Donald Trump’s Tuesday pardoning spree was the product of a White House process that is quintessentially Trumpian, with names and pleas for mercy coming from multiple sources – including Fox News and celebrities.
The White House announced 11 full pardons or reduced sentences for a list of controversial figures, including a former Democratic governor who tried to trade a US Senate seat for campaign contributions, a “junk bond” guru sentenced for schemes to benefit himself and his clients, and individuals who made political donations that benefited Mr Trump.
Mr Trump and his top aides boast that he is not like other American presidents, and they make clear that the norms he blasts through almost daily are ones that his supporters have come to loathe as symbols of a political system and government they feel has forgotten them.
How he gathers names of convicted criminals who might receive presidential leniency is no different, according to a source with knowledge of the process and the president’s own words.
Take former Illinois governor Rod Blagovjeich, who until Tuesday was serving a 14-year sentence on corruption charges.
Mr Trump noted on Tuesday the former governor “was, for a short while, on The Apprentice, years ago,” referring to the business-based reality television show the president once hosted.
“Seemed like a very nice person,” Mr Trump said, with his usual qualifier for folks he isn’t sure help his image: “Don’t know him.”
But that personal connection might not have been enough to spring Mr Blagojevich from prison. Perhaps a Fox News hit or two would help.
“He served eight years in jail. That’s a long time,” Mr Trump told reporters under the wing of Air Force One. “And I watched his wife on television,” referring to Patricia Blagojevich, sometimes a guest on his preferred cable news network.
There was something else in the president’s unique metric: a personal grudge that linked he and Mr Blagojevich.
“It was a prosecution by the same people – Comey, Fitzpatrick – the same group,” Mr Trump said, referring to former FBI director James Comey and former US attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, getting the latter’s name wrong. Mr Fitzgerald is close friends with Mr Comey, who was fired by the president and whom Mr Trump blames for the special counsel’s probe of his 2016 campaign and Russian election meddling.
All of that means the now white-haired former governer’s children, who Mr Trump noted “rarely get to see their father outside of an orange uniform”, have welcomed him home. “I saw that and I did commute his sentence,” the president said in a boastful tone.
Fox News isn’t the only place the president learns about convicted criminals he might pardon.
He also learns about some from the traditional White House-Justice Department process on which other chiefs executive have relied, said a source with knowledge of Mr Trump’s pardons. Those typically come in packets with information about each criminal’s case and possible reasons for nixing or lessening one’s sentence.
But, just as often, the president will get a tip from friends, lawmakers, White House guests or son-in-law Jared Kushner via his work on reforming the country’s criminal justice system, the source said.
“Jared hears about a lot of cases, sentences that seem a bit harsh, during the course of his work,” the source said. “Sometimes, he’ll take a name to the president.”
Mr Trump enjoys rubbing elbows with famous athletes, entertainers, GOP lawmakers and other celebrities. And, fittingly, all can be sources of candidates for pardons or sentence commutations, the source said.
He sent NFL legends Jim Brown, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott and Charles Haley out to speak with reporters Tuesday to announce he had pardoned former San Francisco 49ers owner John Edward DeBartolo Jr.
A White House statement announcing all 11 sentencing moves was notably chock-full of celebrity name-dropping.
Miriam and Sheldon Adelson, big-dollar GOP donors, weighed in on behalf of Michal Milken, the aforementioned “junk bond” financier, as did Fox Business personality Maria Bartiromo, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, New York Yankees president Randy Levine and other celebrities.
One might not consider country music superstar Charlie Daniels to be a legal expert. Yet, there was his name on the White House statement, explaining he endorsed a pardon Mr Trump handed out to Bernie Kerik, a former New York City police commissioner convicted on corruption charges. Also listed as a Kerik advocate: Fox News personalities Andrew Napolitano and Geraldo Rivera, as well as Newsmax executive Christopher Ruddy and retiring New York Rep Peter King, who has traveled with Mr Trump on Air Force One.
For both Milken and Kerik, there was a familiar name listed as having pleaded with the president for help: Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who was Mr Trump’s point person for Ukraine policy and became a focal point of House Democrats’ impeachment investigation and Senate prosecution.
Parts of Mr Trump’s process are unique to his unique presidency. For instance, the source said sometimes names given to him from non-government sources are vetted by the White House counsel’s office or the Justice Department.
“Sure, sometimes he’ll see something or hear about a case and tell his staff, ‘Here’s a name, go check it out’,” the source said. But other times, “he learns about something and he’s inclined to take action. ... He makes the final decision. It’s always his call in the end.”
No matter the source of a particular Trump pardon or commutation, Democrats see a president using a constitutional power in unprecedented and dangerous ways.
“This president, it seems like he’s never met a corrupt politician he didn’t like. It’s one thing about him that actually is bipartisan, is his fondness for corrupt politicians,” Democratic presidential candidate Pete Butitigieg, a former South Bend, Indiana, mayor, said on Tuesday.
“And it’s just, to me, the absolute wrong direction to even think about that pardon power,” he added. “I would start with nonviolent drug offenders caught up in the racial disparities of the failed war on drugs.”