Trump's pardons.

Plus, how did other countries respond to COVID-19?
Isaac Saul Dec 28, 2020
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 11 minutes.

Trump’s pre-Christmas pardoning spree. Plus, a question about our COVID-19 response compared to other countries.

Former Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) was pardoned by President Trump right before Christmas. Photo: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America

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Quick hits.

  1. President Donald Trump signed the government’s omnibus spending package, including the $900 billion COVID-19 relief bill, just days after threatening to veto it and two days after two unemployment programs expired.
  2. Police say a 63-year-old man named Anthony Warner was identified as the suicide bomber behind an explosion in downtown Nashville that injured three people and destroyed vital communications systems in the city.
  3. The CDC is now screening travelers from the United Kingdom for COVID-19 after reports of a virus variant that could be as much as 70% more transmissible than previous strains.
  4. The House of Representatives is set to vote to override the president’s veto of the NDAA, a military funding bill. It would be the first veto override of the Trump presidency.
  5. A diverse group of newly-elected Republicans is calling itself “The Force” in an effort to counterbalance The Squad, the group of four progressive women who were elected during the 2018 midterms.

What D.C. is talking about.

Trump’s pardons. Before we jump in, some important definitions: A full pardon relieves a person of wrongdoing and restores any civil rights lost (e.g. the right to vote, if convicted of a felony and living in a state that prohibits felons from voting). Amnesty is similar to a full pardon but applies to groups or communities of people. A commutation reduces a sentence from a federal court. A president can also remit fines and forfeitures or issue a reprieve (temporarily postponing a sentence) during a sentencing process.

You’ll also hear terms like “clemency.” Clemency is, generally speaking, the act of reducing penalties imposed for a crime without clearing someone's criminal record. It’s a broad term: While a pardon is a type of clemency, not all clemencies include pardons.

Just before Christmas, the president issued 41 pardons and granted clemency to eight others over the course of two days. Tangle previously covered the history of pardons and where Trump stood relative to other presidents. While the sheer number of pardons and clemency is well short of Obama, who issued clemency to 1,715 people over the course of his two terms, Trump has been criticized for how focused he has been on pardoning people with whom he has personal ties.

The president issued clemency for several political allies — including some who had refused to cooperate during the special counsel’s probe of his campaign’s ties to Russia: former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and longtime political ally Roger Stone.

The president also issued pardons to Charles Kushner, the father of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner; to former Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who had pled guilty to using his campaign funds for personal use; to former Rep. Chris Collins, a New York Republican who conspired to commit securities fraud and then lied to the FBI; and to four former U.S. service members who were working as security contractors for Blackwater when they killed 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007.

The personal nature of the pardons is not unprecedented. Bill Clinton pardoned Susan McDougal on his way out the door after she refused to cooperate with an investigation into Clinton’s presidency. Clinton also pardoned his half brother, who had been convicted of drug charges, and Marc Rich, a Democratic donor and Clinton donor who was charged with tax evasion.

President George W. Bush pardoned I. Lewis Libby Jr., also known as Scooter Libby, who was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice for disclosing the identity of Valerie Plame, a covert CIA officer. Bush commuted Libby’s 30-month sentence, which was so controversial it set off hearings in Congress about the power of the presidential pardon. President Trump ended up giving Libby a full pardon in 2018. President Barack Obama’s most controversial pardon was given to Chelsea Manning, the former Army intelligence analyst who leaked military documents to WikiLeaks in 2010. Obama pardoned 212 people and commuted the sentences of 1,715 more, the largest use of the clemency power ever. He focused his commutations on people serving long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.


What the left is saying.

The left is irate over the pardons, and concerned about what they mean for the future. Many are worried about the possibility Trump runs again in 2024, with the signal sent that he will protect anyone who acts corruptly in his favor. The Blackwater pardons, in particular, have drawn intense scrutiny and outrage.

The New York Times editorial board said Trump has “corrupted the pardon” and “abuses it for all it’s worth.” The board argued that Joe Biden should issue more pardons, not fewer, but focus on resolving unjust or excessive punishments, as the founders intended.

“In less than four years in office, Mr. Trump has made a mockery of mercy, doling out clemency to some of the most deplorable people in the country, an alarming number of whom happen to be his friends, while ignoring tens of thousands of more deserving applicants,” the board wrote. “Sure, Mr. Trump has tossed a bone to a few people sentenced under outrageously harsh three-strikes laws, like Weldon Angelos, who got 55 years in prison for selling marijuana while carrying a handgun. But those are the exceptions. In general, if you are not a xenophobic sheriff, a right-wing troll, a homicidal military officer, an old friend or a turkey, your odds of being pardoned by this president hover around zero…

“What makes Mr. Trump’s clemency record even worse is how paltry it is,” it added. “As the old joke goes, the food is terrible, and the portions are too small. To date [as of December 23rd], Mr. Trump has issued a not-so-grand total of 94 pardons and sentence commutations — fewer than any president but George H.W. Bush in more than 100 years. He may add a few more to that list, of course, if only by pre-emptively pardoning his lawyers and family members.”

In The Hill, Sean McFate, a U.S. Army veteran and former private military contractor, wrote that “there’s no legitimate excuse for murdering civilians — and no excuse for the disgraceful presidential pardon in this case.”

“When one thinks about the nadir of the Iraq War, many recall Blackwater, the private military company that some consider to be a mercenary organization,” McFate wrote. “In 2007, it committed perhaps the worst war crime of the conflict. At a traffic circle in Baghdad, four armed Blackwater contractors killed 17 civilians, including women and children, and injured another 20, many seriously… For Iraqis, Blackwater’s reckless behavior and callous disregard for Iraqi lives seemed emblematic of America’s handling of the war as a whole, and helped to hasten our initial exit. ‘It cannot be accepted by an American security company to carry out a killing. These are very serious challenges to the sovereignty of Iraq,’ declared Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister at the time.”

Michelle Goldberg wrote about Ali Kinani, the youngest victim in the 2007 massacre in Iraq — a 9-year-old boy.

“It was perhaps not surprising that the president acted to free the mercenaries; Trump’s enthusiasm for war crimes is well known, and last year he pardoned three men accused or convicted of them,” she wrote. “Erik Prince, who founded Blackwater, is a close Trump ally and the brother of his education secretary, Betsy DeVos. Neither the predictability of these pardons, however, nor our dulled capacity for shock, lessens their grotesqueness.”


What the right is saying.

Like many events of the last month, the right is torn about the Trump pardons — with more establishment Republicans criticizing his actions while his most loyal supporters see it as another instance of Trump justifiably punching back against his opponents.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said many of the pardons “appear to be undeserved, or worse,” but “critics would have more credibility if they tried to understand why tens of millions of Americans will discount these as the Andrew Weissmann pardons.”

“Mr. Weissmann is the former deputy to special counsel Robert Mueller on the Russia collusion probe,” the board wrote. “He’s a Democratic partisan who can be seen even now on MSNBC suggesting that Mr. Trump obstructed justice in the probe that never turned up evidence of collusion. He and his fellow prosecutors spent two years, with the full resources of the federal government, trying to prove a case that didn’t exist.

“Instead they indicted individuals in the Trump orbit of crimes unrelated to their main purpose. They pursued Paul Manafort on a foreign-lobbying statute that is rarely enforced and then turned up evidence of tax fraud. They coerced George Papadopoulos and Alex van der Zwaan into copping pleas on a single count of making false statements. Roger Stone was convicted of obstructing a Congressional investigation...there’s no doubt they were targeted not for their specific offenses but because they associated with Mr. Trump. Prosecutors were out to get Mr. Trump—many of them still are—and they were happy to take down others in the hope they would have evidence against the President.”

In PJ Media, Matt Margolis said the left can “cry me a river” over Trump’s pardons, writing that he “has been very selective when using his clemency powers. But whenever he does use them, the left is predictably outraged.”

“To Democrats, justice is only served when their enemies are guilty. When Obama granted hundreds of pardons and commutations, they didn’t care,” he wrote. “When Barack Obama pardoned retired Marine Corps general James E. Cartwright, who pleaded guilty to charges of lying to the FBI, just days before leaving office in 2017, they didn’t even bat an eye… Obama also commuted the sentence of convicted terrorist Oscar Lopez Rivera, the leader of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña (FALN), a Puerto Rican terrorist group… Obama also granted clemency to hundreds of drug offenders he claimed were non-violent and deserved a second chance… It later came out that many of the people he released were actually violent offenders guilty of gun crimes.”

In an article from May of 2019, David French made the case for pardoning the Blackwater contractors. French, who deployed to Diyala Province in Iraq, argued that one of the four Blackwater members involved, Nicholas Slatten, “sits in prison for a shooting that another American has admitted to, repeatedly. He sits in prison for a shot that even Iraqi witnesses say he didn’t take. The best evidence that he did take the fatal shot came not from eyewitnesses but from people who claim they heard Slatten shoot first. Given the weight of the evidence I’ve reviewed, the jury’s verdict is mystifying.

“Hovering over all the proceedings is this terrible fact: All four Americans face convictions after an Iraqi-led investigation,” he added. “These facts alone should render the prosecution suspect. While there were good and brave Iraqi police officers, there is simply no comparison between Iraqi and American police techniques — especially in the midst of a shooting war.”


My take.

As my previous coverage on the history of pardons notes, it’s not hard to argue that the number and nature of these pardons — on an individual basis — is par for the course. From Nixon to Obama, presidential pardons have been doled out to political allies, war criminals and corrupt politicians. With hundreds of years of presidential history, anyone with a Google search could play the “well what about so-and-so” game, as Margolis did — which makes it more pertinent to look at these pardons on their own merits.

The Blackwater pardons are nauseating. I’m rarely a fan of more people in prison, but this follows an unsettling pattern from Trump, who has now stepped in repeatedly to pardon people convicted of war crimes. The most disheartening, for me, was the pardon of Clint Lorance, who led a platoon that my friend served in. Lorance ordered his men to kill three Afghans, killings that destroyed the careers (and in some cases, lives) of those serving under him but ultimately led to his stardom after Trump pardoned him. 14 members of Lorance’s platoon testified against him, and not a single one defended him. It was an open and shut case, but Trump turned true justice on its head.

French’s case for the Blackwater pardons is worth reading to balance out the black-and-white nature of how nearly everyone else talks about it. I respect French a great deal, which is why I took his argument so seriously. But even if every word he wrote is true, if every point he made is uncontestable, the case is stronger for a commutation (shortening of a sentence) for two or three of the individuals involved than it is for a full pardon for the entire group. And that’s if every sentence of French’s examination of the evidence holds up — which I’m not at all convinced it would. It also seems worth noting that French does not mention or explain once in his piece how women and children were killed — instead focusing on the possibility the innocent Afghan men legitimately appeared to be a threat, and the Iraqi police then corrupted the investigation.

The pardons of Reps. Hunter and Collins are less gut-wrenching but equally unjustifiable. Trump campaigned on draining the swamp, a motto I enthusiastically supported. His hammering on how D.C. functions is one of my favorite parts of his presidency. But what’s swampier than stealing campaign donations to fund a lavish lifestyle, as Hunter did? What’s swampier than passing private information about a drug company to your son so he can make a good stock buy, as Collins did? What’s the point of promising to clean up Washington D.C. if you’re going to encourage the exact opposite behavior?

Even the pardons that fell under the radar would be multi-day news for most administrations. Trump also pardoned Stephanie C. Mohr, a former K-9 police officer who had five separate incidents where she “improperly released her police dog on unresisting people or threatened to do so.” Each of the victims was Black. She also had a history of using racial epithets and a sixth incident where she “manhandled” a neighborhood boy who had run across her lawn. The boy was also Black. In the case that sent her to jail, she let her K-9 loose on a homeless person who was sleeping. Again: I don’t prefer to see more people in jail, but is someone like Mohr a priority, deserving an early release back into society?

Approximately 14,000 clemency petitions are currently on file with the Justice Department waiting for a ruling. Three weeks ago, I wrote that the jury was still out on Trump’s pardon history — and “what he does next will be a major part of his legacy.” My hope was, and still is, that Trump will use his significant power to offer a reprieve for nonviolent offenders and people who have faced draconian sentences. But so far he seems hellbent on worsening the culture war and doing favors for corrupt allies and friends he sees on Fox News.


Your questions, answered.

Q: Isaac, what have other countries done to provide COVID-19 economic relief to their citizens?

— Karen, West Chester, Pennsylvania

Tangle: Other countries have had a variety of responses to the pandemic, in terms of economic relief. I have noticed, though, that there have been some pretty bad faith attacks on the U.S. in the media — and quite a few readers have written in asking about them. One good example a few people sent in was this:

The problem with tweets like this is that they ignore the breadth of what we’ve done here and really simplify what is happening abroad. First, and most obvious, is that we have provided a federal unemployment supplement on top of state unemployment benefits — which left millions of Americans initially receiving more than 100% of their wages, while unemployed.

In Denmark, which many liberals look to as having a functioning safety net, the government is promising to cover 75 to 90 percent of salaries for businesses that don’t lay off their employees. Many on the left have pointed to this as a simple fix, which it is. But it’s not as if the U.S. is far off — we just supplemented payroll via the Paycheck Protection Program, which gave out forgivable small business loans through an application process. The Netherlands “will pay up to 90 percent of wages for companies hit hard by the pandemic,” The New York Times reported. But, again, that requires qualifying both what “hard” means, and determining which companies those are.

The first coronavirus relief package put aside $425 billion for central bankers to buy up corporate debt and keep the financial markets from collapsing. It also sent $1,200 checks to Americans and added $600 a week to unemployment subsidies. This has been a historic response — with federal spending unlike anything we’ve seen in a century. In Britain, the Conservative government is putting together a plan to pay $2,900 a month to workers who weren’t even laid off. But workers who fall into unemployment could receive just $300 a month. So it depends, in large part, how you frame the issue.

The biggest issue, to me, isn’t how we have responded compared to other countries. We are throwing the kitchen sink at this thing, economically, and most other countries are too. We’re spending trillions. The problem is the systemic issue that $600 a week is enough to exceed normal wages for millions of people. The problem is that being unemployed here means not having health care. The problem is that the process for getting money to people has been rife with fraud, delays and technical errors. The problem is that much of that aid is going toward buying up corporate debt and paying executive salaries — not keeping millions of Americans from going hungry.


A story that matters.

President Trump’s delay in signing the COVID-19 relief bill guarantees a delay in unemployment benefits for millions of Americans, according to The New York Times. Two critical unemployment programs expired while the bill was waiting for Trump’s signature, and recipients will miss out on a week of the $300 federally subsidized unemployment benefits as a result, Michele Evermore, a policy expert with the National Employment Law Project, said. “Because unemployment benefits are processed weekly and the legislation was not signed before the beginning of the week, it is likely that workers in most states will lose a week of benefits under the expanded program, as well as a week with the $300 supplemental benefit,” The Times reported.


Numbers.

  • $210 million. The total money raised in Q4 by Democrats Raphael Warnock ($103 million) and Jon Ossoff ($106.8 million) in the Georgia Senate runoff.
  • $132 million. The total money raised in Q4 by Republican incumbents David Perdue ($68 million) and Kelly Loeffler ($64 million).
  • $57 million. The previous record for single-quarter fundraising totals of any Senate candidate, set by South Carolina Democrat Jaime Harrison during his 2020 run against Sen. Lindsey Graham.
  • 1 in 1,000. The number of Americans who have died of COVID-19, according to a CNN count.
  • 1.9 million. The number of Americans who have now gotten the coronavirus vaccine.
  • 18.9 million. The number of Americans who have tested positive for coronavirus.
  • 11.3 million. The estimated number of Americans who are behind on rent.

Supporting this…

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Have a nice day.

When an Atlanta animal shelter caught on fire, Keith Walker wasted no time running in to help. The 53-year-old homeless man risked his life to get inside the W-Underdogs shelter and retrieve several cats and dogs stuck inside. "I was nervous as hell, I'm not going to lie. I was really scared to go in there with all that smoke. But God put me there to save those animals," Walker told CNN. "If you love a dog, you can love anyone in the world. My dog is my best friend, and I wouldn't be here without him, so I knew I had to save all those other dogs." Walker, who has been homeless since he was 13, had been keeping his dog, Bravo, at the shelter every night. He knew the shelter’s founder. That night, he had been heading to the shelter to pick Bravo up when he saw the fire — and ended up rescuing six dogs and 10 cats.

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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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