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Why Trump dropped more controversial pardons as he flexes his post-acquittal muscles

Analysis: Trump's term throttles up with pardons of Blagojevich, Milken and others – and all Democrats can do is shout

John T. Bennett
Tuesday 18 February 2020 23:12 GMT
Trump explains why he commuted Blagojevich sentence

Donald Trump traded the hum of Marine One's helicopter engines for the low roar of Air Force One's jet turbines, fittingly turning "Chopper Talk" into "Tarmac Talk" as his presidency throttles up.

He opted to take "The Beast" to Joint Base Andrews outside Washington for a West Coast fundraising and campaign rally swing, rather than the armored SUVs he often takes. Mr Trump exited the blast-resistant Cadillac limousine and strode confidently toward members of the media waiting for him under the executive jet's wing.

During his latest impromptu comments to reporters – this one spanning around 15 minutes on a list of topics – the president announced pardons or lessened sentences for several high-profile and controversial figures, including disgraced former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who admitted to trying to sell Barack Obama's Senate seat after he became president to the highest bidder offering campaign contributions.

He also announced a full pardon for Bernie Kerik, a former New York City police commissioner, who was convicted of using his office for personal gain.

Shortly after he finally boarded Air Force One and lifted off for his first stops – pricey closed-door campaign fundraising events in Beverly Hills, California – the White House announced the president also had issued a full pardon to wealthy financier Michael Milken, who the White House said "pioneered the use of high-yield bonds in corporate finance." Mr Milken was among those responsible in the 1980s for so-called "junk bonds," which helped companies expand – but left slew of businesses deeply in debt or forced to close up shop. But what he was sentenced to two years in prison for schemes prosecutors said were designed to enrich himself and some clients.

And before he left the White House, a press aide walked several San Francisco 49er legends to the microphones outside the West Wing after a hasty warning of "an announcement" coming soon. That was to inform the world that the president had pardoned former 49ers owner Edward J DeBartolo Jr, who was convicted as part of a corruption scandal in Louisiana.

So why now?

That was the question swirling around the pardons, which seemingly came out of the blue – though one White House official rightly noted most of the cases had been mentioned by the president or in press reports before Tuesday.

Basically, according to the president and White House aides, because he could – and the impeachment drama proved Democrats largely are powerless to slow down what they see as a runaway executive emboldened by his Senate acquittal.

"The president decided he wanted to do them today," the same official said. "So we rolled them out in one package. I don't think any of these were a big secret. The president had even talked about being approached or hearing about most of these cases before."

"The pardon power is right there in the Constitution," the White House official added. "There's no question whether this president or any other has the right to review cases and make a decision about pardons or comutations."

Or, as Mr Trump himself put it several miles away at the base known simply as JBA: "I chose not to be involved. I'm allowed to be totally involved. I'm actually, I guess, the chief law enforcement officer of the country. But I've chosen not to be involved."

Translation: Though Mr Trump was referring to the case of Roger Stone, his longtime pal and former political adviser who is facing a possible prison sentence on charges of lying to Congress and obstructing a federal investigation, he has used similar language in the past to make clear he believes he has the legal authority to weigh in not just on Justice Department cases but how long – and whether – convicted criminals should be sentenced.

To hear the president describe his own view of his authorities, he is not so much above the law. Rather, he is the country's best hope for enforcing his version of its laws.

"You look at a Roger Stone. ... You take a look at what's happening to these people. Somebody has to stick up for the people," he said, referring to a list of his former aides and associates who have been convicted – many for work and deeds they carried out on his behalf.

Translation: My people. My Justice Department. My call.

Congressional Democrats reacted swiftly, and with their typical outrage.

"The pardoning of these disgraced figures should be treated as another national scandal by a lawless executive," Democratic Congressman Bill Pascrell said. "In office, Trump has used pardons almost exclusively to shield unrepentant felons, racists, and corrupt scoundrels like Blagojevich and now Milken, one of the most prolific financial criminals in US history."

"The presidential pardon is sacred under the Constitution and perhaps represents Trump's most dangerous abuse of power precisely because the pardon power is unfettered and cannot be reviewed by Congress or the courts," Mr Pascrell said. "Following Senate Republicans' sham impeachment trial and decision to hold Trump immune from any sanctions for his crimes, outrageous abuses like these will accelerate and worsen."

The White House official did not deny that Mr Trump feels newly confident with the renewed confidence that Democrats lack the votes to use the pardons or Mr Trump's other chesty post-acquittal actions to convict and remove him from office.

Mr Trump's aides' collective defense of his recent actions describe what might be described as a why-not presidency, backed by a strong economy and record-high approval numbers, taking shape as he kicks his reelection machine into high gear.

The nonpartisan Gallup polling organization's latest poll puts the president's job approval at 49 per cent, the highest mark of his term. He only seems to grow more popular among his conservative base – which former GOP Congressman Joe Walsh who recently dropped his longshot primary challenge to the president – dubbed "a cult."

The Democratic presidential nominating race is devolving into an eat-their-own contest with candidates increasingly attacking each other rather than the impeached-and-acquitted president.

Given all that, why not take "The Beast" for a spin in front of tens of thousands of adoring supporters before Sunday's rain-delayed Daytona 500 NASCAR race in Florida – a key swing state yet again.

Given all that, why not add to your buck-the-conventional-wisdom bona fides by pardoning a slew of rich white guys? When the president explains his decisions to supporters at fundraisers and political rallies this week, it's a safe bet he will describe each one as victims of the same effort by an elite cabal to take him – and by extension, his supporters – down due to his success.

It's that feeling of victimhood that so connects with his base, many of whom believe were sold out of politicians from both parties via trade deals and other policies that left their wallets and economic prospects worse off.

Donald Trump fires Rod Blagojevich from The Celebrity Apprentice over 'inaccurate Harry Potter facts'

"The whole deal was a total SCAM. If I wasn't President, I'd be suing everyone all over the place..." Mr Trump claimed in a Tuesday morning tweet of the various investigations of him and his presidency, before adding this threat: "....BUT MAYBE I STILL WILL. WITCH HUNT!"

Why not?

After all, as the White House official said of Democrats' latest round of outrage: "We don't care. What are they going to do about it? The pardon power is plenary in the Constitution. They talked for months about the impeachment power being solely the Constitutional power of the House. So we just don't want to hear it. ... Elections have consequences. They should know that by now."

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