Jan 21, 2021

Trump's final pardons.

Trump's final pardons.

Plus, a question about the parties splitting.

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, 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.

Donald Trump’s final pardons. Plus, an update on the question about which party is mostly like to split first.

Steve Bannon (left) with former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus (right) at CPAC. Bannon was pardoned by Trump on Wednesday. Photo: Michael Vadon

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Quick hits.

  1. President Joe Biden signed a flurry of 17 executive orders, memorandums and proclamations yesterday, rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, ending a travel ban from predominantly Muslim countries and enforcing a mask mandate inside federal buildings. (New York Times, subscription)
  2. Jon Ossoff, Raphael Warnock, and Kamala Harris’s replacement Alex Padilla were sworn into the Senate yesterday, giving Democrats a 50-50 majority with Vice President Harris’s tie breaking vote. (CNN)
  3. National Economic Council Director Brian Deese is meeting with a bipartisan group of 16 senators this week to discuss another wave of COVID-19 relief and economic matters. (Punchbowl News)
  4. Iran is laying out its strategy to negotiate a new nuclear deal with Joe Biden. Biden is promising to return to the 2015 terms of the agreement if Iran complies. (Axios)
  5. Another 900,000 people filed for jobless claims this week, marking a slowing and uneven economic recovery as President Biden enters office. (Wall Street Journal, subscription)

What D.C. is talking about.

Trump’s final pardons. Tangle has already done a deep dive on who we thought Trump might pardon, his spate of pardons from December, and whether or not he should pardon Edward Snowden. Today’s edition will focus on the most recent list of pardons, and we are publishing it in response to an overwhelming reader request for a look at one of Trump’s final acts in office.

On his way out, Trump handed out 143 pardons or sentence commutations just 12 hours before he left the White House. He signed an additional, final pardon for Albert Pirro, the ex-husband of Fox News host Jeanine Pirro who was convicted of conspiracy and tax evasion in 2000. The final pardon came just before Joe Biden was inaugurated — bringing the total to 144.

The list of pardons spans the political and entertainment space, including former Trump strategist Steve Bannon (charged with defrauding donors in a fundraising scheme where the money was supposed to go to building the border wall), rapper Lil Wayne (who came out in support of the president and was facing a gun possession charge), and former national deputy finance chair for the Republican National Committee Elliott Broidy (who plead guilty to acting as an unregistered foreign agent and lobbying the Trump administration on behalf of Chinese and Malaysian interests).

Aside from some of the bigger names, Trump also pardoned dozens of nonviolent drug offenders who were serving decades or life in prison, several incarcerated individuals facing charges of fraud, and a few people who were behind bars for violent crimes but whose cases had been impacted by new evidence or testimony in recent years.

In sum, it was a diverse set of pardons, though the political ones drew the most attention. We’ll take a look at some of the reactions from the right and left.

What the left is saying.

The left is extremely critical of Trump’s pardons, saying they prove his hypocrisy and disdain for the justice system.

The Washington Post editorial board said Trump has demeaned the presidency one more time on his final day in office.

“Mr. Trump’s final official acts added to the malodor, as he granted clemency to a raft of corrupt cronies, former officials and white-collar criminals,” they wrote. “Stephen K. Bannon, the alt-right provocateur and one of the intellectual architects of Mr. Trump’s reactionary populism, got a pardon. He was charged last summer with defrauding donors to his We Build the Wall project, allegedly using $1 million for personal expenses after saying the money would go to construct sections of Mr. Trump’s promised border barrier.

“Mr. Trump got Elliott Broidy, a 2016 Trump fundraiser, off the hook for his role in a foreign influence scheme,” they added. “Convicted insider trader William T. Walters got a commuted sentence after he hired Mr. Trump’s former personal lawyer, the New York Times reports. Mr. Trump pardoned three Republican former members of the House convicted of crimes such as bribery and lying to the FBI, and he commuted the sentence of Kwame Kilpatrick, the corrupt former mayor of Detroit… His final pardons and commutations represent one last expression of contempt for the justice system — indeed for the very concept of justice.”

In The New York Times, Steven G. Calabresi and Norman L. Eisen took it a step further — saying there should actually be legal challenges to the pardon of Steve Bannon.

“Donald Trump is exiting office with a final outburst of constitutional contempt,” they wrote. “Like a Borgia pope trading indulgences as quid pro quos with his corrupt cardinals, Mr. Trump on Wednesday used one of the most sweeping powers of the presidency to dole out dozens of odious pardons to a roster of corrupt politicians and business executives as well as cronies and loyalists like Steve Bannon. The pardon of Mr. Bannon, his former chief strategist, encapsulates the most repugnant aspects of Mr. Trump’s misuse of the pardon power: cronyism, criminality and cultivation of his far-right base. One of us is an originalist Republican and the other a living-Constitution Democrat, but we both think pardons like that of Mr. Bannon may be unconstitutional.”

“Presidential pardon power is extraordinary, but it is not limitless,” they added. “For the past 25 years, the Supreme Court has been reading federal grants of power like the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause more narrowly than at any time since 1937. The court should be just as strict in giving the pardon power only its original public meaning. Mr. Trump did not have the constitutional power to obstruct justice by failing to faithfully execute the law through pardons of associates like Mr. Bannon, who could potentially testify against him… The president is empowered to take care that the laws be faithfully executed and not to break them.”

What the right is saying.

The right is generally divided about the pardons, though very few are defending the pardon of Steve Bannon. Generally speaking, they are parsing the good pardons from the bad.

In Fox News, law professor Jonathan Turley conceded he’s “been a critic of President Trump’s record of pardons” but wrote that there were “many worthy and righteous pardons issued by Trump in this final list.”

“Yet, Wednesday’s pardons will add to Trump’s troubled legacy on clemency… the signature category for Trump was political corruption. Indeed, Trump has pardoned those accused of acts that are similar to allegations that he has faced during this presidency. His legacy is heavily laden with public officials convicted or accused of wrongdoing…

“That pattern continued on his last day with pardons for former Arizona Rep. Rick Renzi, who was convicted of extortion, bribery, insurance fraud, money laundering and racketeering. He also added former Rep. Robert Cannon ‘Robin’ Hayes, who served as chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party and chair of the National Council of Republican Party Chairs. He was convicted of making a false statement to investigators. He also included former California Rep. Randall ‘Duke’ Cunningham, who accepted bribes while he held public office.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said it was “a mix of the reasonable, the unseemly and the egregious.”

“Of 143 people granted clemency, many are drug offenders,” they wrote. “To pick a commutation, Isaac Nelson served more than half of his mandatory 20 years for crimes involving at least five kilograms of cocaine and 50 grams of crack, the White House said. Under the First Step Act, signed in 2018, ‘he would likely face a 10-year sentence.’ Some of the drug crimes are no small matter, since they appear to involve trafficking literally tons of marijuana, plus laundering millions of dollars, which is a business that can turn violent fast. Yet public attitudes toward marijuana have shifted. Determining that a sentence was excessive is a judgment call, which is why a President has broad clemency discretion.”

“Mr. Trump, thankfully, didn’t pardon Edward Snowden,” the board added. “But why pardon Mr. Bannon? He was charged with fleecing Trump supporters in a scheme to build a private wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. The fund raised $25 million, the indictment says, and donors were told every penny would go to the project. The indictment says Mr. Bannon ‘received over $1,000,000,’ which he used ‘to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars’ in ‘personal expenses.’ Payments were covered up by ‘fake invoices and sham vendor arrangements.’ If true, Mr. Trump should be furious at his ex-adviser for turning his signature issue into a grift.”

In Spectator U.S., Freddy Gray was critical of the pardons, calling them a “long and predictably hilarious list of pardons and commutations” and “a last, parting gift for those of us who, in our sinfulness, have always regarded the rule of Trump as a sort of divine cosmic joke.”

“In another deliciously swampy stroke of his pen, the outgoing Commander-in-Chief has also revoked his own Executive Order 13770, which banned executive branch officials from becoming lobbyists within five years,” he wrote. “Go forth and prosper, ye loyal servants of democracy… There’ll be much wailing and gnashing of NeverTrump teeth. But Trump’s pardons actually do us all a favor. Through his absurd and blatant venality, he has once again revealed the smelly little hypocrisies of the imperial presidency. Presidential pardons have long been a grubby business — just look at Bill Clinton’s monstrous clemencies as he left office (Remember Marc Rich?). It’s a useful reminder that executive power without legislative checks inevitably turns into a sordid betrayal [of] the public’s trust.”

My take.

Throughout the conversations around Trump’s presidency, I’ve said repeatedly that I would withhold as much judgment as I could until we can contextualize his pardons in a complete list. That day of judgment has come, and it looks really bad for the president.

I hate to say it, but it just does. Yes, there are dozens of seemingly worthy pardons — those that should be celebrated and recognized in any write up about the list Trump released. You can read it for yourself here, and you can find many examples of the kinds of things I have wished for in the pages of this newsletter: empathy for those who admit wrongdoing, justice for those who have been wrongly prosecuted, leniency for anyone facing draconian sentences.

But on the whole, the pardon list is stuffed with the kinds of political hacks and corrupt dealers that Trump’s populist agenda was supposed to squash. Remember: Donald Trump was going to drain the swamp. He was going to make Washington D.C. work for us again. He was going to stop the neverending grift of D.C. insiders fleecing supporters for donations, running laps in the revolving door of lobbying and government work, and climbing to 6 or 7-figure salaries while endorsing policies that crushed the working poor.

Where the hell is that Donald Trump? Where is the Donald Trump who beat the Clinton machine, turned out millions of new voters and even grew his popularity with minorities in 2020?

Instead, Trump let Bannon off the hook, a guy who appears to have literally stolen millions of dollars from his own supporters on a fake fundraising campaign to build the wall. Tough on China? He pardoned Elliott Broidy, who was literally lobbying on China’s behalf as an unregistered foreign agent. Law and order? He seems to have found every Republican official convicted of fraud or lying to the FBI in the last 20 years and let them off the hook as his last act in office. He even gave an olive branch to Kwame Kilpatrick, a corrupt Democrat, for good measure.

Meanwhile, he ignored the pleas from his base to pardon Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. He snubbed them entirely under the weight of the establishment he claimed to fight, all while taking the time to bail out a Fox News host’s ex-husband and rapper Lil Wayne.

In the end, Trump granted more clemency petitions overall than Obama in his first term or George W. Bush in eight years, but the stink of political corruption on those clemencies is impossible to wash off. For every inspiring story, like Caroline Yeats — the first-time, nonviolent drug offender who was serving a 20-year prison sentence and can now go home to her husband who has multiple sclerosis — there seem to be two corrupt, white-collar criminals he lets off, like Dr. Salomon Melgen, who convinced elderly patients to undergo unnecessary surgeries so he could defraud Medicare of $75 million (that’s the same Medicare whose waste Trump has railed against).

It’s not just that Trump gave clemency to a bunch of grifters, frauds, and corrupt politicians. It’s that the crimes they committed are the exact things Trump ran against — the exact kinds of crap that make the average American detest Washington D.C. And the pardons all come after Trump rescinded his own executive order, one of the most effective orders ever signed to help clean up the swamp.

In sum, they aren’t just disappointing and disheartening, they’re antithetical to the clearly stated goals and populist posture Trump took up to win the presidency in the first place.

Your blindspot.

As part of a partnership with Ground News, an app and website that uses data to rate the political lean of stories and news outlets, I’ll be featuring parts of Ground News’s “Blindspot Report” in Tangle. The Blindspot Report tells you what stories folks on the left and right miss each week because of their biased news diets.

The left missed a story about Iranian missiles landing within 20 miles of a commercial ship in the Indian Ocean.

The right missed a story about a new study showing police are three times as likely to use violence against left-wing protesters.

Want to check out Ground News’s bias ratings, blindspot reports or other news sources? Click here.

Your questions, answered.

Q: I'm not sure if I remember correctly but a few months ago you answered a question about which party was more likely to split into two parties. My memory is telling me you indicated that the Democratic party was more likely to split in your opinion. Has your opinion changed in the past few months? (assuming I'm remembering well?)

— James, Armenia, Colombia

Tangle: Your memory is correct. I wrote in response to a reader question about a potential party split that while I didn’t think it was particularly likely anytime soon, I envisioned it happening on the left first. Here’s an excerpt from that edition:

To me, the rise in fame of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the popularity of Sanders, and the growing legends of members like Sen. Elizabeth Warren or Reps. Katie Porter and Ro Khanna — all progressive icons — speak volumes. Biden won his race in an election where the goal was to beat Trump. But when the legislative goals become reforming the country’s justice system, tackling climate change, reforming immigration, tearing down the wealth gap, reducing corporate power and ensuring healthcare for everyone, I don’t really see the moderate and progressive wings of the party coexisting.

Another way to think of it is this: Who feels more likely to break off and form their own party agenda, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren or Mitt Romney and Susan Collins? Who feels more likely to abandon the label “Democrat” and start recruiting a new era of legislators to their ranks, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar or Reps. Matt Gaetz and Kevin McCarthy? To me the answer is obvious.

Mostly, I feel this is still true. In fact, I think I could make a case that Republicans being pushed into the minority will help them coalesce, not force them to fracture. As an opposition party, they’ll be working together to slow the progressive agenda of the Democratic party, which to me makes it more likely they unify and defend the policies they hope a conservative federal judiciary will hold the line on.

Of course, the wildcard here is Trump. There have been reports, from several news outlets, that he has in recent days discussed forming the “Patriot Party,” a new political party that would buck the GOP and primary Republicans who broke from Trump. Jason Miller, a Trump advisor, recently said “Republican senators need to think long and hard about what an impeachment vote would do to the party.”

To me, that sounds like a thinly veiled threat: turn on Trump and convict him, we’ll fracture the party. Stay in line, and we’ll scratch the back of whoever scratches ours.

I think the events of the last couple of months also make it clear that, if the party was to fracture, Trump would take the lion’s share of the Republican base. All that considered, I suppose if I were making a wager today I’d bet that it’s more likely Republicans split.

But I also think that a few months from now, the Republican party will be hunkered down as an opposition party and Trump will be farther in the background than he is now. If he doesn’t make a move to upend the political orientation of the right soon, I think it becomes less and less likely with every day that passes. In other words: if it doesn’t happen in the next few months, with momentum from the contested election and all the other wild events of the last few months, I think the pendulum will swing back to it being more likely we see Democratic fracture in the coming years.

A story that matters.

In one of his first acts as president, Joe Biden suspending student loan payments through September of 2021. The eight-month extension will impact some 40 million Americans and $1.6 trillion of federal student loan debt. On average, borrowers owe between $200 and $299 every month. It continues the suspension of student loan payments that has been in place since March when the pandemic began. An extension of the grace period was included in the last COVID-19 relief package but was cut from the final bill. Biden reinstated it via executive order yesterday in his first hours as president. (CBS News)


  • 198,000. The average number of new coronavirus cases per day across the U.S. in the last week of the Trump presidency.
  • 19%. The percentage drop in average new daily coronavirus cases across the U.S., compared to the week before.
  • 44. The number of states where new coronavirus cases fell in the U.S. in the last week.
  • 123,000. The approximate number of people currently hospitalized with coronavirus in the U.S.
  • 46%. The percentage of Americans who trust traditional media, the first time trust levels have ever been below 50%.
  • 57%. The percentage of Democrats who trust the traditional media.
  • 18%. The percentage of Republicans who trust the traditional media.

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Have a nice day.

Volunteers from Tennessee have helped remove 9,000 pounds of trash from the Tennessee River, one of the dirtiest rivers in the United States. Using a 25-foot aluminum workboat, volunteers made their way through the 652-mile river and pulled together all the trash they could find. It’s part of an ultimate goal to collect 100,000 pounds of trash from the river by this spring. “That's how the change for our river will happen: through local partners and individuals who are eager about taking ownership to protect and improve their beautiful river community,” Kathleen Gibi, executive director of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful, told CNN. "It's been truly inspiring for us to see these change makers take action -- especially with the local leadership from Johnsonville State Historic Park.” (CNN)

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