President Donald Trump seems to really like issuing pardons.
The last three US Presidents – Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama – each waited more than two years after being elected to issue their first pardon. Trump has engaged his power three times already.
When asked by a reporter Tuesday if he was considering a pardon for his lawyer Michael Cohen, Trump responded that it was a “stupid, stupid question.”
The lawyer for recently pardoned Scooter Libby said pardons like the one for her client make the President happy and give him “a thrill.”
“No, I’m telling you, he got a thrill from giving Scooter a pardon,” Victoria Toensing told CNN’s Erin Burnett, dismissing the idea that the pardons are some kind of not-so-subtle message to the former campaign aides either working with the special counsel or under indictment or investigation in the Russia election meddling probe.
It may very well be thrilling to wipe someone’s slate clean, but for Trump it must also be thrilling to settle political scores, since that, to some degree, is what each of his three pardons has done.
Pardon 1: Joe Arpaio, controversial sheriff, immigration hardliner, birther
Trump rewarded a political backer and criticized the justice system as making a mistake when he pardoned former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in August, sparing his longtime supporter a jail sentence for criminal contempt during Arpaio’s time in office. Arpaio’s specific crime was ignoring a court order to stop profiling Latinos. Trump, it should be said, has openly complained about the constrictions the courts have placed on his own plans.
Trump didn’t consult his Department of Justice, but rather made the move on his own and teased it during a rally in Phoenix a week earlier.
“So was Sheriff Joe was convicted for doing his job?” Trump said.
In addition to being a Trump supporter, Arpaio was notable for sharing in the conspiracy theory Trump stoked about Obama’s birth certificate.
Pardon 2: Kristian Saucier, Navy submariner used so-called ‘Clinton defense’
Trump spent much of 2016 saying Hillary Clinton should be in jail, but he gave Kristian Saucier a free pass. Before the election, Saucier, after he pleaded guilty, argued in court that photos of a classified submarine propulsion system found on his phone were not unlike the emails that landed Clinton in hot water but did not result in a criminal charge against her. A judge rejected Saucier’s argument. But it must have been thrilling for Trump to pardon him, too. Trump has specifically used the case of Saucier, as recently as January, to call on his own Justice Department to go after Clinton.
Pardon 3: Scooter Libby, leaker of CIA agents identity, rebuffed by a Bush
Bush notably didn’t pardon Libby, but rather commuted the sentence of the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney.
Libby was convicted of lying to a special counsel, not completely unlike the one now investigating possible collusion between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russians.
It’s hard to pluck a specific message out of that irony, since Libby’s larger crime was his connection to the controversy surrounding the leaking of the name of an undercover CIA agent.
What might have further thrilled Trump about pardoning Libby is that he did it just days before James Comey’s book was released – the former FBI director was the man who authorized the special counsel in that case.
Trump is using the power much differently
Beyond breaking the seal on the pardon power much earlier in his presidency, publicly teasing them before carrying through, and so far using them for very political ends, Trump’s pardons are also different because they have occurred one at a time.
You can see recent pardons and commutations on the DOJ’s website. Previous recent presidents have pardoned in batches after recommendations from the Justice Department. Trump’s are announced individually, for effect.
Most recently, he suggested on Twitter he could pardon the boxer Jack Johnson, who died in 1946, and has been the subject of high-profile efforts to clear his name after he was convicted under a racist law of the time period.
Eric Holder, Obama’s first attorney general, once said there were other aspects of Johnson’s life that made the idea of pardoning him more difficult, despite a bipartisan effort led by then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. John McCain. It was the personal lobbying of Sylvester Stallone that brought the matter to Trump’s attention. The idea of Trump doing something that neither Bush nor Obama would and being on the right side of a horrible law can’t hurt Johnson’s prospects.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, for the record, suggested there is no message being sent in Trump’s pardons. The President’s call with Stallone, for instance, took place a month ago, according to her. Trump didn’t publicly muse about a Johnson pardon until the weekend.
Political pardons are nothing new. Obama used his power to pardon and, more often, undo harsh sentences, particularly for drug crimes, that have unduly affected African-Americans.
Others, like President Gerald Ford’s pre-emptive pardon of Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton’s still unbelievable pardon of Marc Rich, the wealthy former husband of his political benefactor, rightly cause an uproar. Obama was more likely to use clemency, as he did for Chelsea Manning.
But they feel different than the almost routine way Trump has used the power, as if to make a point in a news cycle.
He has certainly prepared the field in such a way with his three pardons so far that no one should be surprised if he ultimately does pardon former aides either for collusion, lying to federal agents, or any number of other things.
This post has been updated.