President Trump doled out clemency to a new group of loyalists on Wednesday, wiping away convictions and sentences as he aggressively employed his power to override courts, juries and prosecutors to apply his own standard of justice for his allies.
One recipient of a pardon was a family member, Charles Kushner, the father of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Two others who were pardoned declined to cooperate with prosecutors in connection with the special counsel’s Russia investigation: Paul Manafort, his 2016 campaign chairman, and Roger J. Stone Jr., his longtime informal adviser and friend.
They were the most prominent names in a batch of 26 pardons and three commutations disclosed by the White House after Mr. Trump left for his private club in Palm Beach, Fla., for the holiday.
Also on the list released on Wednesday was Margaret Hunter, the estranged wife of former Representative Duncan D. Hunter, Republican of California. Both of them had pleaded guilty to charges of misusing campaign funds for personal expenses.
Mr. Hunter was pardoned by Mr. Trump on Tuesday, as part of a first pre-Christmas wave of grants of clemency to 20 convicts, more than half of whom did not meet the Justice Department guidelines for consideration of pardons or commutations. They included a former Blackwater guard sentenced to life in prison for his role in the killing of 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007.
Of the 65 pardons and commutations that Mr. Trump had granted before Wednesday, 60 have gone to petitioners who had a personal tie to Mr. Trump or who helped his political aims, according to a tabulation by the Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith. Although similar figures do not exist for previous presidents, legal experts say that those presidents granted a far lower percentage to those who could help them personally and politically.
Mr. Trump’s use of his powers to grant clemency to allies and supporters drew criticism even from some Republicans. “This is rotten to the core,” said Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska.
The pardons to Mr. Manafort and Mr. Stone on the same day will be particularly stinging for the former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and his team.
Mr. Trump’s lawyer at the time, John Dowd, was said to have broached the topic of pardons with lawyers for Mr. Manafort in 2017. Mr. Manafort was considering then whether to cooperate with prosecutors.
Prosecutors believed that if there had been a connection between Russian officials and the Trump campaign that Mr. Manafort or Mr. Stone would have known about it. Mr. Trump later expressed explicit support for Mr. Stone’s refusal to speak with investigators.
Some investigators believed that private discussion of pardons and public statements by Mr. Trump may have compromised their ability to uncover the facts.
The wording of the pardons for Mr. Manafort and Mr. Stone reflected Mr. Trump’s grievances about the Mueller investigation, referring to the “Russian collusion hoax,” “prosecutorial misconduct” and “injustice.”
Mr. Manafort, 71, had been sentenced to seven and a half years in prison for his role in a decade-long, multimillion-dollar financial fraud scheme for his work in the former Soviet Union.
Mr. Stone, 68, whose 40-month prison sentence had previously been commuted by Mr. Trump, has maintained his innocence and insisted there was prosecutorial malfeasance. He was convicted on seven counts of lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstructing the House inquiry into possible Trump campaign coordination with Russia.
Mr. Kushner’s pardon has been one of the most anticipated of the Trump presidency. The father-in-law of the president’s older daughter, Ivanka Trump, Mr. Kushner’s prison sentence was a searing event in his family’s life.
Mr. Kushner, 66, pleaded guilty in 2004 to 16 counts of tax evasion, a single count of retaliating against a federal witness and one of lying to the Federal Election Commission in a case that was also a lurid family drama. He served two years in prison before being released in 2006.
The witness he was accused of retaliating against was his brother-in-law, who along with his wife, Mr. Kushner’s sister, was cooperating with federal officials in a campaign finance investigation into Mr. Kushner.
In his plea agreement, Mr. Kushner acknowledged that he arranged to have a prostitute seduce his brother-in-law in a motel room in New Jersey where video cameras were installed. Mr. Kushner then had the videotape sent to his sister.
The case was prosecuted by then-U. S. Attorney Chris Christie, a longtime Trump friend who went on to become governor of New Jersey. Last year, Mr. Christie said Charles Kushner had committed a “loathsome” and “disgusting” crime.
Jared Kushner worked on criminal justice overhaul efforts in the White House in part because he was scarred, allies said, by his father’s time behind bars. And he had a tense relationship with Mr. Christie for years, helping to banish him from his role in running the transition almost immediately after Mr. Trump’s surprise election win in 2016.
Among the other recipients of the grants of clemency announced by the White House on Wednesday were Mark Shapiro and Irving Stitsky, whose 85-year sentences for their roles in a real estate investment fraud were commuted by Mr. Trump.
Their case has been held up by some proponents of sentencing overhaul as an example of huge disparities between sentences offered in plea deals and those imposed after trials. Mr. Shapiro had been offered a plea deal with a sentence of five to seven years, and Mr. Stitsky a deal with a sentence of seven to nine years.
Their push for commutation had been supported by a number of groups and people who have been influential with Mr. Trump on clemency issues, including Alice Johnson, whose life sentence on drug charges was commuted by the president in 2018 at the urging of supporters including Kim Kardashian.
Others receiving pardons or commutations included a former K-9 police officer who served a 10-year prison term, the White House said, for releasing her dog on a burglary suspect who was badly bitten, and two former associates of Conrad Black, the former media baron who was found guilty of fraud and obstruction in 2007 and pardoned by Mr. Trump in 2019.
In pardoning Mr. Manafort and Mr. Stone, Mr. Trump continued to chip away at the work of the Mueller investigation, which the president and his departing attorney general, William P. Barr, have attacked for the past two years. Mr. Trump had already pardoned or commuted the sentences of three others who had been prosecuted by Mr. Mueller’s office, including two on Tuesday.
The president has long complained that the investigation was a “witch hunt” and a “hoax” and pressured Mr. Barr to prosecute some of the officials he blamed for it, including Joseph R. Biden Jr., former President Barack Obama and James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director whom Mr. Trump fired.
Mr. Barr, whose last day in office was Wednesday, has echoed Mr. Trump’s criticism of the investigation and ordered an inquiry into its origins, but to the president’s frustration he did not prosecute anyone for it before last month’s election.
Mr. Barr had also moved to reduce the sentencing recommendation for Mr. Stone and to overturn guilty pleas entered by Michael T. Flynn, the president’s first national security adviser.
But Mr. Barr supported the prosecution of Mr. Stone, whereas Mr. Trump commuted Mr. Stone’s sentence in July and pardoned Mr. Flynn last month.
President Trump has discussed potential pardons that could test the boundaries of his constitutional power to nullify criminal liability. Here’s some clarity on his ability to pardon.
- May a president issue prospective pardons before any charges or conviction? Yes. In Ex parte Garland, an 1866 case involving a former Confederate senator who had been pardoned by President Andrew Johnson, the Supreme Court said the pardon power “extends to every offense known to the law, and may be exercised at any time after its commission, either before legal proceedings are taken or during their pendency, or after conviction and judgment.” It is unusual for a president to issue a prospective pardon before any charges are filed, but there are examples, perhaps most famously President Gerald R. Ford’s pardon in 1974 of Richard M. Nixon to prevent him from being prosecuted after the Watergate scandal.
- May a president pardon his relatives and close allies? Yes. The Constitution does not bar pardons that raise the appearance of self-interest or a conflict of interest, even if they may provoke a political backlash and public shaming. In 2000, shortly before leaving office, President Bill Clinton issued a slew of controversial pardons, including to his half brother, Roger Clinton, over a 1985 cocaine conviction for which he had served about a year in prison, and to Susan H. McDougal, a onetime Clinton business partner who had been jailed as part of the Whitewater investigation.
- May a president issue a general pardon? This is unclear. Usually, pardons are written in a way that specifically describes which crimes or sets of activities they apply to. There is little precedent laying out the degree to which a pardon can be used to instead foreclose criminal liability for anything and everything.
- May a president pardon himself? This is unclear. There is no definitive answer because no president has ever tried to pardon himself and then faced prosecution anyway. As a result, there has never been a case which gave the Supreme Court a chance to resolve the question. In the absence of any controlling precedent, legal thinkers are divided about the matter.
- Find more answers here.
Even as he agreed to cooperate with the special counsel’s office, Mr. Manafort’s lead lawyer, Kevin M. Downing, continued to brief Mr. Trump’s personal lawyers, an unusual arrangement that raised questions about what side Mr. Manafort was on.
Some of Mr. Downing’s public statements also seemed aimed at generating sympathy for Mr. Manafort from the West Wing. Mr. Downing repeatedly said that prosecutors in the case had no evidence that the Trump campaign had conspired with Russia to influence the 2016 election, even though potential links to Moscow’s sabotage fell outside the purview of the trial.
Mr. Trump repeatedly expressed sympathy for Mr. Manafort, describing him as a brave man who had been mistreated by the special counsel’s office. After Mr. Manafort was sentenced in March 2019 to three and a half years in the conspiracy case, the president said, “I feel very badly for Paul Manafort.”
Mr. Manafort was released early from prison in May as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and given home confinement instead.
Mr. Manafort is not completely out of legal trouble, with a state case in New York still not entirely resolved.
But in December of that year, a New York trial judge ruled that the indictment violated the state’s double jeopardy law, a decision that was upheld by an appeals court in October of this year.
Mr. Vance’s office, which has sought leave to appeal that ruling to the state’s highest tribunal, the court of appeals, said in a statement Wednesday night that the president’s pardon of Mr. Manafort makes clear that the state charges should be upheld.
Other presidents have made extensive use of clemency power in their final days in office, sometimes benefiting political allies or people close to them.
President Bill Clinton on his last day in office in 2001 pardoned or commuted the sentences of more than 175 people, including his half brother Roger Clinton, who had been convicted on drug charges, and his former Whitewater business partner Susan H. McDougal, who had been locked up for refusing to cooperate with Ken Starr’s team investigating the president.
But Mr. Clinton came under especially intense criticism for his pardon of Marc Rich, a financier who had fled the United States to avoid tax charges and whose ex-wife donated large sums to Mr. Clinton’s future presidential library.
Among those particularly enraged by the pardon of Mr. Rich was Rudolph W. Giuliani, who had been the U.S. attorney whose office prosecuted Mr. Rich and is now the president’s personal lawyer. “He never paid a price,” Mr. Giuliani said in 2001 about Mr. Rich.
Such actions were sharply criticized at the time as abuses of power and in Mr. Clinton’s case even investigated for evidence of wrongdoing.
But a president’s pardon authority under the Constitution is expansive and not ordinarily subject to the approval of any other part of government. Some legal scholars have argued that the corrupt use of the pardon power — in response to a bribe, for instance, or to obstruct justice — could be a crime, but it has never been tested.
The small number of pardons presidents granted that were given to those who had not been convicted were usually tied to a national event a president was trying to put behind the country, like the Nixon presidency or the Vietnam War.