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In the 1980s, the “junk bond king” Michael Milken became both the highest-paid person on Wall Street and his generation’s most famous white-collar criminal. Sentenced in 1990 to 10 years in prison, he served less than two and today is worth an estimated $3.8 billion. On Tuesday, Mr. Milken became one of 11 people to whom President Trump granted clemency, a list that reads like “a who’s who of white-collar criminals from politics, sports and business who were convicted on charges involving fraud, corruption and lies,” my Times colleagues Michael D. Shear and Maggie Haberman write.
The decision drew widespread condemnation, with Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post accusing the Republican Party of having “unleashed an ethical monster” in Mr. Trump. But how groundbreaking is it that a powerful rich person — even the president — lent an exculpatory hand to other powerful, well-connected, corrupt rich people?
Here’s some context for Mr. Trump’s clemency and how people are making sense of it.
Mr. Trump’s presidency has unfolded in a golden age of impunity for the rich that is unprecedented in modern history, Michael Hobbes writes in HuffPost. Since Mr. Trump took office, he notes, white-collar prosecutions have fallen to a record low, and what few cases are prosecuted mostly concern low-level con artists. In 2018, nearly 19,000 people were sentenced in federal court for drug crimes alone, he says, but prosecutors convicted just 37 corporate criminals who worked at companies with more than 50 employees. “An entrenched, unfettered class of superpredators is wreaking havoc on American society,” he argues. “And in the process, they’ve broken the only systems capable of stopping them.”
Amnesty for corrupt elites may have worsened under Mr. Trump, but it didn’t start with him, as the Times editorial board has written. It cited Jesse Eisinger’s book “The Chickenshit Club” — James Comey’s description of prosecutors who never lost a case because they avoided those they might lose — which documented how the Department of Justice had “lost the will and indeed the ability to go after the highest-ranking corporate wrongdoers.” The board wrote, “Industrial-level fraud by America’s banks nearly brought the world economy to its knees in 2008, and no senior executive was even charged.”
Nor is Mr. Trump’s clemency for well-connected criminals entirely without precedent, as the journalist Glenn Greenwald has noted on Twitter. George H.W. Bush, for example, pardoned six Reagan administration officials implicated in the Iran-contra scandal, including Elliott Abrams, who now serves as the special Representative for Venezuela at the State Department. Mr. Greenwald also raised the case of Marc Rich, a financier who was convicted of evading $48 million in taxes and other crimes. Mr. Rich’s wife, Denise Rich, was a prominent fund-raiser for the Clintons and the Democratic Party, and President Bill Clinton pardoned Mr. Rich on his last day in office. The New York Times editorial board called it “a shocking abuse of presidential power.”
A similar dynamic seemed to be at play in at least one of Mr. Trump’s recent pardons, as The Daily Beast reports: Paul Pogue, who pleaded guilty in 2010 to underpaying his taxes and was sentenced to three years in prison, and whose family has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in direct contributions and in-kind air travel to the Trump Victory Committee. As in the Marc Rich case, the president gave no indication that he relied on the Justice Department’s vetting process before extending clemency to a benefactor.
Mr. Trump’s use of presidential pardon powers smacks more flagrantly of cronyism than that of his predecessors, according to Chris Cillizza at CNN. Past presidents have pardoned or commuted the sentences of those in their social circles, and many have done so more frequently than Mr. Trump, he says. “But no past president has been as transparently transactional in doling out clemency than Trump. Friend? Friend of a friend? Famous? You’ve got a very good chance of being considered for a pardon in Trump world,” he writes, pointing as an example to the case of Alice Marie Johnson, whose sentence Mr. Trump commuted at the request of Kim Kardashian West.
This episode of clemency could portend pardons for Michael Flynn, Roger Stone, Paul Manafort and others implicated in the Mueller investigation, writes Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post. “Trump wants vindication and secrecy, so what better way than to direct senators not to hear evidence of his own misdeeds, delegitimize the convictions of his associates and then, by pardon, obtain their silence and gratitude?”
The corollary of pardoning friends is punishing enemies, adds Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker: “The point of authoritarianism is to concentrate power in the ruler, so the world knows that all actions, good and bad, harsh and generous, come from a single source,” he writes. “That’s the real lesson — a story of creeping authoritarianism — of today’s commutations and pardons by President Trump.”
“This is the second time in half a century that a lawless chief executive has tested the nation’s fundamental constitutional design,” The New York Times editorial board writes. “The first time, we passed. But now we know that the mechanisms put in place after Watergate were not sufficient.”
And Mr. Trump’s pardons aren’t just for white-collar crimes, as Adam Serwer has pointed out on Twitter. In November, for example, the president cleared three service members who were accused or convicted of war crimes. “The bigger issue here,” Mr. Serwer asserted, “is that Trump uses pardons to destigmatize the types of crimes he and his allies are accused of, while pursing the harshest possible punishments against poor, black and brown people, and rewarding others who commit crimes against the same groups.” Mr. Greenwald and Mr. Serwer had the following exchange on Twitter:
Mr. Milken’s pardon, at least, was legitimate, argues The Wall Street Journal editorial board. In its view, Mr. Milken was one of the great financial innovators of the 20th century, as well as a philanthropist, having contributed millions to cancer research. When he was convicted, “the political air was also thick with a desire to punish the wealthy. Such vapors are easy to ride, but they don’t equate with justice,” the board writes. “In the long run of history, Mike Milken has done more good for more people with his financial innovations and philanthropy than all the scribes of envy politics ever will.”
Many have also argued that the punishment of Rod Blagojevich — the former Illinois governor who was convicted of essentially selling Barack Obama’s former Senate seat and whose sentence Mr. Trump also commuted — was excessive for the sort of crime that many politicians have committed, as Benjamin Hart writes for New York magazine.
Irrespective of Mr. Trump, the American criminal justice system could benefit from more clemency, the Times columnist David Leonhardt writes. “Clemency is rarely an easy decision for a president or governor, because it involves freeing somebody convicted of breaking society’s rules, sometimes violently so,” he says. “But in a legal system that errs far too often on the side of harshness, clemency is vital. It’s a way to correct abuses, albeit one case at a time, until true criminal justice reform can occur.”
And clemency must extend to white-collar criminals, even to people like Bernie Madoff, if mass incarceration is to end, writes Colleen P. Eren. “If our societal goal is to reduce incarceration, we are going to have to confront the inconvenient truth that retribution cannot be our only penological aim, and justice for victims has to be much more extensive than the incarceration of those who have caused them harm,” she writes. “We desperately need to shift our cultural impulse to punish harshly and degradingly, and for long periods.”
Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.
MORE PERSPECTIVES ON CLEMENCY AND CORRUPTION
“America’s Top Prosecutors Used to Go After Top Executives. What Changed?” [The New York Times]
“Obama’s Clemency Problem” [The New York Times]
“A Presidential Pardon for the ‘Junk Bond King’” [The New York Times]
“Is Prison Necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind” [The New York Times Magazine]
WHAT YOU’RE SAYING
Here’s what readers are saying about the president’s pardons, as well as what they had to say about the last debate: Will Bloomberg save or sink the Democrats?
Michael from San Francisco: “Data driven. Facts based. Hires based on skills. Best city manager in the history of New York. Again, remind me why I should not vote for him? That is it. No empathy. I think I can live with that.”
Will from New York (via email): “Virtually all voices you cited who had positive views of Bloomberg would generally be described as conservative-centrists or conservatives. I think their sense of the pulse of this country is almost comically flawed.”
Constance from New York: “As a New York City public employee, I worked under Mayor Bloomberg. Yes, he is an authoritarian and no, he doesn’t like organized labor. Ask any of us who had to wait until Mayor de Blasio to settle a contract he stiffed us teachers on in his third term. … We don’t need another anti-union, New York billionaire for President! If Bloomberg gets the Democratic nomination, I will cross over as a Democrat and vote Green.”