It’s been a month since the President pardoned a turkey, so why pardon a flock of them now? Presidential pardons and commutations may be lawful and traditional, and the conduct of government agencies in the Trump years has certainly confirmed that presidential fiat might be fairer than the Justice Department. But some of the names in Trump’s flurry of pre-Christmas pardons smack of the Washington insider-trading that Trump has decried — and suggest we might be better off with no pardons at all.
There are exceptional cases, of course, but they are rare. The necessity of Andrew Johnson pardoning Confederate combatants after the Civil War is obvious. The necessity of Gerald Ford pardoning Richard Nixon was dubious, and may have led to Jimmy Carter’s victory in the 1976 elections.
There was no necessity at all in Carter pardoning Peter Yarrow of the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary — not for crimes against music, but for indecent behavior towards a 14-year-old girl. If that happened today, Yarrow’s group would be shunned as Pedo, Paul and Mary, and Carter would be hounded from the NGO circuit on which he has digested 40 years of free lunches and emitted so much afflatus.
The beneficiaries of Trump’s mercy fall into three categories: minor players in the Russiagate saga, Republican representatives caught with their fingers in the till and convicted murderers. Only the first of these categories justifies the raising of the imperial thumb. The other two disgrace the idea of pardons.
George Papadopoulos and his lawyer Alex van der Zwaan pleaded guilty in 2017 to making false statements to federal officials who were acting under the orders of special counsel Robert Mueller. The legal term for this offense is ‘trying to save your neck from a blatantly biased FBI operation when you’ve not done much wrong’.
Papadopoulos and van der Zwaan both served brief sentences. From what I can tell, neither of them should have been jailed at all. The pardons restore their reputations to what they were before it was Mueller time. Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who was also convicted on Catch-22 grounds, has already received a pardon. Trump has also commuted the sentence of Roger Stone, whose main offense seems to have been doing the sort of things that Republicans have always paid him to do.
The fall guys for ‘Russian collusion’ look more like victims than perpetrators. Mueller failed to gin up the conspiracy he was supposed to prove. The recipients of Trump’s generosity may not be angels, but their sentences were more about saving the faces of Mueller and his Democratic and NeverTrump supporters as they were about saving the country from foreign influence. If they were, the same patriots would now be setting the FBI and the Justice Department on Hunter Biden.
The second group of miscreants, however, deserve no favors. We know Congress is full of crooks, but did Rep. Duncan D. Hunter of California really need to use campaign funds for video games, dentistry, flights, hotels, a donation to his son’s school and non-specified items at a surf shop, not forgetting $600 on flying the family’s pet rabbit so the kids wouldn’t miss it?
Did Rep. Chris Collins of New York really need, as the Office of Congressional Ethics alleged, to engage in insider trading to hype the share price of Innate Immunotherapeutics, a company whose largest shareholder happened to be the self-same Rep. Chris Collins of New York?
Did Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas really need to fraudulently solicit and then divert hundreds of thousands of dollars in charitable donations?
Unlike the convictions of Papadopoulos and van der Zween, there’s nothing dubious about the cases against these three congressmen. They exploited their position, they abused the public’s trust, they broke the law and got caught. They are no more deserving of mercy than Bill Clinton’s cocaine-dealer brother Roger was.
The third bunch are four ex-servicemen who, employed by the private security firm Blackwater, panicked and killed 17 unarmed civilians in Nisour Square, Baghdad in September 2007. If the citizens of any other nation did this to Americans, it would be called a war crime. The men’s erstwhile employer, Erik Prince, happens to have been investigated in the Russiagate enquiry. Prince’s sister, Betsy DeVos, happens to be the education secretary. The pardons look not just corrupt, but deeply immoral.
CNN is calling Trump’s Christmas spree a ‘rampage’. This, like most of what CNN says, isn’t true. The reigning rampager is Barack Obama, who issued 212 pardons and 1,715 commutations, mostly for ‘non-violent’ drug crimes, but also to Chelsea Manning. But Donald Trump promised that he would be different. No one ever accused Trump of having good taste, but it’s a shame he seems determined to leave such a bad taste.