign finance violations).

This week, he added three more former Republican members of Congress to that list, granting clemency to Rick Renzi of Arizona (who was convicted of extortion, campaign finance violations, and money laundering), Robin Hayes of North Carolina (who was connected to a plot to bribe the state insurance commissioner), and Duke Cunningham of California (who received more than $2 million in bribes).

There’s also Broidy, the defense company executive, GOP donor, and former RNC finance committee member whom Trump pardoned Tuesday, who had been under investigation throughout Trump’s presidency. You may recall him as a client of Michael Cohen’s for whom Cohen arranged hush money payments to a Playboy model Broidy had impregnated. The charge to which he eventually pleaded guilty was separate; it involved his undisclosed lobbying for Chinese and Malaysian interests.

Broidy was in the news lately on yet another corruption-related matter. The Justice Department had investigated what it deemed a “bribery for pardon” effort he appeared to be involved with, which entailed trying to get clemency for Berkeley psychologist Hugh Baras. Ultimately, no pardon materialized there and no charges were filed.

But lest you think Trump’s willingness to forgive corruption crimes is partisan, note that he’s also had sympathy for corrupt Democrats. In February 2020, he commuted the sentence of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (who tried to sell the Senate seat being vacated by President-elect Barack Obama in late 2008). This week’s clemency recipients also include former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (convicted on a slew of financial corruption charges), and Salomon Melgen (a Democratic donor and friend of Sen. Bob Menendez convicted of tens of millions of dollars in Medicare fraud).

What Steve Bannon was pardoned for

The most prominent political figure to receive a pardon from Trump this week, though, was Steve Bannon.

Since agreeing to run the Trump campaign in August 2016 (taking over the job from the fired Paul Manafort, who got his own pardon last month), Bannon has had many ups and downs in the Trump era. He served as White House chief strategist at the beginning of Trump’s term, and was deeply involved in controversial administration policies such as the travel ban.

But in August 2017, he resigned (or was fired, depending on whether you believe him or Trump). In the months afterward, his meddling in an Alabama Senate special election infuriated establishment Republicans (and helped deliver the seat to Democrats), and the publication of a book by journalist Michael Wolff in which he was quoted extensively both enraged Trump and led to Bannon’s ouster from Breitbart News.

“Michael Wolff is a total loser who made up stories in order to sell this really boring and untruthful book,” Trump tweeted in January 2018. “He used Sloppy Steve Bannon, who cried when he got fired and begged for his job. Now Sloppy Steve has been dumped like a dog by almost everyone. Too bad!”

While Bannon was in the political wilderness in December 2018, he became involved in a massively viral crowdfunding effort to raise money from Trump supporters to build the border wall. Brian Kolfage, an Iraq War veteran, had come up with the idea, and $20 million in pledges poured in, after which Bannon got involved, helping start a new nonprofit group that would administer the funds.

Prosecutors later alleged that, though Kolfage repeatedly pledged to donors that he would take no payment from this effort, and that 100 percent of their funds would be used to build the wall, “hundreds of thousands of dollars were siphoned out” of the nonprofit for the personal use of Kolfage, Bannon, and others.

So Bannon was arrested in August of last year (while aboard a yacht owned by a fugitive Chinese billionaire), and indicted for fraud by the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.

Given Bannon’s falling-out with Trump, one might think that would be the end of the story. But in recent months, Bannon worked hard (unofficially) on Trump’s behalf. First, he was involved in the mysterious situation in which Trump allies got a purported hard drive from Joe Biden’s son Hunter, and was one of the loudest voices attacking Hunter in the final months of the election. Second, once it became clear Trump had lost the election, Bannon used his podcast to promote Trump’s false narrative that the election was stolen due to fraud.

Though Bannon doesn’t particularly need extra motivation to spread misinformation, the prospect of a pardon obviously loomed large for him in Trump’s final months. And though the president seemed to keep Bannon in suspense until the last minute (reports earlier this week claimed he was leaning against a pardon for Bannon), he came through to save his old campaign chief from facing trial after all.

Wilder uses of the pardon power didn’t materialize

Among the pardons Trump had issued before this week, Flynn’s stood out as especially unusual. It did not just cover the crime for which he was charged and to which he (initially) pleaded guilty. Instead, it was partly a preemptive pardon, trying to also immunize conduct that hadn’t even been charged by prosecutors. (Among other things, the pardon covered “any and all possible offenses arising out of facts and circumstances known to, identified by, or in any manner related to” the Mueller investigation.)

This raised the specter that Trump could have even grander preemptive pardons in the works. Frequently discussed possibilities included his lawyer Rudy Giuliani (whose foreign work is under investigation but who has not yet been charged); his children Ivanka, Don Jr., and Eric; or the rioters at the Capitol.

So far, none of these pardons has materialized. And while we don’t yet have the full text of the pardons issued this week, there’s no indication yet that any of them covered uncharged conduct. Perhaps Trump was hesitant to go too far because his impeachment trial is hanging over his head, or because he wants to preserve his political prospects for a 2024 run.

But the person Trump was reportedly most fascinated with the idea of pardoning was himself. Earlier this month, the New York Times reported that Trump was considering issuing the first presidential self-pardon. Legal experts have questioned whether such a thing would be constitutional, though. And there are practical problems as well — for instance, it could mean Trump would have lost his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.