WASHINGTON — A former congressman who pocketed millions of dollars in bribes from defence contractors. A Republican fundraiser who was paid handsome sums to illicitly lobby a presidential administration. An influential voice in conservative circles accused of duping donors who supported a border wall.
Donald Trump’s final batch of more than 140 pardons and sentence commutations, issued in his last hours as president, benefited an ignominious list of defendants.
“It wasn’t about draining the swamp. It was the swamp,” said Sanjay Bhandari, a former Justice Department prosecutor who in 2005 secured a guilty plea from Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the former California congressman who was pardoned early Wednesday despite having accepted at least $2.4 million in home payments, yacht club fees and other bribes from defence contractors.
The White House cited Cunningham’s post-prison volunteer work, military career and the support he received from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally.
But that explanation was lacking to Bhandari, who said it appeared that Cunningham and others in a “rogue’s gallery” of recipients benefited more from their proximity to power than from the actual merit of their cases.
Presidents have broad discretion in their use of the pardon power and many have exercised it, albeit sparingly, on defendants to whom they have personal or political ties. George H.W. Bush pardoned Reagan administration officials implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal, and Bill Clinton pardoned fugitive financier Marc Rich, whose ex-wife was a substantial donor.
It’s also the case that many of the names on Trump’s last list were conventional and non-controversial selections, including relatively anonymous drug offenders seen as having rehabilitated themselves during long stays in prison.
Even so, “Trump has had a much higher percentage of his pardons be the sort of well-connected, personally connected-to-him, or to people close to him kind of folks,” said Michigan State University law professor Brian Kalt, an expert on pardons.
There were notable omissions from the clemency list, not least Trump himself.
He also did not pardon any of his children or his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who has faced an investigation in New York, though the status of that probe is unclear.
Other allies, though, got a boost.
For instance, joining Cunningham on the pardon list was Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist. He was pulled from a yacht off the Connecticut coast in August and brought to Manhattan to face charges that he duped thousands of donors who believed their money would be used to fulfil Trump’s chief campaign promise to build a wall along the southern border. He was accused of diverting over a million dollars, paying a salary to one campaign official and personal expenses for himself. His co-defendants were not pardoned.
In the final minutes of his term, Trump pardoned Al Pirro, the ex-husband of Fox News Channel host Jeanine Pirro, in a tax evasion case.