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.”
You needn’t believe the hype about President Donald Trump being a 21st-century media wizard to concede he has a special talent for powershifting through the gears of the news cycle to blow past whatever current event might threaten his presidency. Whether it’s a function of Trump’s volatility or a measure of his craft, he has a knack for freezing out damaging news by creating his own news storms that transfix the press. He fires members of his Cabinet and staff, over-reaches with executive orders, picks fights with a Gold Star mother and football players, engages in ad hominem, and insults entire friendly countries.
In recent days as bad news has swelled around him, Trump has taken to screaming “treason” and “coup” at full volume to divert the news flow. But this time Trump’s hydraulics don’t seem to be working. Instead of Trump flooding the news cycle, the news cycle has begun to flood Trump. His special talents—if they really exist—have begun to fail him, and he seems to know it. In two recent press sprays, with the Finnish president and on the White House lawn, Trump’s peach complexion has gone scarlet with rage as he dodged and parried all the bad publicity.
You’d go scarlet, too, if you were Trump. Democratic members of the House of Representatives have begun marshaling evidence to prove Trump committed high crimes and misdemeanors as part of the House’s formal impeachment inquiry against the president. Two whistleblowers have come forward to allege abuse of power by Trump in his dealings with Ukraine’s president. An IRS whistleblower has filed a complaint alleging that a political appointee at the Treasury Department attempted to interfere with the annual audit of the president or vice president’s tax returns. A federal judge has ordered Trump to turn over his tax returns to the Manhattan district attorney. In recent days, three Republican senators (Susan Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah and Ben Sasse of Nebraska) have broken ranks with their cowardly colleagues to directly criticize Trump for urging China to investigate Joe Biden and Hunter Biden.
Even the president’s closest ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has turned on him. On Monday, Graham phoned into “Fox & Friends” to denounce Trump’s decision to dump the Kurds and embrace the Turks. The move is “shortsighted and irresponsible” as well as “unnerving,” Graham said, and his anger was shared by other Republican legislators. Inside the Pentagon, the brass also appeared to favor Graham’s position over Trump’s.
At the rate all this bad news is surging, Trump must be pining for the good old days when a new development in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation was his greatest source of grief, and a nasty blast from his Twitter feed was potent enough to repel bad tidings. But suddenly Trump’s best-defense-is-a-good-offense talents are no longer sufficient to fend off the damage. In recent days, Trump has sought and failed to stall the impeachment express with tweets attacking Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., but the press has largely ignored these pathetic lines of defense. In the old days, journalists would have rushed to their keyboards to dissect the Pelosi and Schiff tweets and placed under their magnifying glass Trump’s Monday tweet about the Kurds and Turks in which he referred to his own “great and unmatched wisdom.”
But as the Smiths once sang, that joke isn’t funny anymore. These days, the press seems more interested in charting the course of impeachment and the accumulating evidence than playing “go fetch” with Trump’s tweets. Not even Pat Robertson, a Trump stalwart if ever there was one, wants to follow the president on this one. Trump “is in great danger of losing the mandate of Heaven” if he spurns the Kurds, Robertson said.
Trump’s old techniques are failing—and not just due to the volume of the bad news. What’s unique about this phase of his presidency is that he’s being attacked with so much damning information from so many directions and so many different power centers that he can’t keep up. Not even a street fighter with Bruce Lee’s skills could repulse this sort of pile-on.
As somebody who has never counted Trump out, I believe he could restore his good fortune with some self-discipline. Midway through the first year of Trump’s presidency, columnist (and doctor of psychiatry) Charles Krauthammer took to calling the “general hysteria” the press and the political classes expressed for the president “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” According to Krauthammer and others, this reflexive, partisan hatred for Trump crippled people’s judgment of the man. Krauthammer urged us to stop listening to Trump’s id and pay more attention to what Trump was doing and what he had done. Finally, it appears, the press and Democrats have independently taken Krauthammer’s advice. As we enter impeachment autumn, the only principal still acting deranged is Trump himself.
Many people don’t even know these scandals exist — they generally don’t lead in Sean Hannity’s or Tucker Carlson’s world.
.. One smaller manufacturer — a Trump voter — told me that his costs to produce his product nearly doubled overnight, and that his business has already been hurt by the tariffs. Prices didn’t rise only after the tariffs were announced; they started rising when Mr. Trump floated the idea.
.. Senator Joni Ernst and Iowa’s agriculture secretary, Mike Naig, both say the tariffs will hurt Iowans, and Mr. Naig says we need to expand markets, not shrink them. Senator Chuck Grassley said something similar, on Fox News: “Tariffs do not put America first — low barriers and expanded access do.”
.. China has already responded with its own tariff on pork, which will have a dire impact on Iowa. Iowa is the nation’s largest pork producer, producing three times as much pork as the next-highest state.
.. with commodity prices down and the tariffs imposed, approximately 10 percent of our farmers probably won’t make it this year, and 10 percent more will likely fail next year. They also shared the news that in Iowa, larger agribusinesses are buying up smaller farms that are in financial trouble, and that people are starting to make comparisons to the farm crisis of the 1980s, when approximately 10,000 Iowa farmers lost their farms.
.. Even Representative Steve King, the avid Trump supporter and Iowan every liberal loves to hate, is worried about a new farm crisis.
.. Dairy farmers are particularly hard hit, suffering through four years of declining prices. It’s gotten so bad, dairy farming organizations are giving out suicide hotline numbers, as farmers are committing suicide in the hope that their insurance will save the family farm.
.. “It gives Democrats a generational opportunity to do the political work with farmers they haven’t done since the 1980s farm crisis,”
.. “Democrats do farm policy really well but are terrible at farm politics. Republicans do farm politics really well but have a history of doing terrible farm policy.”
.. With the multiple scandals, rampant corruption and the Mueller investigation, the only thing keeping him near 40 percent approval — and most important, approval among most Republicans — is a strong economy. That, and Fox cheerleading. But if he tanks the rural economy, he and his legacy are in deep trouble.
.. Furthermore, if the rural economy turns sour, much of rural America will abandon Mr. Trump, and Fox may have no choice but to follow.
Remember the Clinton scandals. They provoked no decisive legal thunderbolt but a series of agonizing, consequential defeats.
It’s happening again.
.. If you want to talk about foreign influence on elections, the funneling of Chinese money into the 1996 Clinton presidential campaign is still stunning, even these many years later.
.. If the Clinton wing of the Democratic party is honest with itself, it has to understand the price it paid for its corruption. In 2000, the Democrats lost a presidential election they should have won. After all, in a previous time of peace and prosperity, the Republicans got three terms, even when the vice president wasn’t half the political talent that Ronald Reagan was. In 2000, America was on an economic roll, there was an actual budget surplus, and the threat of jihad was barely on the national radar screen. Yet Gore felt as if he had to distance himself from Clinton. He had to distance himself from the drama.
.. she lost a general-election campaign to the most disliked politician in the history of favorability ratings of presidential candidates.
.. While it may well be the case (though I’m skeptical) that some sort of climactic scandal will topple Trump, I think it’s far more likely that he’ll live the way he’s always lived — the way the Clintons always lived — doing what he wants, when he wants, as a phalanx of lawyers clean up his mess and a squadron of associates and allies take the fall.