Here’s the secret to getting a Trump presidential pardon
President Donald Trump announced he’s commuted the prison sentence of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who had been convicted in a campaign corruption scheme. Trump told reporters at Joint Base Andrews that Blagojevich “served eight years in jail. It’s a long time to go.”
President Donald Trump runs his White House (and his life) by two simple principles:
1. Reward your friends
2. Punish your enemies
It’s just not any more complicated than that.
Earlier this month, we saw the “punish your enemies” side of Trump when, against the advice and urgings of a number of Republican senators, he dismissed Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman from the National Security Council and jettisoned Gordon Sondland as the US ambassador to the European Union. He did so because both had testified on Capitol Hill about the administration’s actions in Ukraine in ways that displeased Trump.
On Tuesday, we saw the first principle of Trumpism in action when he issued a series of pardons and commutations that included former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., former New York City police chief Bernie Kerik and junk bond king Michael Milken.
The common thread of these moves isn’t partisanship or Trump’s commitment to criminal justice reform or anything like that. It’s far simpler: It’s that these individuals had friends in high places, friends who argued for Trump to use his unique presidential pardon power to make their problems go away.
Now, none of that is to say that the people Trump pardoned weren’t deserving of it. (The debate over how long served is “right” and sentencing guidelines is for another piece.) It is to say that the reason that people like Blagojevich or Milken or Kerik came to Trump’s attention is because they had high-profile friends advocating for them and/or Trump has seen them (or their cases) on TV.
Take the Blagojevich case. Here’s how Trump explained his decision to commute the former Illinois governor who was convicted of attempting to sell an appointment to a vacant US Senate seat:
“We have commuted the sentence of Rod Blagojevich. He served eight years in jail — a long time. I watched his wife on television, I don’t know him very well, I’ve met him a couple of times. He was on for a short while on ‘The Apprentice’ years ago. He’s very far from his children, they’re growing older, they’re going to high school now. They don’t get to see their father outside of an orange uniform. I saw that and I did commute his sentence. So he’ll be able to go back home with his family after serving eight years in jail. That was a tremendously powerful, ridiculous sentence in my opinion and in the opinion of many others. … It was a prosecution by the same people — Comey, Fitzpatrick — the same group.”
He said the quiet part out loud! “I watched his wife on television.” Yes! He did! Because Patti Blagojevich went on Fox News — the home channel of the President — over the last few years to plead the case for her husband, the former Democratic governor. (She also called the Russia investigation a “witch hunt” just in case you were wondering whether she was directly appealing to Trump or not.) And not for nothing, Trump — despite his dismissal in the quote above — did know Blagojevich himself. That’s because the former governor was on the cast of “The Celebrity Apprentice” in 2010 before being fired for — wait for it — not getting his Harry Potter facts straight.
(Sidebar: Notice in the Trump quote how he stuck a little “punish your enemies” in with his “reward your friends” on the Blagojevich pardon? See, because James Comey was FBI director during the investigation into Blagojevich. And the US attorney who prosecuted Blagojevich was Patrick Fitzgerald — who Comey had praised. This Washington Examiner headline tells you everything you need to know: “How Robert Mueller and James Comey’s best friend sent Rod Blagojevich to prison.” Wheels within wheels.)
So apply the “reward friends” principle when considering why Trump would pardon Kerik, who is close personal friends with Newsmax CEO Christopher Ruddy and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani (Kerik served under Giuliani when the latter was mayor). Or why Trump would pardon Milken, who counts Giuliani as well as Republican major donor Sheldon Adelson among his backers. Or why Trump pardoned DeBartolo Jr., having been lobbied to do so by former NFL greats Jerry Rice and Jim Brown.
None of this is new. Do you think Trump knew about Alice Marie Johnson, who had been sentenced in life in prison for a nonviolent drug conviction, before Kim Kardashian West brought it to his attention? Uh, no.
To be clear: Presidents do have this unquestioned pardon power. And past presidents have used it to pardon or commute the sentences of acquaintances or friends of friends — the most famous being Bill Clinton’s pardon of financier Marc Rich in his final days in office. And many have done so at a higher rate than Trump.
But no past president has been as transparently transactional in doling out clemency than Trump. Friend? Friend of a friend? Famous? You’ve got a very good chance of being considered for a pardon in Trump world.