Presidents get to pardon criminals and commute sentences as they see fit. In this one area they are sovereign. They hear personal appeals from supplicants both accused and convicted. The practice may well remind Donald Trump of a “reality” show in which he got to play sole decider after a big buildup.
Trump granted his latest real-life indulgence last week to Dwight Hammond and Steven Hammond, father-and-son ranchers. They were convicted in 2012 of committing arson on federal land in Oregon and sentenced to a statutory minimum of five years in prison.
Upon the Hammonds’ conviction, U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan, a nominee of President George H.W. Bush, said it “shocks the conscience” to impose this mandatory minimum. He cut the time to a fraction. On appeal by prosecutors, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals — long criticized by right-wing pundits as too liberal — decided otherwise.
“Given the seriousness of arson,” the panel wrote, “a five-year sentence is not grossly disproportionate to the offense.”
Trump called the resentencing “unjust.” In the process, though, he got to nullify the same Ninth Circuit that gives his administration a hard time on immigration law. This year and last, the Ninth Circuit temporarily held up Trump’s travel-ban order, as well as his actions against so-called “sanctuary cities.” The panel also delayed cancellation of an Obama-era program allowing young immigrants brought here illegally as children to remain in the United States.
Another undoubtedly happy side effect for Trump resulted from his pardon last month of political provocateur Dinesh D’Souza from a case involving an illegal GOP campaign contribution.
D’Souza, who likens Trump to Abraham Lincoln, promptly used a vulgar insult to describe former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, with whom he cut a plea deal. Trump wouldn’t have taken offense. Last year he fired Democrat Bharara, who promptly became an outspoken Trump critic.
When Trump in April pardoned former Bush administration official and convicted perjurer Scooter Libby, it did not go unnoticed that the former deputy attorney general who brought the case was Trump’s current nemesis, James Comey.
Earlier Comey, as a U.S. attorney, also prosecuted the insider-trading case against Martha Stewart. Trump has said he’s also considering a pardon for Stewart, who appeared in a spinoff of his “Apprentice” show.
Trump said he’s also considering letting ex-Democratic Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich off the hook on his 14-year sentence for a morass of political corruption. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, a longtime ally of Comey, brought that case. In 2016, before serving time, Blagojevich was a contestant whom Trump “fired” on “The Apprentice.”
Not all pardons fit a template. Trump issued one to the first black heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson, on a racially charged 1913 conviction. Johnson died in 1946. Oddly, Trump also talked about pardoning the late Muhammad Ali, but Ali had his draft evasion conviction voided in 1971 by the U.S. Supreme Court.
It is not surprising that forgiving a crime would also mean a little payback for Trump.
The president-to-be did declare, for example, in a 2005 speech: “If someone screws you, screw them back 10 times harder.”
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Ali was cleared by a blanket amnesty issued by President Jimmy Carter.