What was the point of Trump's unexpected pardon spree?

Trump may want to anesthetize the public into thinking pardon abuses are normal now, opening the door to even more outrageous actions.
Image: U.S. President Trump departs Washington for travel to California from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland
President Donald Trump talks to reporters prior to boarding Air Force One as he departs Washington for campaign travel to California from Joint Base Andrews in Md., on Feb. 18, 2020.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
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By Steve Benen

After Donald Trump granted a series of controversial pardons and clemency grants yesterday, GQ's Julia Ioffe summarized the questions on the minds of many.

"What is the point of all these pardons? Is it to own the libs or to show that rule of law is not something the United States is really interested in pursuing anymore? Or that the President likes bad boys? Maybe I'm naive, but I don't really get it."

There are a variety of possible explanations along these lines, including the ones Ioffe specifically referenced. For example, the White House's "own the libs" instincts -- in effect, doing outrageous things to enrage the left, simply because Republicans derive pleasure from enraging the left -- help explain a great deal of the president's actions.

Other explanations work, too. Maybe Trump was swayed by Fox News segments. Maybe the president decided to send a not-so-subtle signal to white-collar felons that he'll look out for those who are on his side. Maybe, in at least one case, Trump saw value in rewarding a Republican donor.

David Corn added another possible explanation to the mix yesterday, writing, "Trump's pardons are a big f-you to the prosecutors and FBI agents who worked long and hard on these cases -- and a signal to those who target subjects with ties to Trump that their efforts may be for naught. And that's the point." Maybe so.

But I'm also wondering about the president's interest in wearing down the public, inuring Americans by repeatedly abusing his pardon power. If Trump had spent the last three years exercising care and caution, judiciously granting pardons in responsible ways, only to suddenly start handing them out like candy to corrupt convicts with connections, a scandal would likely ensue.

But if Trump can anesthetize the public into thinking pardon abuses are normal now, and every example of him misusing his power starts to blur together into one ugly cloud of controversy, then it becomes that much easier for the president to abandon any remaining thoughts about appearance of propriety.

By this reasoning, Roger Stone can expect a pardon. So can Michael Flynn. Even Paul Manafort may go free. If so, the White House will want Americans, aware of the many other instances in which Trump has abused his pardon power, to shrug and say, "Well, there he goes again."

That would be the wrong reaction, of course, but it may be the one Team Trump is counting on.