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As Trump's deadline nears, monied interests seek access for pardons

Since Trump has corrupted the pardon process, monied interests in need of clemency are lining up to buy access and influence before Wednesday afternoon.
Image: A rainbow appears over the White House as birds fly nearby following a storm in Washington
A rainbow appears over the White House as birds fly nearby following a storm on Nov. 30, 2020.Tom Brenner / Reuters

With only 50 hours remaining in Donald Trump's term, the question is not whether the Republican will issue pardons and commutations before exiting. Rather, it's how many and who the beneficiaries will be.

Multiple reports suggest the total could top 100, and the Washington Post reported that Trump spent much of yesterday huddling with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, among other thing, weighing his options. Not surprisingly, Trump is apparently "consumed" with the question of whether to preemptively pardon his family and his himself.

But they're not the only ones in the mix. The New York Times published this striking report over the weekend:

As President Trump prepares to leave office in days, a lucrative market for pardons is coming to a head, with some of his allies collecting fees from wealthy felons or their associates to push the White House for clemency, according to documents and interviews with more than three dozen lobbyists and lawyers. The brisk market for pardons reflects the access peddling that has defined Mr. Trump's presidency as well as his unorthodox approach to exercising unchecked presidential clemency powers.

That last point helps capture the unusual circumstances: Trump hasn't just corrupted the pardons process, he's done so publicly and brazenly. His "unorthodox approach" has left no doubt that Trump is entirely comfortable applying his transactional vision to this presidential power.

Naturally, those interested in buying presidential clemency -- or collecting money from those who believe pardons are for sale -- have gotten the message. The Times' article added:

One lobbyist, Brett Tolman, a former federal prosecutor who has been advising the White House on pardons and commutations, has monetized his clemency work, collecting tens of thousands of dollars, and possibly more, in recent weeks.... Mr. Trump's former personal lawyer John M. Dowd has marketed himself to convicted felons as someone who could secure pardons because of his close relationship with the president, accepting tens of thousands of dollars from a wealthy felon and advising him and other potential clients to leverage Mr. Trump's grievances about the justice system.

If the reporting is accurate, the corruption of the process has become almost cartoonish.

After a round of egregious pardons shortly before Christmas, even some Republicans conceded Trump was engaging in indefensible misconduct, with one GOP senator going so far as to call Trump's pardon's "rotten."

But as we discussed at the time, there can and should be accountability for such a systemic breakdown. If Bill Clinton's Marc Rich pardon from 2001 was investigated by Congress and federal prosecutors -- a man by the name of James Comey helped oversee a Justice Department examination, more than a decade before he led the FBI -- why wouldn't there be similar scrutiny of Trump's spectacularly more controversial pardon abuses?

And given that even some Senate Republicans believe Trump's "rotten" pardons went too far, shouldn't the investigations enjoy bipartisan support?

Just Security recently explained, 'President Donald Trump apparently holds the misguided belief that his pardon power is 'absolute.' But while the pardon power is expansive in scope, that power is nevertheless constrained by the Constitution and federal criminal laws, including anti-bribery and obstruction laws."

It's a safe bet that Joe Biden will be more responsible and judicious with this power, but as monied interests line up to buy access and influence in Trump's final days in office, there's no reason for the controversy to end on Wednesday.