Pardons have become Donald Trump’s favorite sport, after golf. Oh the fun of ‘You get a pardon, you get a pardon’ with nobody to stop you, the kind of absolute power Trump wished he had in all aspects of the job over these last four years ending today.
The list of those getting final-day grants is a rogue’s gallery: felons who can pay to play, witnesses who might rat, Republicans who might fund his afterlife, and any old body who might be good for a loan, an invitation, or paying up to join one of his ailing clubs.
The surprise on the list was a pardon, up in the air to the very last minute, for the famously disheveled chief of staff Steve Bannon, banned from Twitter for wanting to put Anthony Fauci’s head on a pike, and before that banished by Trump for dissing Ivanka and Jared in the press. He finally inched his way back into Trump’s good graces by amplifying the losing president’s preposterous argument that he’d won. Bannon promoted the lie on his podcast and encouraged “patriots” to join the insurrection to correct it. He compared all of it to the American revolution. Bannon’s is a preemptive pardon, meaning he won’t even have to go to trial over charges that he underwrote his lavish lifestyle by stealing money—get this—from Trump supporters for a fake border wall.
There is another reason: Someone who knows as much as Bannon can’t be left in the wild where he might exchange dope on Trump for a deal. In that vein, pity lawyer Michael Cohen. He didn’t rate a pardon because he’d already spilled his guts about paying off Stormy Daniels for Trump. It didn’t take much for rapper Lil Wayne to get one for carrying a loaded, gilded handgun onto his private jet. All he had to do was bear witness that Trump had done so, so much for Black people that they had nothing to lose by voting for him.
In general, though, Trump likes to do favors for people who look more like him. He commuted the sentence of socially prominent Palm Beach neighbor Dr. Salomon Melgen, serving 17 years for some serious overcharging of old folks for cataract surgery, who might ease Trump’s way back into polite society should he need it, and pardoned the likes of former New York Observer editor, Jared Kushner friend, and convicted stalker Ken Kurson, and Randy “Duke” Cunningham, forced out of Congress after accepting $2.4 million in bribes from defense contractors.
There were a few surprises in who didn’t make it. Although they share a common enemy in New York prosecutor Preet Bharara and a friend in the Kushners, Trump did not spare former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who just began his eight-year sentence for accepting kickbacks. Despite an intense online campaign, Julian Assange struck out, as did Tiger King’s Joe Exotic, serving 22 years for trying to find a hitman to kill a competing zookeeper. Exotic was so sure he’d landed a get out of jail free card that he had hair, make-up, and a limo waiting outside the prison gate.
Before today’s 143 pardons and commutations, Trump had granted clemency to just 94 people, 86 percent of whom Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith calculated served Trump’s personal needs. These included former campaign chair Paul Manafort, national security adviser Michael Flynn, and disgraced witness intimidator, real estate developer, and Ivanka father in law Charles Kushner. Trump commuted the sentence of dirty trickster Roger Stone who made it worth the president’s while when he came up with the name Stop the Steal for his rampage on Congress. Nothing that came down today equals the Christmas pardons for the bloodthirsty thugs who worked at Blackwater, once run by Betsy DeVos’ brother Erik Prince, who gunned down 14 civilians in a public square in Iraq.
Pardons are meant for those seeking mercy for a miscarriage of justice but that bores Trump, unless the pardon-seeker has a celebrity backer or gives him a chance to take a dig at Joe Biden for his tough-on-crime votes in decades past. Trump might not have commuted the sentence of Death Row Records’ co-founder Michael “Harry O” Harris for attempted murder and cocaine trafficking if Snoop Dogg hadn’t been secretly pleading for him. In 2018, it took Kim Kardashian West on a visit to the Oval Office to get clemency for Alice Johnson, a first-time nonviolent drug offender.
Process bores Trump, too, which is why his pardons in general bypassed the Justice Department’s pardon office and went straight to the desk of Jared Kushner for review—ones from lawyers and lobbyists in this pile, ones from friends and family in that file, donors over here, and way over here on the credenza, ones from anyone with ties to Biden or prosecutors on Trump’s tail. Kushner carried out this last piece of wet work for his father in law with the same casual attitude toward legality that he applied to misplacing toddlers at the border, getting PPE to front-line workers, and delivering the vaccine before its use-by date.
No potential pardons consumed Trump like the one he would have liked to grant himself and his adult children, and why not, Barron just in case. Because pardons can be prospective and unpublished, Trump could stick a bunch away for a rainy day, another reason he loves them. And corporations are people too. Mike Liddell, the My Pillow guy, might have secured a quiet one for himself when he stopped by the Oval Office last Friday to present last-ditch ways—a militia, blame China—for Trump to stay in office. The pardon Liddell needs right now is one from Bed, Bath & Beyond to get his products back on their shelves.
If the Founding Fathers could have imagined a president so shameless, they might not have provided such a rich vein of political gold to plunder. As unbelievable as it seems, word is that Trump had to be talked out of pardoning the rioters and insurrectionists who stopped Congress from counting votes. Kushner convinced him that it would make Republican senators, already sick to death of him for attacking Congress, more likely to vote for impeachment.
It’s our good fortune that the Founding Fathers made the transfer of power so seamless. A sulking Trump deprived us of the reassuring rituals–welcoming his successor to the White House to tell him how it really is, Diet Coke optional, or by showing up at noon today.
Pardons finished in the wee hours of the morning, just ahead of Trump taking off for Mar a Lago with a 21-gun salute before a sadly sparse crowd. Try as he might, Trump couldn’t block Joe Biden from going to the Capitol, battered but still standing, and taking the oath of office. With 35 words, we will have a new president. America will be great again.