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US presidential pardons: How do they work and who has been pardoned in the past?

Trump commuted or pardoned the sentences of nearly 150 people in the past day.

File image of Donald Trump at a campaign rally last year.
File image of Donald Trump at a campaign rally last year.
Image: PA

IN HIS FINAL hours as president of the United States, Donald Trump pardoned or commuted the sentences of 143 people, including his former chief strategist Steve Bannon.

This is not an unusual act for a president leaving office, and Trump had already pardoned several associates and supporters including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and his former national security adviser Michael Flynn. 

The act of pardoning and commuting sentences is a constitutional right for a US president, and has been described as essentially “an unlimited power”. 

But what does it mean to pardon someone? And who have US presidents pardoned in the past? 

What is pardoning?

Presidential pardons have been taking place since 1795. 

The US Constitution gives a president the “power to grant reprieves and pardons for offences against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.”

This means a president can’t use the power to save himself or another official from impeachment.

The right allows the president to issue pardons or commute (reduce) sentences for people convicted of federal offenses, but not for state crimes.

A pardon is described by the US Justice Department as “an expression of the President’s forgiveness”.

It is usually granted in recognition of the person’s acceptance of responsibility for the crime, but it does not mean the person is innocent. 

It allows the person to vote, hold state or local office, or sit on a jury. 

A commutation of a sentence reduces the sentence being served, either completely or partially, but it doesn’t imply innocence or remove any of the restrictions on liberties like voting or holding office in the same way as a pardon. 

Daniel Geary, an associate professor of US history at Trinity College Dublin, told TheJournal.ie that there is “basically an unlimited power” for presidents to pardon during their time in office. 

“I was surprised [Trump] didn’t do more, to be honest,” he said.

According to the US Justice Department, Trump has issued 116 pardons and 89 commutations during his time as president, the vast majority of which were announced last night. 

Obama issued a total of 212 pardons and 1,715 commutations during his two terms in office. He was the first president since Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s to grant more commutations than pardons. 

obama-speaks-at-a-campaign-event Former US President Barack Obama. Source: DPA/PA Images

Trump is not the only president to utilise this power in his last days in office. 

In his final weeks in office, Obama commuted the sentences of 1,043 people and pardoned 142. 

George W Bush commuted the sentences of five people and pardoned 32 in the weeks before leaving office in 2009.  

Who has Trump commuted or pardoned already?

Following his impeachment last year, Trump pardoned and commuted a number of people including former New York City police commissioner Bernie Kerik. 

Kerik had served just over three years for tax fraud and lying to the White House while being interviewed to serve as homeland security secretary.

Trump’s White House said Kerik had “focused on improving the lives of others” since his conviction. 

He has also pardoned his long-time friend and adviser Roger Stone and Charles Kushner, the father of his son-in-law.

roger-stone-at-court File image of Roger Stone in 2019. Source: Ron Sachs

He also commuted the prison sentence of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. 

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 former US attorney Patrick Fitzgerald once described as “a political corruption crime spree” that would make Abraham Lincoln turn over in his grave.

Trump also pardoned 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.

Many of the pardons announced last year were advocated by friends of the president.

Last February, 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 last year. 

Her case, like several others, had been championed by criminal justice reform advocates like Alice Marie Johnson, whose life sentence Trump commuted in 2018 at the urging of reality TV star Kim Kardashian West and whose story Trump’s re-election campaign featured in an advertisement. 

What are some examples of famous pardons in the past? 

richard-nixon-1978 File image of Richard Nixon in the 1970s. Source: PA

President Gerald Ford issued a pre-emptive pardon in 1974 to disgraced former president Richard Nixon for any crimes Nixon may have committed while in the White House – ending any possibility for indictment around the Watergate scandal. 

This was “probably the most important” presidential pardon in history, associate professor Daniel Geary said. 

President Bill Clinton pardoned his half-brother, Roger Clinton, who had been convicted of cocaine possession, and Marc Rich, a billionaire and major donor to the Democratic Party who had been convicted of tax evasion and was a fugitive.

President George HW Bush pardoned former defense secretary Caspar Weinberger, former National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane and four other people involved in the Iran-Contra scandal.

 President Barack Obama commuted the 35-year sentence of Chelsea Manning, a US Army private who had been convicted of providing classified material to WikiLeaks.

exclusive-exhibition-of-3-d-chelsea-manning-portraits-nyc File image of Chelsea Manning in 2017. Source: Van Tine Dennis/ABACA

It was reported that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange could have been included in Trump’s list today of commutations and pardons, but he was not among the names listed by the White House. 

Daniel Geary said pardons can be ”a way to pardon the people close to you who might incriminate you in some way,” but that pardons and commutations “can be used for good too”.

“Obama pardoned a bunch of people who were in jail for far too long or who were unfairly convicted of crimes, so it’s not necessarily a negative thing,” he said. 

“Jimmy Carter pardoned people who had resisted the draft in Vietnam,” he said, citing this as one of the instances of “noble intention” behind the power.

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President Carter pardoned the more than 200,000 Vietnam War draft evaders in 1977.

Could Trump have pardoned himself, or his family members? 

Geary said this is a “grey area” and no president before has tried to self-pardon, but many have “certainly used this power to try to protect themselves from investigation “.

“I think after the whole insurrection at the Capitol it made it less likely [to self-pardon] because now that he’s been impeached again, if he pardoned himself it would make him look guilty,” he said. 

washington-dc-after-u-s-capitol-is-stormed-by-protestors A broken window on a US Captiol building entrance after the protests on 6 January. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

US media reported in recent weeks that one of Trump’s final actions could have preemptively tried to pardon himself and his children, who work as campaign and White House advisers. 

However, he does not appear to have done so after his final day in office.

“I would have thought that given the unlimited power and the way Trump does politics, he would have used pardons more to protect himself and his family,” Geary said.  

“I would have thought he would abuse this more.” 

Is there any limit to the number of pardons?

There is no limit to the number of pardons or commutations a president can issue. 

Geary compared the power to a “king in the 15th century who just decides ‘I’ll give mercy upon this person’”.

“It’s a complete unchecked power that the president has,” he said.

Presidential pardons also generally can’t be removed once they are granted.

Why do pardons exist in the US?

Pardons exists in other countries, but Geary said the political leader of a country is usually not the person in charge of it. 

However, because the US president is both head of State and head of government, they hold the power of pardoning or commuting sentences.

“In the British tradition, kings have had the ability to pardon people. The powers have been delegated in certain cases, not to the prime minister, but to governors or what have you,” Geary said. 

This “royal privilege” then made its way into the US Constitution. 

Geary said the only time in living memory in which its removal was discussed “was after President Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, which was probably the most important presidential pardon in history”.

“But it didn’t get anywhere because it’s just very, very difficult to change the constitution,” he said.

- With reporting by Press Association and AFP

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