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
- corruption and
— 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 Anka — urged 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.
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.”
In the postindustrial wasteland, the working class embraced an old Etonian mouthing about unleashed British potential.
Donald Trump, in his telling, could have shot somebody on Fifth Avenue and won. Boris Johnson could mislead the queen. He could break his promise to get Britain out of Europe by Oct. 31. He could lie about Turks invading Britain and the cost of European Union membership. He could make up stories about building 40 new hospitals. He could double down on the phantom $460 million a week that Brexit would deliver to the National Health Service — and still win a landslide Tory electoral victory not seen since Margaret Thatcher’s triumph in 1987.
The British, or at least the English, did not care. Truth is so 20th century. They wanted Brexit done; and, formally speaking, Johnson will now take Britain out of Europe by Jan. 31, 2020, even if all the tough decisions on relations with the union will remain. Johnson was lucky. In the pathetic, emetic Jeremy Corbyn, the soon-to-depart Labour Party leader, he faced perhaps the worst opposition candidate ever. In the Tory press, he had a ferocious friend prepared to overlook every failing. In Brexit-weary British subjects, whiplashed since the 2016 referendum, he had the perfect receptacle for his “get Brexit done.”
Johnson was also skillful, blunting Nigel Farage’s far-right Brexit Party, which stood down in many seats, took a lot of Labour votes in the seats where it did run, and ended up with nothing. The British working class, concentrated in the Midlands and the North, abandoned Labour and Corbyn’s socialism for the Tories and Johnson’s nationalism.
In the depressed provinces of institutionalized precariousness, workers embraced an old Etonian mouthing about unleashed British potential. Not a million miles from blue-collar heartland Democrats migrating to Trump the millionaire and America First demagogy.
That’s not the only parallel with American politics less than 11 months from the election. Johnson concentrated all the Brexit votes. By contrast, the pro-Remain vote was split between Corbyn’s internally divided Labour Party, the hapless Liberal Democrats, and the Scottish National Party. For anybody contemplating the divisions of the Democratic Party as compared with the Trump movement’s fanatical singleness of purpose, now reinforced by the impeachment proceedings, this can only be worrying.
The clear rejection of Labour’s big-government socialism also looks ominous for Democrats who believe the party can lurch left and win. The British working class did not buy nationalized railways, electricity distribution and water utilities when they could stick it to some faceless bureaucrat in Brussels and — in that phrase as immortal as it is meaningless — take back their country.
It’s a whole new world. To win, liberals have to touch people’s emotions rather than give earnest lessons. They have to cease being arid. They have to refresh and connect. It’s not easy.
Facebook reaches about one-third of humanity. It is more powerful than any political party — and it’s full of untruths, bigotry and nonsense. As Sacha Baron Cohen, the British actor, said last month of the social media behemoths: “The truth is that these companies won’t fundamentally change because their entire business model relies on generating more engagement, and nothing generates more engagement than lies, fear and outrage.”
That’s the story of Brexit, a national tragedy. That’s the story of Johnson, the man of no convictions. That’s the story of Trump, who makes puppets of people through manipulation of outrage and disregard for truth. That’s the story of our times. Johnson gets and fits those times better than most. He’s a natural.
“Brexit and Trump were inextricably linked in 2016, and they are inextricably linked today,” Steve Bannon told me. “Johnson foreshadows a big Trump win. Working-class people are tired of their ‘betters’ in New York, London, Brussels telling them how to live and what to do. Corbyn the socialist program, not Corbyn the man, got crushed. If Democrats don’t take the lesson, Trump is headed for a Reagan-like ’84 victory.”
I still think Trump can be beaten, but not from way out left and not without recognition that, as Hugo Dixon, a leader of the now defeated fight for a second British referendum, put it: “There is a crisis of liberalism because we have not found a way to connect to the lives of people in the small towns of the postindustrial wasteland whose traditional culture has been torn away.”
Johnson, even with his 80-seat majority, has problems. His victory reconciled the irreconcilable.
- His moneyed coterie wants to turn Britain into free-market Singapore on the Thames. His new
- working-class constituency wants rule-Britannia greatness combined with state-funded support. That’s a delicate balancing act. The breakup of Britain has become more likely. The strong Scottish National Party showing portends a possible second Scottish referendum on independence.
This time I would bet on the Scots bidding farewell to little England. And then there’s the small matter of what Brexit actually means. Johnson will need all his luck with that.
As my readers know, I am a passionate European patriot who sees the union as the greatest achievement of the second half of the 20th century, and Britain’s exit as an appalling act of self-harm. But I also believe in democracy. Johnson took the decision back to the people and won. His victory must be respected. The fight for freedom, pluralism, the rule of law, human rights, a free press, independent judiciaries, breathable air, peace, decency and humanity continues — and has only become more critical now that Britain has marginalized itself irreversibly in a fit of nationalist delusion.