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When the pardon power becomes an instrument of political messaging

Would Trump abuse his pardon authority to advance a petty political point? Of course he would -- because he already has.
The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)
The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. 

It was tough to forget Donald Trump's first use of his presidential pardon authority. Last August, late on a Friday evening, with much of the country focused on a major national disaster unfolding at the time, the president pardoned one of his political allies, Arizona's Joe Arpaio.

As regular readers may recall, the move was a rather flagrant abuse. Arpaio, among other things, was accused of violating people's civil rights. When a court ordered him to stop, the Arizonan ignored the order, which led a judge to find Arpaio guilty of criminal contempt. Trump intervened in the hopes of shielding Arpaio of any legal consequences.

But do you happen to remember the president's second pardon?

Last month, also late on a Friday afternoon, Trump pardoned Kristian Saucier, a Navy submariner, who'd taken photos inside the engine room of a nuclear attack submarine. After becoming a cause celebre of sorts on Fox News, Saucier appeared on "Fox & Friends," complained about Hillary Clinton, asked for a presidential pardon, and received one less than a week later.

The politics of this wasn't subtle: Trump still wants people to believe Hillary Clinton is some kind of criminal, so he pardoned someone convicted of mishandling classified information. In this White House, the presidential pardon authority is now an instrument of political messaging.

Indeed, it now appears likely to happen again.

President Donald Trump plans to pardon I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, a former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney who was convicted in 2007 of lying to the FBI and obstructing justice, an administration official confirmed to NBC News.ABC News reported Thursday evening that Trump is poised to pardon Libby, who was sentenced to 30 months in prison but who had his sentence commuted by President George W. Bush. The conviction remained on his record.

[Update: Shortly after I published this, Trump made the pardon news official.]

Since his conviction, Libby's guilt has never really been in doubt. He got caught by Patrick Fitzgerald, who was appointed -- by then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey -- to investigate the exposure of the CIA's Valerie Plame.

So why would Trump pardon him a decade later? Perhaps because this White House is determined to advance another petty political point.

Kellyanne Conway told reporters this morning, for example, that Scooter Libby may have been "the victim of a special counsel gone amok."

Left unsaid was the obvious point that Trump World sees itself as a victim of a special counsel gone amok, offering us another example of this president using his pardon authority as an instrument of political messaging.

The other thing to keep in mind is something MSNBC's Nicole Wallace mentioned to Rachel on the show last night: it's entirely possible that the White House and its allies are watching Trump abuse his pardon power in order to help prepare us for future abuses.

Postscript: Trump lashed out at former FBI Director James Comey this morning as a "proven leaker and liar." In reality, Scooter Libby actually is a convicted leaker and liar -- who's apparently poised to receive a pardon from Trump.