Trump Grants Clemency to Blagojevich, Milken and Kerik

The president also pardoned or commuted the sentences of eight others on Tuesday, including Edward DeBartolo, a former owner of the San Francisco 49ers.

WASHINGTON — President Trump, citing what he said was advice from friends and business associates, granted clemency on Tuesday to a who’s who of white-collar criminals from politics, sports and business who were convicted on charges involving

  • fraud,
  • corruption and
  • lies

— including the financier Michael R. Milken.

The president pardoned Mr. Milken, the so-called junk bond king of the 1980s, as well as the former New York City police commissioner Bernard B. Kerik and Edward J. DeBartolo Jr., a former owner of the San Francisco 49ers. He also commuted the sentence of Rod R. Blagojevich, a former Democratic governor of Illinois.

Their political and finance schemes made them household names, and three received prison terms while Mr. DeBartolo paid a $1 million fine.

Mr. Trump also pardoned David Safavian, the top federal procurement official under President George W. Bush, who had been sentenced in 2009 to a year in prison for lying about his ties to the lobbyist Jack Abramoff and obstructing the sprawling investigation into Mr. Abramoff’s efforts to win federal business. The president also granted clemency to six other people.

Mr. Trump has repeatedly stated his commitment to prison reform and addressing the excessive sentences given to minorities. At the urging of Kim Kardashian West in 2018, he pardoned Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old African-American woman serving a life sentence for a nonviolent drug conviction. Ms. Johnson was the centerpiece of a TV ad the Trump campaign ran this month during the Super Bowl.

But the president’s announcements on Tuesday were mostly aimed at wiping clean the slates of rich, powerful and well-connected white men. And they came after years of sophisticated public relations campaigns aimed at persuading Mr. Trump to exercise the authority given to him under the Constitution.

Patti Blagojevich, the wife of the former Illinois governor, frequently appeared on Fox News calling for Mr. Trump to commute her husband’s sentence. Mr. Kerik, a regular on Fox News, appeared on the network as recently as Monday night. Mr. Milken has sought to rebrand himself as a philanthropist in recent years as allies campaigned on his behalf for a pardon.

In conversations with his advisers, Mr. Trump has also raised the prospect of commuting the sentence of Roger J. Stone Jr., his longtime adviser, who was convicted in November of seven felony charges, including tampering with a witness and lying under oath in order to obstruct a congressional inquiry into whether the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to influence the 2016 election.

Asked about a pardon for Mr. Stone on Tuesday, Mr. Trump insisted that “I haven’t given it any thought.”

Democrats pounced on the president’s announcements.

Today, Trump granted clemency to tax cheats, Wall Street crooks, billionaires and corrupt government officials,” said Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, the leading Democratic candidate for president. “Meanwhile, thousands of poor and working-class kids sit in jail for nonviolent drug convictions. This is what a broken and racist criminal justice system looks like.”

Representative Bill Pascrell Jr., Democrat of New Jersey, said in a statement that the president abused the pardon power by using it to reward friends and repair the reputations of felons who do not deserve it.

The pardoning of these disgraced figures should be treated as another national scandal by a lawless executive,” he said.

But Mr. Trump defended his grants of clemency on Tuesday.

He was particularly critical of the 14-year prison sentence for Mr. Blagojevich, who was convicted of trying when he was governor of Illinois to essentially sell the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when he became president. Mr. Blagojevich also once appeared on the reality series “The Celebrity Apprentice,” which Mr. Trump hosted.

“That was a tremendously powerful, ridiculous sentence, in my opinion,” Mr. Trump said after announcing that Mr. Blagojevich would go free after serving eight years in prison. The president alleged that the former governor was a victim of the same forces that investigated him for years, citing James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, and Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago who prosecuted Mr. Blagojevich.

It was a prosecution by the same people — Comey, Fitzpatrick, the same group,” Mr. Trump told reporters, misstating Mr. Fitzgerald’s name.

Mr. Trump gave no indication that he relied on the usual vetting process that guides presidents making use of their constitutional authority to wipe away criminal convictions or commute prison sentences.

Traditionally, the Justice Department’s pardons office would make recommendations about pardons and commutations to the deputy attorney general, who would weigh in and then pass the Justice Department’s final determinations to the White House. Instead, Mr. Trump told reporters that he followed “recommendations” in making his decisions.

Those recommendations, according to a White House statement, came from the president’s longtime friends, business executives, celebrities, campaign donors, sports figures and political allies.

In pardoning Mr. Kerik, who pleaded guilty of tax fraud and lying to the government, Mr. Trump said he heard from more than a dozen people, including Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor and Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer; Geraldo Rivera, a Fox TV personality; and Eddie Gallagher, a former Navy SEAL and accused war criminal whose demotion was overturned by Mr. Trump last year.

Mr. Kerik had a pardon application pending and Mr. Blagojevich had a commutation application pending; but a source close to the pardons office did not believe that the pardon attorney had given either of those applications full-throated support.

Mr. Milken, whose dealings contributed to the collapse of the savings-and-loan industry, fought for decades to reverse his conviction for securities fraud. Richard LeFrak, a billionaire real-estate magnate and long time friend, Sheldon G. Adelson, a prominent Republican donor, and Nelson Peltz, a billionaire investor who hosted a $10 million fund-raiser for the president’s 2020 campaign on Saturday, were among those who suggested that the president pardon him.

Mr. Milken did not have a pardon or commutation applications pending at the Justice Department’s pardons office, meaning that Mr. Trump made that decision entirely without official Justice Department input. Two previous applications had been denied and closed.

Football greats Jerry Rice and Joe Montana — but also the singer-songwriter Paul Ankaurged him to pardon Mr. DeBartolo, who pleaded guilty in 1998 to concealing an extortion attempt. Mr. DeBartolo avoided prison but was fined $1 million and suspended for a year by the National Football League. He later handed over the 49ers to his sister Denise DeBartolo York.

Trump Explains Decision for Commuting Blagojevich’s Sentence

President Trump commuted the sentence of former Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois, calling him a “very nice person,” and said he had not considered a pardon for Roger J. Stone Jr, his longest-serving adviser.

“We have commuted the sentence of Rod Blagojevich. He served eight years in jail — it’s a long time. And I watched his wife on television. I don’t know him very well. I met him a couple of times — he was on, for a short while, on ‘The Apprentice’ years ago. Seemed like a very nice person. Don’t know him. But he served eight years in jail — has a long time to go. Many people disagree with the sentence — he’s a Democrat, he’s not a Republican. It was a prosecution by the same people: Comey, Fitzpatrick, the same group.” Reporter: “Are you planning to pardon Roger Stone?” “I haven’t given it any thought. In the meantime, he’s going through a process. But I think he’s been treated very unfairly.”

Previous presidents have often waited until the final moments of their presidency to wield the pardon power on behalf of their friends. Former President Bill Clinton pardoned Marc Rich, a hedge fund manager and financier who was convicted of tax evasion and other crimes, on January 20, 2001, Mr. Clinton’s last day in office.

Others, including former presidents Bush and Obama, largely reserved their clemency authority for people convicted of nonviolent, low-level drug crimes and other offenses who were identified as part of a rigorous process run by a team of government lawyers in the Justice Department.

Mr. Trump, however, has shrugged off those traditions and the controversy that sometimes comes with the use of the pardon power. He issued a “full and unconditional pardon” to Joseph M. Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff and immigration hard-liner convicted of contempt of court, in August of 2017.

Less than a year later, he did the same for I. Lewis Libby Jr., a former aide to Mr. Bush who was convicted of obstructing justice and perjury.

In addition to helping erase the convictions of the well-connected and powerful, Mr. Trump on Tuesday also pardoned a tech executive who pleaded guilty to conspiracy, the owner of a construction company who underpaid his taxes and a woman convicted of stealing cars. He also commuted the sentences of a woman convicted of drug distribution, another woman who was part of a marijuana smuggling ring, and a minority owner of a health care company who was sentenced to 35 years for a scheme to defraud the government.

Their relative anonymity was a sharp contrast to the prominence of the four men highlighted by the president.

Mr. Milken, was credited in the 1980s with using junk bonds to finance big debt-laden corporate buyouts an, pleaded guilty to securities reporting violations and tax offenses and the Securities and Exchange Commission banned him for life. The investigation came to highlight the corporate excesses on Wall Street in the 1980s.

In the years since his conviction, Mr. Milken has emerged as a major cancer philanthropist and is the founder of the Milken Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that holds a popular conference in Los Angeles, which convenes the world’s most powerful people in government, industry and finance.

Mr. Kerik, a police detective, served as Mr. Giuliani’s bodyguard and chauffeur during the 1993 mayoral race and later served in a series of high-ranking positions in the city’s Department of Correction. Eventually, Mr. Giuliani named Mr. Kerik correction commissioner in 1997 and police commissioner in 2000.

In 2004, his bid to become Homeland Security secretary in the Bush cabinet collapsed amid scandals. In June 2006, he pleaded guilty in State Supreme Court in the Bronx to two misdemeanors tied to renovations done on his apartment. Four years later, Mr. Kerik pleaded guilty to tax fraud and making false statements.

Mr. DeBartolo presided over the golden era of the 49ers when the team won five Super Bowl championships under coach Bill Walsh with legendary players like Joe Montana, Steve Young, Ronnie Lott and Jerry Rice. He was elected to the National Football League Hall of Fame in 2014 despite his conviction.

But in the late 1990s, Mr. DeBartolo was an investor in the Hollywood Casino Corp., a Dallas company seeking permission for a riverboat casino in Louisiana. On March 12, 1997, he met Edwin W. Edwards, the influential former governor of Louisiana, for lunch in California and handed over $400,000 that Mr. Edwards had demanded for his help in securing a license. The next day, the Gaming Board granted the license. A month later, federal agents raided Mr. Edwards’s house and office, seizing the $400,000.

“Why do it? It actually was just plain stupidity, and I should have just walked away from it,” Mr. DeBartolo told NFL Films for a biographical documentary in 2012. “I was as much to blame because I was old enough to know better and too stupid to do anything about it.”

ANDREA BERNSTEIN: THE TRUMPS, THE KUSHNERS AND AMERICAN GREED

Andrea Bernstein is a senior editor at WNYC and co-host of the “Trump, Inc.” podcast. A Peabody and duPont-Columbia award-winning journalist, Bernstein’s new work is an exposé on two families at the pinnacle of American power. American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power, is Bernstein’s investigative journey into two emblematic American families—the Kushners and the Trumps.

Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump enjoy limitless access to the Oval Office, but beyond their marriage, little about the families’ relationship is public knowledge. Throughout American Oligarchs, Bernstein reveals their campaign into the White House by tracing history stretching from the Gilded Age to WWII to the 21st century. Bernstein draws on private interviews, never-before-seen documents and forgotten files in order to expose the families’ accumulated wealth through real estate, manipulation and crime.

Bernstein’s American Oligarchs is a serious examination of the half-truths, secrecy and media manipulation weaponized by the Trumps and the Kushners. Join us as she discusses the Trumps, Kushners, and the marriage of money and power.

Khamenei Wants to Put Iran’s Stamp on Reprisal for U.S. Killing of Top General

In a departure from Iran’s usual tactics of hiding behind proxies, the country’s supreme leader wants any retaliation for the killing of a top military commander to be carried out openly by Iranian forces.

In the tense hours following the American killing of a top Iranian military commander, the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made a rare appearance at a meeting of the government’s National Security Council to lay down the parameters for any retaliation. It must be a direct and proportional attack on American interests, he said, openly carried out by Iranian forces themselves, three Iranians familiar with the meeting said Monday.

It was a startling departure for the Iranian leadership. Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, Tehran had almost always cloaked its attacks behind the actions of proxies it had cultivated around the region. But in the fury generated by the killing of the military commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, a close ally and personal friend of the supreme leader, the ayatollah was willing to cast aside those traditional cautions.

The nation’s anger over the commander’s death was on vivid display Monday, as hundreds of thousands of Iranians poured into the streets of Tehran for a funeral procession and Mr. Khamenei wept openly over the coffin.

After weeks of furious protests across the country against corruption and misrule, both those who had criticized and supported the government marched together, united in outrage. Subway trains and stations were packed with mourners hours before dawn, and families brought children carrying photographs of General Suleimani.

A reformist politician, Sadegh Kharazi, said he had not seen crowds this size since the 1989 funeral of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

“We are ready to take a fierce revenge against America,” Gen. Hamid Sarkheili of the Revolutionary Guard, declared to the throng. “American troops in the Persian Gulf and in Iraq and Syria are within our reach.”

No negotiations or deal, only war with America,” students chanted in an online video from a university campus.

A renowned eulogist and member of the Revolutionary Guard, Sadegh Ahangaran, exhorted the funeral crowds to raise their voices so “damned America can hear you” and to “wave the flags in preparation for war.”

The increasingly public vows of direct action on Monday constituted Iran’s latest act of defiance to President Trump. Over the weekend the president had repeatedly threatened to retaliate for any attacks against American interests by ordering airstrikes against as many as 52 potential targets, one for each of the American hostages held after the seizure of the United States embassy in Tehran in 1979.

In response, Iran’s moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, on Monday responded with his own numerology. “Those who refer to the number 52 should also remember the number 290,” he said on Twitter, a reference to the 290 people killed in 1988 in the accidental downing of an Iranian airliner by an American warship. “Never threaten the Iranian nation,” Mr. Rouhani added.

Where, when and even if Iran may choose to retaliate remains a matter of speculation. As Iranian leaders weighed just what form it might take, analysts said the targets included American troops in neighboring Syria and Iraq, American bases in the Persian Gulf or American embassies or diplomats almost anywhere.

When previous attempts at direct strikes or assassinations have proved unsuccessful, some noted, Iranian-backed militants have turned to the simpler tactic of killing civilians with terrorist bombs.

This was the sequence in 2012 with the Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah. After failing in attempts to attack Israeli targets or kill Israeli officials in revenge for the killing of one of the group’s leaders, the militants eventually settled on the easier job of bombing a bus load of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, said Afshon Ostovar, a scholar of Iran at the Naval Postgraduate School.

“We are in uncharted territory, and the truth of the matter is nobody knows how Iran is going to respond. I don’t think even Iran knows,” Mr. Ostovar said. “But I think there is a blood lust right now in the Revolutionary Guards.”

In Iraq, where the Parliament had earlier called for the immediate expulsion of the 5,000 American troops stationed there, Prime Minister Mahdi on Monday listed steps to curtail the troops’ movements.

While plans were being made for departure of the Americans, he said, they will now be limited to “training and advising” Iraqi forces, required to remain within the bases and barred from Iraqi air space.

Mr. Mahdi met with Matthew Tueller, the American ambassador to Iraq, on Monday, and “stressed the need for joint action to implement the withdrawal,” according to a statement and photo released by Mr. Mahdi’s office. He also emphasized Iraq’s efforts to prevent the current tensions between Iran and the United States from sliding into “open war.”

The United States military stirred a media flurry by accidentally releasing a draft letter that seemed to describe imminent plans to withdraw from Iraq. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. William H. Seely III, the commander of the United States forces in Iraq, wrote to the Iraqi government that the American troops would be relocated “to prepare for onward movement.”

“We respect your sovereign decision to order our departure,” he wrote.

But Defense Department officials played down the significance of the letter. “Here’s the bottom line, this was a mistake,” General Mark A. Milley, President Trump’s top military commander, told reporters at the Pentagon during a hastily called press briefing. “It’s a draft unsigned letter because we are moving forces around.”

“There’s been no decision whatsoever to leave Iraq,” Mark T. Esper, the defense secretary, told reporters. “There’s been no decision made to leave Iraq. Period.”

Although the Trump administration has said that the United States killed General Suleimani because he was planning imminent attacks against American interests, there were indications Monday that he may have been leading an effort to calm tensions with Saudi Arabia.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi of Iraq said that he was supposed to meet with General Suleimani on the morning he was killed, and that he expected him to bring messages from the Iranians that might help to “reach agreements and breakthroughs important for the situation in Iraq and the region.”

In Washington, two top Senate Democrats urged President Trump early Monday to declassify the administration’s formal notification to Congress giving notice of the airstrike that killed General Suleimani.

Such notification of Congress is required by law, and to classify the entirety of such a notification is highly unusual.

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, and Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a joint statement that it was “critical that national security matters of such import be shared with the American people in a timely manner.”

And Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, urged Mr. Trump’s critics not to jump to conclusions. “Unfortunately, in this toxic political environment, some of our colleagues rushed to blame our own government before even knowing the facts,” he said.

For its part, Iran simultaneously continued a months-long push against the Trump administration over its demands that Tehran submit to a more restrictive renegotiation of a 2015 accord with the Western powers over its nuclear research. The Trump administration has sought to pressure Iran by devastating its economy with sweeping economic sanctions, which Iranian officials have denounced as economic warfare.

The sanctions set off the cycle of attacks and counterattacks that culminated last week in the killing of General Suleimani. Iran has also responded with carefully calibrated steps away from the deal’s limits on its nuclear program. On Sunday, Iranian officials said that they had now abandoned all restrictions on the enrichment of uranium, though they said they would continue to admit inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Amid the emotion of the funeral, some called for vengeance that would remake the region. “Even if we attack all of U.S. bases and even if we kill Trump himself it’s not enough revenge,” Brig. Gen Amir Ali HajiZadeh said at the funeral. “We must totally eliminate all U.S. troops from the region.”

For now, Iranian officials seem to be in no rush to strike back against the United States, possibly enjoying their ability to spread anxiety throughout the West. They seem content to

  • bask in the nationalist surge in their popularity,
  • growing international sympathy and the push to
  • expel the American troops from Iraq.

“I don’t think they want to shift the conversation yet,” said Sanam Vakil, a scholar of Iran at Chatham House, a research center in London.

But for the hard-liners who dominate the Iranian National Security Council, she said, some vigorous retaliation would be the only rational response. “A non-response would appear weak and invite further pressure, creating problems in domestic politics and internationally,” she said.

 

Applying Malcolm Gladwell’s Taxonomy to the Unfolding Political Drama

A regular commenter brought the clip above to my attention. In it the Canadian journalist Malcolm Gladwell distinguishes among four categories of crime fiction. It’s short and I encourage you to watch it but here’s an even briefer summary.

In “Westerns” there is no law and the protagonist imposes law on a lawless territory. In “Northerns” there is a flawless legal system in place which is effective in enforcing the law. In “Easterns” the legal system is corrupt; it must be fixed from the inside. In “Southerns” not just the legal system but everything is thoroughly corrupt—it must be fixed from outside.

I would point out that this taxonomy doesn’t just apply to crime fiction but to sci-fi in the movies and television and even medical dramas. Star Trek is a Northern. Star Wars is an Eastern. Serenity is a Western. There are even a few isolated Southerns (Riddick).

It occurred to me that it is productive to look at the way that different groups view the political drama that has been unfolding since 2016 using Gladwell’s prism. Democrats tend to look at the last nearly three years as a Northern. The system is working well to rid itself of a criminal. The Republicans, not terribly surprisingly, see it as a Southern—a man comes from outside to fix a thoroughly corrupted system.