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President Donald Trump speaks at a rally on Nov. 2, 2020, in Kenosha, Wis.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

Latest pardons reflect Trump's overtly pro-corruption perspective

In the Trump era, the pardon process isn't about righting wrongs; the process is itself wrong.


Former Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) was the first Republican member of Congress to endorse Donald Trump's 2016 presidential candidacy, and former Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) was the second. Both, it turns out, engaged in flagrant corruption, got caught, and were indicted by federal prosecutors in August 2018.

The Republican president made no effort to hide his outrage -- not because he was disgusted by the lawmakers' corruption, but because of his disappointment that the Justice Department wasn't corrupt enough. Trump explained at the time that he expected federal prosecutors to leave his political allies alone in order to advance the Republican Party's electoral goals.

Collins and Hunter were nevertheless charged, convicted, and sentenced to prison because they were very guilty. Last night, however, they were rewarded for their political allegiance to Trump, who's following through on his plans to hand out pardons like party favors to his friends.

The White House said in a statement that Trump was granting full pardons to 15 people and commuting parts or all of the sentences of five others. Among those granted clemency were Republican former Reps. Duncan Hunter of California and Chris Collins of New York and four ex-Blackwater contractors convicted in the killings of Iraqi civilians.

Also on the list were figures from Trump's Russia scandal who'd been prosecuted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team.

A New York Times report added, "A tabulation by the Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith found that of Mr. Trump's 45 pardons or commutations before Tuesday, 88 percent went to people with personal ties to the president or to people who furthered his political aims."

And that was before last night's announcement. The Republican's eagerness to use pardons and commutations to benefit well-connected allies has since become even more brazen. (Trump has four weeks remaining in office. The problem is likely to get vastly worse.)

Note, presidents have traditionally been reluctant to pardon violent murderers, if only to avoid a political controversy. Trump nevertheless pardoned four Blackwater contractors who massacred Iraqi civilians, and according to the official White House statement, the outgoing president was motivated in part by the advice of a Fox News personality.

In the United States, there is -- or at least, was -- a process for those seeking presidential clemency. There are Justice Department officials who are responsible for reviewing cases, weighing the evidence and relevant details, and making recommendations based on merit. The point is to identify Americans most deserving of mercy and governmental benevolence.

But in the Trump era, the pardon process isn't about righting wrongs; the process is itself wrong. The recipients need not concern themselves with niceties such as official appeals to the Justice Department, they need only to be well-connected political allies of the man in the Oval Office.

When this power was created centuries ago, there was an inherent expectation that honorable people would serve as president, and they would recognize the awesome responsibility and use it judiciously. The framers of our system failed to anticipate Americans' willingness to elect someone like Donald Trump, whose indifference toward propriety leads to actions like the one we saw last night: a dynamic in which a president's felonious friends get get-out-of-jail-free cards, even as his administration moves quickly to execute inmates who lack political capital.

For several years, the Republican has casually thrown around phrases such as "law and order" and "the rule of law" without any real understanding of what the words mean or how the principles should be applied. Trump's perversion of the pardon power renders the phrases punch-lines to a sad joke.

Americans have seen corrupt presidents, but an overtly pro-corruption president is new.