Donald Trump has gone on a clemency blitz which includes commuting former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich’s prison sentence and pardoning former New York City police commissioner Bernie Kerik.
Those given a presidential break include financier Michael Milken, the so-called “junk bond king” jailed for two years in the 1990s after pleading guilty to violating securities laws, and Edward DeBartolo Jr, the former San Francisco 49ers owner convicted in a gambling fraud scandal after building one of the most successful NFL teams in history.
But Mr Trump also commuted the sentences of several women with more sympathetic cases to balance out the men convicted of corruption.
In all, Mr Trump took clemency actions related to 11 people – his latest interventions in the justice system as he faces growing criticism for weighing in on the cases of former aides.
Mr Trump made clear he saw similarities between efforts to investigate his own conduct and those that took down Blagojevich, a Democrat who appeared on Trump’s reality TV show, “Celebrity Apprentice.”
“It was a prosecution by the same people — Comey, Fitzpatrick, the same group,” Mr Trump told reporters.
He was referring to Patrick Fitzgerald, the former US attorney who prosecuted Blagojevich and now represents former FBI Director James Comey, who Mr Trump fired from the agency in May, 2017. Comey was working in the private sector during the Blagojevich investigation and indictment, which led to his 14-year prison sentence in 2012.
The clemency actions come as an emboldened Mr Trump continues to test the limits of his office now that impeachment is over.
The actions drew alarm from Democratic Representative Bill Pascrell Jr, who accused Mr Trump of using his unfettered pardon power “to shield unrepentant felons, racists and corrupt scoundrels”.
Blagojevich was convicted of political corruption, including seeking to sell an appointment to former President Barack Obama’s old Senate seat, and extortion relating to a state-funded children’s hospital — actions Mr Fitzgerald once described as “a political corruption crime spree” that would make Abraham Lincoln turn over in his grave.
But Mr Trump said the former governor had been subjected to a “ridiculous sentence” that didn’t fit his crimes.
“That was a tremendously powerful, ridiculous sentence, in my opinion and in the opinion of many others,” he said.
Mr Trump also pardoned Kerik, who served just over three years for tax fraud and lying to the White House while being interviewed to serve as homeland security secretary. Mr Trump’s White House, however, lauded Kerik.
“Since his conviction, he has focused on improving the lives of others, including as a passionate advocate for criminal justice and prisoner reentry reform,” the White House release stated.
Mr Trump confirmed the pardons on an air base tarmac as he left Washington for a West Coast visit.
He said he had yet to think about pardoning his longtime confidant Roger Stone, who is scheduled to be sentenced on Thursday, or granting clemency to several former aides who have ended up in legal jeopardy, including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and disgraced former national security adviser Mike Flynn.
But he again made clear he was sympathetic to their cases.
“Somebody has to stick up for the people,” Mr Trump said, adding in reference to Stone: “You’re going to see what happens. I think he’s treated unfairly.”
Indeed, Mr Pascrell predicted that, following Mr Trump’s acquittal by the Republican-controlled Senate, “outrageous abuses like these will accelerate and worsen”.
In Illinois, Democratic governor JB Pritzker said in a statement Mr Trump had “abused his pardon power in inexplicable ways to reward his friends and condone corruption, and I deeply believe this pardon sends the wrong message at the wrong time”.
Republicans in the state echoed his criticism of the Blagojevich action.
Many of the pardons announced Tuesday were advocated by friends of the president, including Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino magnate, Tom Barrack, a longtime Trump confidant, and Fox News personality Maria Bartiromo.
Milken’s advocates, for example, included all of the above — along with the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. It was Mr Giuliani who charged Milken with 98 felony counts, including racketeering, insider trading and securities fraud, when he served as the top federal prosecutor in New York City in 1989.
“He paid a big price, paid a very tough price,” Mr Trump said of Milken, who was among a small group of GOP mega donors who spent Election Night 2018 at the White House, according to media reports.
Blagojevich’s case had been championed by his wife, Patti, who went on a media blitz in 2018. Appearing on Mr Trump’s favourite channel, Fox News, she likened the investigation of her husband to special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
And relatives of Paul Pogue, the owner of a construction company found guilty of underpaying his taxes, who Mr Trump also pardoned, have donated large sums to Mr Trump’s reelection campaign.
But Mr Trump also commuted the sentences of several women more representative of the flood of requests presidents typically receive.
Judith Negron, 48, had been serving 35 years at a Florida prison for health care fraud, conspiracy and money laundering when she was released on Tuesday.
Her case, like several others, had been championed by criminal justice reform advocates like Alice Marie Johnson, whose life sentence Mr Trump commuted in 2018 at the urging of reality TV star Kim Kardashian West and whose story Mr Trump’s reelection campaign featured in a recent Super Bowl ad.