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‘Pardon the swamp’: Outrage over Trump’s clemency blitz as president commutes sentences for well-connected insiders

Chris Riotta
Donald Trump: Erin Scott/Reuters

Donald Trump’s decision to grant clemency to “well-connected insiders” was met with swift backlash after the president commuted prison sentences and pardoned officials charged with tax fraud and lying to investigators, among other crimes.

The president granted a total of seven pardons and four commutations on Tuesday for prominent figures like Rod Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor who was impeached and removed from office in 2009, and Bernard Kerik, the former New York police commissioner sentenced to federal prison on corruption charges.

He also granted a full pardon to Eddie DeBartolo Jr, former owner of the San Francisco 49ers who was charged in a decades-old corruption case.

Blagojevich, 63, has been serving a 14-year sentence for reportedly attempting to “sell” a seat in the US Senate that opened up following Barack Obama’s presidential election, while Mr Kerik pleaded guilty to eight felony counts, including tax fraud, and was sentenced to four years of prison in 2010.

Mr Trump blasted the “tremendously powerful, ridiculous sentence” for Blagojevich in a statement to reporters on Tuesday, while acknowledging the former governor was previously a contestant on his reality show The Celebrity Apprentice in 2010.

“He served eight years in jail, a long time,” Mr Trump said. “I don’t know him very well. I met him a couple of times. He was on for a short while on the Apprentice some years ago. He seems like a very nice person. I don’t know him.”

The decision was meanwhile criticised on both sides of the political aisle, with the New York Times reporting members of the GOP warned the president that crimes committed by Mr Blagojevich reflected the exact corruption the president campaigned on rooting out of Washington during the 2016 election.

Or, as political columnist and New Hampshire university professor Seth Abramson put it on Twitter: “New Trump 2020 campaign slogan is PARDON THE SWAMP.”

Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, noted how the president’s pardons “go to rich and very well connected” rather than “those sentenced unjustly and determined through objective analysis”.

The congressman also claimed that Mr Trump “used Alice Marie Johnson”, a first-time nonviolent drug offender whose lengthy prison sentence was commuted by the president, “to please Kim Kardashian”.

Others suggested the pardoning spree was a messaging strategy on the part of the president.

Joyce Alene, a former federal prosecutor and professor at University of Alabama Law, wrote in a tweet that Mr Trump was using the pardons “to message others- stay on my side & I’ll take care of you”.

“We know this from the Mueller Report,” she said, before suggesting Mr Trump may soon pardon his former indicted advisers like Michael Flynn, Roger Stone and Paul Manafort. “I’d speculate Trump won’t pardon until after the election but hard to imagine Flynn & Stone aren’t in line & maybe Manafort too.”

Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat, also lambasted the president in a tweet after the pardons were announced, writing: “It's no coincidence Donald Trump uses his power to pardon those accused of the same crimes he and his cronies are accused of.”

He added: “Don’t let him normalise abuse and fraud.”