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Versions of this story were published on April 13, 2020, and July 10, 2020.
Donald Trump has added yet another name to the long list of friends, loyalists, cronies, and conservative celebrities who have received presidential pardons or commutations. This time the beneficiary is his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who in 2017 pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in connection with the Trump-Russia scandal. Weeks into his administration, Trump fired Flynn for lying about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. But in recent years, Trump, as he has falsely contended the Russia investigation was a hoax, has defended and hailed Flynn.
It is my Great Honor to announce that General Michael T. Flynn has been granted a Full Pardon. Congratulations to @GenFlynn and his wonderful family, I know you will now have a truly fantastic Thanksgiving!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 25, 2020
Trump’s use—and abuse—of executive clemency has figured prominently in his presidency. One widely discussed Trump 2020 campaign ad, aired during the Super Bowl, featured Alice Johnson—a Black woman who served 21 years in prison for a nonviolent drug offense before Trump commuted her sentence in 2018. “Thanks to President Trump, people like Alice are getting a second chance,” the ad stated. In February, Trump freed several women who served time with Johnson.
But Johnson’s case is far from typical. More often, Trump has used his pardon powers to reward political allies, such as Flynn. Here’s a list of right-wing icons, corrupt public officials, accused war criminals, and other controversial figures who have received clemency from Trump.
Stone, a longtime Trump adviser, was convicted of lying to Congress, obstruction, and witness tampering in connection with the Russia investigation.
The Trump connection: Stone’s 2019 trial revealed that Trump likely lied to special counsel Robert Mueller about his own role in the scandal, but Stone has remained staunchly loyal to the president. Trump returned the favor. He repeatedly sought to intervene on Stone’s behalf—publicly berating federal prosecutors, the judge in the case, and even a juror. Senior Justice Department officials allegedly pressured government attorneys to “cut Stone a break.” On July 10, Trump commuted Stone’s sentence, just days before Stone would have been required to report to prison.
During his 24 years as the sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, Arpaio called himself “America’s toughest sheriff” and became known for his severe treatment of immigrants and the harsh conditions in his county jail. When a judge ordered him to stop detaining people based solely on suspicion of their immigration status, which amounted to racial profiling, he refused. In 2017, he was found guilty of criminal contempt of court for violating that order.
The Trump connection: Arpaio endorsed Trump in January 2016, citing his stances on immigration and stumping for him in Iowa. The two men also share a fondness for racist conspiracy theories. At the same time Trump was pushing the false claim that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States, Arpaio sent one of his deputies and a member of his volunteer birther posse to Hawaii to investigate Obama’s birth certificate. At an August 2017 rally in Phoenix, Trump hinted at a pardon. “Was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?” he said. “I’ll make a prediction: I think he’s going to be just fine.” Days later, the president followed through. “Sheriff Joe is a patriot,” he declared. “Sheriff Joe loves our country. Sheriff Joe protected our borders. And Sheriff Joe was very unfairly treated by the Obama administration.”
When Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond were convicted of arson for burning more than 100 acres of federal land, their case became a flashpoint in the fight for control over public lands. (Witnesses testified the fire was intended to cover up evidence of illegal hunting; the Hammonds said they started the fire on their own property to burn off invasive species and it accidentally spread.) “They have become symbols of the way many rural Americans feel they’ve been wronged by federal overreach,” BuzzFeed News reported. Their case sparked a 41-day standoff with federal agents at a wildlife refuge in Oregon, led by Ryan and Ammon Bundy. Many people joining the protest were members of unofficial militias, armed with long guns and pistols and dressed in full tactical gear. One Arizona rancher was killed by police.
The Trump connection: The Hammonds had support both from right-wing extremists willing to take up arms against government regulation and from a multimillionaire oil magnate. Forrest Lucas—a GOP megadonor who holds naming rights to the Indianapolis Colts stadium and has close ties to Vice President Mike Pence—made the Hammonds a personal cause as a symbol of his anti-regulation agenda. Trump pardoned them in July 2018. Lucas flew the Hammonds home in his private plane after they were released.
Blagojevich was governor of Illinois in 2008 when then-Senator Barack Obama won the presidency, leaving Blagojevich to pick Obama’s successor. The governor was convicted of trying to shake down a children’s hospital and sell Obama’s Senate seat. “I’ve got this thing and it’s fucking golden,” he said on a secretly recorded call, referring to the Senate seat. “I’m not just giving it up for fucking nothing.”
The Trump connection: Blagojevich appeared on Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice reality show after leaving office but before going to prison. (He was fired from Celebrity Apprentice, Trump told him, because his “Harry Potter facts were not accurate.”) In recent years, Blagojevich’s wife Patti became a regular on Fox News, hoping to catch the president’s ear as she pleaded for clemency and shopped the theory that Robert Mueller and James Comey—two of the key law enforcement officials who later investigated the Trump-Russia scandal—were behind her husband’s downfall. (Mueller was head of the FBI at the time of Blagojevich’s conviction; Comey was in private practice.) “They took down a governor, and now they’ve got their sights much higher,” she said. Trump commuted Blagojevich’s sentence on February 18, freeing him from prison six years early.
Rod Blagojevich did not sell the Senate seat. He served 8 years in prison, with many remaining. He paid a big price. Another Comey and gang deal! Thank you to @LisaMarieBoothe who really “gets” what’s going on! @FoxNews
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 19, 2020
Former Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in 2007 in an infamous case involving the disclosure of the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame. At the time, Plame was married to a diplomat who had accused the Bush administration of twisting intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq.
The Trump connection: Comey, who was deputy attorney general at the time, appointed Patrick Fitzgerald—the same US attorney who prosecuted Blagojevich—as special counsel to investigate the Plame scandal. Bush commuted Libby’s sentence in 2007, allowing him to avoid prison time but leaving the conviction on his record. Libby’s defenders continued to argue that he’d been railroaded by overzealous prosecutors, and Trump pardoned him in 2018. Victoria Toensing—who was Libby’s lawyer, as well as vocal Trump ally and a key player in the Ukraine scandal—told the Washington Post that Libby was the victim of an “injustice inflicted on him and his family” by Comey and Fitzgerald. The White House gave a similar explanation. “Many people think that Scooter Libby was the victim of a special counsel gone amok,” Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said. The same day Trump pardoned Libby, he attacked Comey.
On the day the President wrongly attacks Comey for being a “leaker and liar” he considers pardoning a convicted leaker and liar, Scooter Libby. This is the President’s way of sending a message to those implicated in the Russia investigation: You have my back and I‘ll have yours.
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) April 13, 2018
Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner under Rudy Giuliani, pleaded guilty in 2009 to eight felonies, including tax fraud and lying to White House officials. During sentencing, the judge said Kerik had made “a conscious decision to essentially lie to the president of the United States to get a cabinet position”—a reference to the fact that Bush had nominated him in 2004 to serve as Homeland Security secretary. He served three years in prison.
The Trump connection: Kerik has been a regular on Fox News, where he has suggested House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) should be arrested over their roles in Trump’s impeachment. According to a White House statement, Giuliani and Fox host Geraldo Rivera were among those who pushed for a Kerik pardon, which Trump granted on February 18.
Billionaire Michael Milken, once the highest-paid man in the history of Wall Street, helped create the market for junk bonds in the 1980s. The “junk bond king” was charged with insider trading and convicted of securities fraud in 1990. He served 22 months in prison.
The Trump connection: Trump pardoned Milken on February 18. The president’s adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, lobbied for Milken’s pardon, as did Giuliani, whose US attorney office had prosecuted Milken. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin—a longtime friend who flew on Milken’s private jet last year—pushed for the pardon. So did Rupert Murdoch, who relied on Milken’s services to fuel the growth of News Corp. According to the White House, the pardon was also supported by GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson, Trump fundraiser and inaugural committee chairman Tom Barrack, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
Pogue, who owned a Texas construction company, was convicted of underpaying his taxes by nearly $500,000 in 2010. He was sentenced to three years of probation.
The Trump connection: Pogue’s son Ben and daughter-in-law Ashleigh donated more than $200,000 to the Trump Victory PAC. The Daily Beast reported that on the day of their first donation, Ashleigh posted an Instagram photo of the couple posing with Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle, a former Fox News host, in the Hamptons. The president pardoned Pogue on February 18.
Safavian was convicted of obstruction of justice and making false statements in 2008 in connection with the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. (Abramoff pleaded guilty to, among other things, defrauding Native American tribes). Safavian, who was working in George W. Bush’s budget office at the time, went on a golf trip to London and Scotland with Abramoff. Safavian was sentenced to a year in prison.
The Trump connection: Safavian is general counsel at the American Conservative Union, which is chaired by Matt Schlapp, whose wife Mercedes was formerly the White House director of strategic communications and went on to serve as a spokesperson for Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign. Trump pardoned Safavian on February 18.
Nolan, a Republican former California state legislator, pleaded guilty in 1994 in an FBI political corruption sting known as “Shrimpscam,” in which federal agents pretending to represent a shrimp business offered bribes to lawmakers. He served 26 months in prison. He’s since become a leading conservative voice on criminal justice reform.
The Trump connection: Nolan leads the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union Foundation. Nolan was also an influential voice in favor of the First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice reform law that Trump sees as one of his signature legislative achievements. (The measure was highlighted in Trump’s Super Bowl ad that featured Alice Johnson.) Trump pardoned Nolan in May 2019.
While a sailor in the Navy, Saucier illegally retained photographs he took of classified areas of a nuclear submarine. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 months in prison.
The Trump connection: On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump frequently referred to Saucier’s conviction as an example of punishment for what he deemed a lesser offense than Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of State. He pardoned Saucier in March 2018.
D’Souza—a conservative provocateur and former Reagan adviser—is known for his incendiary articles and films, including ones that have focused on Obama-related conspiracy theories. He was convicted in 2014 of making illegal campaign contributions to Wendy Long, a Republican Senate candidate in New York, funneling $20,000 through straw donors to evade campaign finance limits. He was sentenced to five years probation, including eight months of confinement in a community center.
The Trump connection: D’Souza claimed that Obama’s Justice Department had pursued the case because D’Souza had made a movie critical of Obama. A judge at the time called this theory “nonsense,” but it resonated with Trump. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was among those who lobbied for a pardon for D’Souza, which Trump granted in May 2018. Jeanine Pirro, a Fox News host and former judge who is one of Trump’s most vocal supporters, applauded it. Roger Stone cited D’Souza’s pardon as a signal that Trump had the backs of former aides who had been indicted in the Mueller investigation. “It has to be a signal to Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort and even Robert S. Mueller III: Indict people for crimes that don’t pertain to Russian collusion and this is what could happen,” Stone told the Washington Post.
Black was a media mogul who at one point ran the world’s third-largest newspaper company, which owned papers such as the Chicago Sun-Times and the Daily Telegraph. In 2007—in yet another case prosecuted by Patrick Fitzgerald—Black was convicted of obstruction of justice and fraud for swindling his company out of $60 million that should have gone to stockholders. Black served three and a half years in prison, though parts or his conviction were ultimately overturned.
The Trump connection: At Black’s 2007 trial, Trump had been expected to testify that Black’s wife’s $62,000 birthday party was a business event, rather than a social gathering—but Black’s lawyers changed their minds at the last minute. In recent years, Black has become a prolific writer of op-eds praising the president, as well as the sycophantic book Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other. Rush Limbaugh and Henry Kissinger were among those who pressed Trump to pardon Black; he did so in May 2019.
Stanton was convicted on federal conspiracy charges for her role in a car theft ring in 2004. After serving her two-year prison sentence, she became a television personality and author, starring in a BET docuseries and writing an inflammatory book called Lies of a Real Housewife, alleging that one of the stars of Real Housewives of Atlanta had been part of her “hustler’s life of crime” years ago.
The Trump connection: Stanton helped push for the First Step Act. In 2019, she participated in a Fox News panel of Black voters as a Trump supporter. After being pardoned on February 18, she announced plans to run for Congress as a Republican. She ultimately lost her race by more than 70 percentage points.
DeBartolo, a former owner of the San Francisco 49ers, was convicted in 1998 of failing to report a $400,000 bribe the governor of Louisiana solicited from him. He was sentenced to two years’ probation and $1 million in penalties.
The Trump connection: DeBartolo supported Trump’s presidential campaign and hosted a pre-inauguration party headlined by Kimberly Guilfoyle and Omarosa Manigault. DeBartolo is also a local celebrity in his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio. As Philip Bump wrote in the Washington Post, Trump’s pardon of DeBartolo, issued on February 18, could have been part of his effort to keep Ohio red in 2020.
Behenna was an Army lieutenant who served five years in prison for the 2008 murder of Ali Mansur, an Iraqi prisoner. US forces took Mansur into custody after a roadside bomb killed two of Behenna’s friends and platoon members, but he was freed when the military couldn’t conclusively link him to the bombing. Behenna was supposed to drive Mansur back to his village. Instead, Behenna stripped him naked, interrogated him without authorization, and fatally shot him. He later claimed self-defense.
The Trump connection: Fox & Friends—one of Trump’s favorite shows—treated Behenna’s case favorably and gave Behenna’s parents a platform to lobby for a pardon. Trump pardoned him in May 2019, freeing him from his parole restrictions five years early.
Major Mathew Golsteyn was charged with murder in 2018 when he acknowledged having killed an Afghan man in 2010. The man was suspected of making bombs and had been ordered to be released after questioning. According to documents unearthed by the Washington Post in 2015, an Army investigation found that Golsteyn and other soldiers buried the man’s body, dug it up, and then burned it. Golsteyn’s lawyer had told the Post at the time that the documents “are taken out of context and are biased,” adding that “it’s fantasy to say he confessed to shooting an unarmed detainee.”
The Trump connection: Pete Hegseth—a Fox & Friends host and a buddy of Trump—lobbied for months on air and off for Trump to intervene in the cases of Golsteyn and two other service members, Eddie Gallagher and Clint Lorance. Hegseth said that doing so would be “heartening for guys like me and others in the service.” Golsteyn’s wife, Julie, repeatedly appeared on Fox & Friends with Hegseth to plead her husband’s case. Trump pardoned Golsteyn in November 2019, while he was still awaiting trial. The next month, Golsteyn appeared on stage at a fundraiser with Trump. The Daily Beast reported that Trump wanted the accused war criminals he pardoned to campaign for him in 2020.
The case of Major Mathew Golsteyn is now under review at the White House. Mathew is a highly decorated Green Beret who is being tried for killing a Taliban bombmaker. We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill! @PeteHegseth
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 12, 2019
Lieutenant Clint Lorance received a 19-year prison sentence for second-degree murder after ordering troops to fire on unarmed Afghan civilians in 2012. Two of them died.
The Trump connection: Lorance benefited from Hegseth’s campaign to secure Trump’s intervention in the cases of convicted and accused war criminals. Trump pardoned Lorance in November 2019, freeing him from prison after six years. Lorance has since praised the president on Fox News and, along with Golsteyn, took the stage at a fundraiser with Trump.
Special Operations Chief Gallagher, a Navy SEAL, was charged with war crimes in 2018. He was acquitted of the most serious charges, sentenced to time served, and demoted.
The Trump connection: The case first came to Trump’s attention when Bernard Kerik became an advocate for Gallagher’s family in conservative media, the AP reported. Hegseth lobbied hard on behalf of Gallagher. So did Trump allies Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and then-Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who resigned in January after pleading guilty to conspiracy to misuse campaign funds. Trump didn’t grant Gallagher a pardon or commutation, but he did reverse Gallagher’s demotion.