President Trump began by pardoning former Sheriff Joe Arpaio for criminal contempt of court, after Arpaio refused to stop police practices that amounted to racial profiling. Trump mentioned his intentions at a political rally before granting the pardon three days later. Since then, Trump hasn’t looked back. Along the way, he has favored a host of well-connected, famous, wealthy, or partisan figures for presidential mercy. To his credit, Trump has not hidden from the press, Congress, or other institutions when exercising clemency. He makes a decision and then takes the heat, often noting that his clemency grants counteract an “unfair” criminal-justice system.
Almost a year after Arpaio, Trump teased on Twitter a pardon for the conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, who had violated campaign-finance laws. He pardoned D’Souza that same day, and then made comments that shifted clemency speculation to the TV personality Martha Stewart and to Blagojevich.
Trump has also been swayed by celebrities. He commuted Alice Marie Johnson’s prison sentence after Kim Kardashian West visited the White House to advocate for her. He also pardoned the late African American boxer Jack Johnson in a grant pushed by the Rocky actor Sylvester Stallone.
The usual procedure for petitioning for a pardon or sentence commutation is far less showy than Trump’s current process. Typically, after waiting a minimum of five years, applicants go to the website of the pardon attorney; download, complete, and submit the appropriate form; and wait. After a lengthy review—sometimes years—the result is usually the same for everyone: a denial. George W. Bush granted only about 2 percent of petitions for a pardon or sentence commutation; Barack Obama granted 5.3 percent; and—as of February 7, 2020—Trump had granted less than 0.5 percent of clemency requests.
The former pardon attorney Margaret Love explains in her article “The Twilight of the Pardon Power” that one crucial reason so few clemency cases receive a positive recommendation is that “all but a handful of the individuals officially responsible for approving Justice Department clemency recommendations since 1983 have been former federal prosecutors.” In other words, because prosecutors in the pardon attorney’s office are reluctant to undo the work of their fellow prosecutors, presidents are rarely given a thumbs-up to pardon.
Garrett Epps: The self-pardoning president
The traditional role of the pardon attorney has been basically abandoned by the Trump administration, after the office assisted presidents for more than a century. As The Washington Post reported earlier this month, “Former White House officials describe a freewheeling atmosphere in which staff members have fielded suggestions from Trump friends while sometimes throwing in their own recommendations.” Moreover, “all but five of the 24 people who have received clemency from Trump had a line into the White House or currency with his political base.”