As one with pardonees in my lineage, Donald Trump’s recent spate of pardons has extended the pardon process to common criminality. It wasn’t intended that way though. Here’s the scoop.
According to Erin Blakemore, Alexander Hamilton proposed the presidential pardon at our 1787 Constitutional Convention to forgive or reduce sentences of those who committed crimes against our government in times of rebellion.
Why? So, society could put the unpleasantness behind us and move on. Think of the Civil War or the “Whiskey Rebellion.”
That concept wasn’t new. England had long given its monarchs that power which was further extended to governors of the British colonies.
George Mason, however, feared a president with the power to pardon the treasonous “might make dangerous use of it” by pardoning crimes in which they were a co-conspirator. Mason believed this so much that he abstained from signing the Constitution. The majority, however, thought, “Pish-posh, ain’t gonna happen.”
So, the pardon was adopted.
Didn’t take long for it to be used. At the end of George Washington’s term of office, he pardoned many of my great-something-or-other-relatives who refused to pay taxes on whiskey. George Washington had sent troops to Greene County, Pennsylvania, to round up my kin and other folks and force them to pay the tax. They did.
But we never made another drop of whiskey. Of course, we starved, so we migrated into what is now central West Virginia. Later, Washington pardoned my relatives and other participants of this Whiskey Rebellion.
And so, it went. Early pardons were used to give mulligans to those acting against the interests of the government.
Thomas Jefferson pardoned those convicted of the Sedition Act of 1798 which prevented citizens from “defaming” the government. Madison and Monroe even pardoned pirates.
In 1833, stubborn George Wilson refused a pardon from Andrew Jackson for stealing U.S. mail and putting the life of a mail carrier in jeopardy. His refusal to accept Jackson’s pardon went to the Supreme Court, which agreed that a person could reject a pardon. Once Wilson won the right to refuse his pardon, he was executed by hanging.
In 1865, Andrew Johnson offered a blanket pardon to former Confederates, except for those who helped the South secede. He then pardoned most of them.
Later, the Supreme Court affirmed that the president could grant a pardon before a person is charged. Precedent was then set when Richard Nixon was pardoned by Gerald Ford.
On Jimmy Carter’s first day in office, he pardoned Vietnam War draft evaders.
Mostly, pardons involved points of national purpose, until Bill Clinton pardoned his half-brother, Roger Clinton, for distributing cocaine. Then, on his last day in office, he pardoned Marc Rich, a significant political donor.
Yet, today is even more different.
Of 94 people who received pardons from Trump, most have a personal or political connection to him.
Paul Manafort, former Trump campaign director, was pardoned after pleading guilty to two charges of conspiracy to defraud the United States and witness tampering.
Roger Stone was pardoned for witness tampering, obstructing an official proceeding and five counts of making false statements. Days before Stone was to begin serving 40 months in prison, Trump commuted his sentence, then pardoned him.
In doing so, Trump’s defiant tone differed from his predecessors in that many of his pardonees are unrepentant while the White House portrayed the prosecutors as the wrongdoers.
Traditionally, the Office of the Pardon Attorney processed pardon requests and the president acted on those based on “the petitioner’s demonstrated good conduct for a substantial period of time after conviction and service of sentence.”
No more. Now it’s overseen by the White House, with many pardonees nominated directly by Trump.
Trump also broke tradition by granting clemency to murderers.
Four former private security contractors received full pardons after sentenced to lengthy prison terms for roles in killing 14 Iraqi civilians, including women and children. The contractors worked for the Blackwater Worldwide security company, founded by a longtime Trump ally.
George Mason was right. We must limit the president’s ability to self-deal in pardons.