In any other administration, at any other time, it would be shocking to consider the possibility that three men with such deep personal ties to the president might get their legal troubles expunged in an election year — not to mention by a president facing impeachment.
But this is not any other administration.
The clemency calculations come because Stone, Flynn and Manafort — all former Trump campaign aides — know the president has repeatedly proven willing to trample over his own advisers despite warnings of political consequences. Most recently, Trump cleared the records of three armed services members accused or convicted of war crimes over the objections of several of his top military brass.
“Like everything else with this president, you can’t look to history for precedent,” said a person who previously worked for Trump as president. “If he felt Manafort and Flynn and others were deserving of pardons, he’d just do it.”
Trump got involved in the military cases after being lobbied not only by lawmakers but Fox News personalities who spotlighted their stories. It’s a tactic employed repeatedly by people seeking pardons or prison-sentence commutations. Earlier in the Trump administration, Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza and George W. Bush White House aide Scooter Libby saw their prospects for presidential mercy take off thanks to well-connected allies and conservative cable TV segments highlighting complaints about how they’d been mistreated inside the federal justice system.
In Trump’s White House, few of his top aides see pardons for the likes of Stone, Flynn or Manafort as a good idea, at least not until after Election Day 2020. There are still scars from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, which concluded with a 448-page report that featured an obstruction of justice section detailing several conversations and public statements about pardons for former Trump aides involving the president and his personal lawyers.
While Trump himself has been coy in recent months about any post-Mueller pardon plans, he’s been anything but shy when registering his disdain for the Russia probe and how it landed him, members of his family and so many other current and former staffers in considerable legal jeopardy.
Back in August 2018, the president wrote on Twitter that he felt “very badly” for Manafort on the morning after a Virginia jury convicted the former Trump campaign chairman on a series of financial fraud charges. This June, Trump praised Flynn when the former national security adviser who had already pleaded guilty and cooperated with Mueller’s investigators made a U-turn and hired Sidney Powell, an outspoken Mueller critic, as his new lawyer. “Best Wishes and Good Luck to them both!” the president tweeted. And Trump complained, just minutes after Stone’s conviction last month on charges of lying to Congress and witness tampering, because several of his own longtime adversaries — he named Hillary Clinton, James Comey and Adam Schiff, among others — weren’t facing the same kinds of criminal prosecutions.
Despite the presidential airing of grievances, people who regularly speak with Trump say the looming impeachment proceedings have dominated conversations — not pardons. “I think the president is probably focused on other things at the moment,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican and outspoken Trump defender.
But Trump’s pardon calculations could very well change as a rapid-fire series of events unfold.
Stone is scheduled for sentencing Feb. 6 before U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson, where he faces up to 50 years in prison. As a first-time offender, Stone’s punishment is expected to be significantly lighter. Still, prison is prison, and attempts to get the president’s attention have been coming from all directions to keep Stone — a longtime political adviser dating back to the early 1980s — a free man.
InfoWars host Alex Jones said he was relaying a direct message from Stone to Trump on his show the day before the jury reached its guilty verdicts. “He said to me, ‘Alex, barring a miracle, I appeal to God and I appeal to your listeners for prayer, and I appeal to the president to pardon me because to do so would be an action that would show these corrupt courts that they’re not going to get away with persecuting people for their free speech or for the crime of getting the president elected,’” Jones said.
Just hours after Stone’s conviction, reporters filmed an unidentified man just outside the White House’s West Wing entrance blowing a giant horn and urging the president to give Stone “immunity.” That same night, Stone’s daughter Adria pleaded for the president’s intervention during a Fox News interview with Tucker Carlson. “Donald Trump, if you can hear me, please save our family,” she said.
Flynn’s fate, meantime, remains very much up in the air. The retired Army lieutenant general’s sentencing this month got postponed in anticipation of a Justice Department inspector general report about the intelligence community’s conduct during the Russia probe. While the report expected to be released Monday may not yield the thunderclaps Trump and his conservative allies have envisioned, Powell nonetheless says she expects it can produce additional evidence that would prompt the federal judge presiding in Flynn’s case to toss out her client’s guilty plea because of “egregious government misconduct.”
In light of Flynn’s new legal posture, the federal prosecutors who obtained his initial guilty plea have said they may revisit their initial recommendation to Judge Emmet Sullivan that he sentence Flynn to one year of probation instead of prison time. But their sentencing memo is on hold until the IG report comes out — raising the prospect that Flynn may indeed need Trump’s help to stave off a more severe punishment.
“All we want is justice to be done as we know he committed no crimes and was set up,” Michael Flynn’s brother, Joseph, said in an email to POLITICO when asked about a potential Trump pardon. He added that Powell “has it well under control.. and we are extremely thankful she is in our lives.”
Manafort, meantime, still has about six years to go in his prison sentence, which also covers a series of lobbying and witness-tampering crimes. His allies have been less public in their attempts to win Trump’s help — a year-old petition on Change.org asking Trump to commute Manafort’s remaining time in jail has less than 1,000 signatures. But the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, confirmed to The Washington Post in October that he’d recently been in touch with the former Trump campaign chief as he presses ahead with a controversial campaign to pin the blame on Ukraine for meddling on Hillary Clinton’s behalf in the 2016 presidential election.
Republicans say Trump also may have running room on the pardon front should he successfully fend off impeachment early next year in the Republican-led Senate.
“For the president’s sake, he should be looking at the political implications,” said Iowa GOP Rep. Steve King. “I’d say for all the specious reasons that have been manufactured by the Democrats, they’d probably call that reasons number infinity-plus-one and infinity-plus-two to impeach the president. So, I’d say let’s get this through first and then take a look at those circumstances.”
For the most part, presidents before Trump tended to stay clear of controversial first-term pardons. President Barack Obama granted five pardons and one commutation in fiscal year 2012, according to clemency data compiled by the Justice Department. Bush granted 12 pardons and two commutations during fiscal 2004 as he geared up for his reelection race. President Bill Clinton didn’t give any pardons or commutations in fiscal 1996, though the year before that he granted 53 pardons and commuted three sentences.
No doubt, the most famous example of a president suffering at the ballot box over a clemency decision involves Gerald Ford, who arguably lost his 1976 bid for a full term because of his decision to give former President Richard Nixon a pardon after his resignation over the Watergate scandal.
Lame-duck presidents have also gotten into hot water for exercising their pardon powers. Clinton faced significant scrutiny for issuing a pardon on his final day in office to Marc Rich, a fugitive international financier whose ex-wife had made donations to Democratic Party accounts and the Clinton Foundation. After losing his reelection bid to Clinton in 1992, President George H.W. Bush pardoned six former Reagan administration officials ensnared in the Iran-Contra scandal, including Caspar Weinberger, the defense secretary who was scheduled to go on trial in a case where Bush may have been implicated. The Bush pardons were backed by the attorney general at the time: William Barr.
While it might not be seen as politically savvy in the middle of an election year for Trump to pardon people like Stone, Flynn or Manafort, he has seen an advantage when getting involved in other high-profile cases that have been featured on Fox News and brought to his attention by allies.
Pete Hegseth, a Fox contributor, helped draw Trump’s interest to the latest military case, which culminated last month with full pardons for former Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance and Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, who were convicted of war crimes, and allowed for chief petty officer Edward Gallagher, who was stripped of military honors during his prosecution on murder charges, to have his promotion reinstated.
Bernie Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner and himself a convicted felon, advocated for Gallagher. Tim Parlatore, Gallagher’s attorney, said Fox News and Hegseth should also be credited with presenting the case on Trump’s preferred cable channel. “Whether you believe Fox News or not, the president took the time to hear the other side of the story rather than just believing the Navy,” Parlatore said.
Over the weekend, Trump welcomed two of the pardoned men to the stage at a closed-door fundraiser in Florida.
Several other possible pardons that Trump hasn’t touched still remain on the president’s radar. Parlatore recently submitted Kerik’s name for a pardon that would wipe clean a criminal record from a 2009 guilty plea for tax fraud and false statement charges and a since-completed four-year prison sentence.
Then there’s the so-called Blackwater Four, a group of security contractors who were convicted and jailed for a 2007 shooting in Baghdad in which 17 Iraqis died, as well as the case of a Marine sniper group photographed urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters in 2011.
Trump himself has maintained interest in two convicted cast members from his reality TV show “Celebrity Apprentice” — Rod Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor convicted in 2011 for trying to sell the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama, and businesswoman Martha Stewart, who served five months in jail in the mid-2000s for obstructing justice and lying to investigators about a stock sale.
Illinois’ House GOP delegation has urged the president to leave the Blagojevich case alone. But Trump is hearing both sides. The former governor’s wife has appeared multiple times on Fox asking for the commutation of the remainder of her husband’s 14-year jail sentence. At an October fundraiser in Chicago, Trump reportedly polled supporters about letting the governor go free.
“I feel very badly. I think he was very harshly sentenced, but we’re looking at it very strongly,” Trump told reporters in August. “People feel very strongly about Rod Blagojevich and his sentence.”
A spokesman for Blagojevich, Mark Vargas, said “the family is grateful to President Trump, and they remain hopeful that their 11-year nightmare might soon be over. As the president has said publicly, 14 years was a very harsh sentence — and thanks to the president, we are now seeing broad bipartisan support for the former governor’s release.”
Beyond the Mueller probe, Trump’s pardon powers have drawn scrutiny from Democrats. The House Judiciary Committee sent a subpoena this fall to the Homeland Security Department seeking documents about the president allegedly offering pardons to government officials who break the law while implementing his immigration agenda. Before abandoning his 2020 presidential bid, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke proposed a constitutional amendment banning presidents from pardoning anyone tied to an investigation involving the president, or for family members.
Democrats in the middle of the current impeachment probe said Trump would only make matters worse for himself if he pardoned any of the former aides ensnared in the Mueller probe.