President Donald Trump doled out clemency to a new group of loyalists on Wednesday, wiping away convictions and sentences as he aggressively employed his power to override courts, juries and prosecutors to apply his own standard of justice for his allies.
One recipient of a pardon was a family member, Charles Kushner, the father of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Two others who were pardoned declined to cooperate with prosecutors in connection with the special counsel’s Russia investigation: Paul Manafort, his 2016 campaign chairman, and Roger Stone, his longtime informal adviser and friend.
They were the most prominent names in a batch of 26 pardons and three commutations disclosed by the White House after Trump left for his private club in Palm Beach, Florida, for the holiday.
Also on the list released on Wednesday was Margaret Hunter, the estranged wife of former Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif. Both of them had pleaded guilty to charges of misusing campaign funds for personal expenses.
Duncan Hunter was pardoned by Trump on Tuesday, as part of a first pre-Christmas wave of grants of clemency to 20 convicts, more than half of whom did not meet the Justice Department guidelines for consideration of pardons or commutations. They included a former Blackwater guard sentenced to life in prison for his role in the killing of 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007.
Of the 65 pardons and commutations that Trump had granted before Wednesday, 60 have gone to petitioners who had a personal tie to Trump or who helped his political aims, according to a tabulation by the Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith. Although similar figures do not exist for previous presidents, legal experts say that those presidents granted a far lower percentage to those who could help them personally and politically.
The pardons to Manafort and Stone on the same day will be particularly stinging for the former special counsel Robert Mueller and his team.
Trump’s lawyer at the time, John Dowd, was said to have broached the topic of pardons with lawyers for Manafort in 2017. At the time, Manafort was considering whether to cooperate with prosecutors, who believed that if there had been a connection between Russian officials and the Trump campaign that Manafort or Stone would have known about it. Trump later expressed explicit support for Stone’s refusal to speak with investigators.
Neither man ever fully cooperated with prosecutors despite entering guilty pleas, leaving investigators to believe that private discussion of pardons and public statements by Trump may have compromised their ability to uncover the facts.
The pardons for Manafort and Stone reflected Trump’s grievances about the Mueller investigation, referring to the “Russian collusion hoax,” “prosecutorial misconduct” and “injustice.”
Manafort, 71, had been sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison for his role in a decade-long, multimillion-dollar financial fraud scheme for his work in the former Soviet Union.
Stone, 68, whose 40-month prison sentence had previously been commuted by Trump, has maintained his innocence and insisted there was prosecutorial malfeasance. He was convicted on seven counts of lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstructing the House inquiry into possible Trump campaign coordination with Russia.
Charles Kushner’s pardon has been one of the most anticipated of the Trump presidency. The father-in-law of the president’s older daughter, Ivanka Trump, Kushner’s prison sentence was a searing event in his family’s life.
Kushner, 66, pleaded guilty in 2004 to 16 counts of tax evasion, a single count of retaliating against a federal witness and one of lying to the Federal Election Commission. He served two years in prison before being released in 2006.
The witness he was accused of retaliating against was his brother-in-law, whose wife, Kushner’s sister, was cooperating with federal officials in a campaign finance investigation into Kushner. Kushner was accused of videotaping his brother-in-law with a prostitute and then sending it to his sister.
The case was prosecuted by then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, a longtime Trump friend who went on to become governor of New Jersey. Christie has recently been critical of Trump’s efforts to claim widespread fraud in the 2020 election results without offering proof.
Jared Kushner worked on criminal justice overhaul efforts in the White House in part because he was scarred, allies said, by his father’s time behind bars. And he had a tense relationship with Christie for years, helping to banish him from his role in running the transition almost immediately after Trump’s surprise election win in 2016.
In pardoning Manafort and Stone, Trump continued to chip away at the work of the Mueller investigation, which the president and his departing attorney general, William Barr, have attacked for the past two years. Trump had already pardoned or commuted the sentences of three others who had been prosecuted by Mueller’s office, including two on Tuesday.
The president has long complained that the investigation was a “witch hunt” and a “hoax” and pressured Barr to prosecute some of the officials he blamed for it, including Joe Biden, former President Barack Obama and James Comey, the FBI director whom Trump fired.
Barr, whose last day in office was Wednesday, has echoed Trump’s criticism of the investigation and ordered an inquiry into its origins, but to the president’s frustration he did not prosecute anyone for it before last month’s election.
Barr had also moved to reduce the sentencing recommendation for Stone and to overturn guilty pleas entered by Michael Flynn, the president’s first national security adviser.
But Barr supported the prosecution of Stone, whereas Trump commuted Stone’s sentence in July and pardoned Flynn last month.
The president has long publicly dangled the prospect of pardons for associates caught up in investigations in a way that critics argued amounted to a bid to convince them to keep quiet about any wrongdoing they may have witnessed by Trump.
Even as he agreed to cooperate with the special counsel’s office, Manafort’s lead lawyer, Kevin Downing, continued to brief Trump’s personal lawyers, an unusual arrangement that raised questions about what side Manafort was on.
Some of Downing’s public statements also seemed aimed at generating sympathy for Manafort from the West Wing. Downing repeatedly said that prosecutors in the case had no evidence that the Trump campaign had conspired with Russia to influence the 2016 election, even though potential links to Moscow’s sabotage fell outside the purview of the trial.
Trump repeatedly expressed sympathy for Manafort, describing him as a brave man who had been mistreated by the special counsel’s office. After Manafort was initially sentenced in March 2019 to 3 1/2 years in the conspiracy case, the president said, “I feel very badly for Paul Manafort.”
Manafort was released early from prison in May as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and given home confinement instead.
Other presidents have made extensive use of clemency power in their final days in office, sometimes benefiting political allies or people close to them.
President Bill Clinton on his last day in office in 2001 pardoned or commuted the sentences of more than 175 people, including his half brother Roger Clinton, who had been convicted on drug charges, and his former Whitewater business partner Susan McDougal, who had been locked up for refusing to cooperate with Ken Starr’s team investigating the president.
But Clinton came under especially intense criticism for his pardon of Marc Rich, a financier who had fled the United States to avoid tax charges and whose ex-wife donated large sums to Clinton’s future presidential library.
Among those particularly enraged by the pardon of Rich was Rudy Giuliani, who had been the U.S. attorney whose office prosecuted Rich and is now the president’s personal lawyer. “He never paid a price,” Giuliani said in 2001 about Rich.
After losing reelection in 1992, President George H.W. Bush pardoned former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and five others targeted by prosecutors in the Iran-Contra scandal. Bush was convinced that a new indictment against Weinberger that challenged the president’s account of his own actions issued days before the election helped seal his defeat. The independent counsel Lawrence Walsh accused Bush of a “cover-up.”
Such actions were sharply criticized at the time as abuses of power and in Clinton’s case even investigated for evidence of wrongdoing.
But a president’s pardon authority under the Constitution is expansive and not ordinarily subject to the approval of any other part of government. Some legal scholars have argued that the corrupt use of the pardon power — in response to a bribe, for instance, or to obstruct justice — could be a crime, but it has never been tested.
The small number of pardons presidents granted that were given to those who had not been convicted were usually tied to a national event a president was trying to put behind the country, like the Nixon presidency or the Vietnam War.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.