“Idiot,” Trump From President Donald Trump’s compassionate heart has come a bundle of pardons. He first extended his presidential grace to Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff convicted of criminal contempt. “I thought he was treated unbelievably unfairly,” Trump said as he granted the pardon. Then he pardoned sailor Kristian Saucier for taking photos inside a classified area of a submarine, stating before the pardon that the Saucier’s treatment had been “very unfair.”
Next, he extinguished Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s perjury conviction from the records. “For years I have heard he was treated unfairly,” the president said as he issued the blessing. “It’s about time,” the president said upon pardoning fighter Jack Johnson, forgetting this time to comment on the unfairness of his treatment. Trump returned fairness to his rhetorical mix this week as he pardoned conservative provocateur Dinesh D’Souza, tweeting, “He was treated very unfairly by our government!”
Trump spoke this week about expanding his mercy to another member of the unfairly treated, Martha Stewart. “I think to a certain extent Martha Stewart was harshly and unfairly treated,” Trump told the White House pool. A commutation of sentence may be in store for former ex-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. “Eighteen years is, I think, really unfair,” Trump said of Blagojevich’s sentence, even though it was really 14 years, but unfair is unfair, right?
With presidential pardons going to everybody outside of Al Capone and the Boston Strangler, Attorney General Jeff Sessions must be wondering when Trump will finally grant him the forgiveness and amnesty he seeks. Ever since Sessions recused himself from the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign in March 2017, the president has brutalized his top cop with a variety of psychological punishments so cruel they deserve inclusion in the next edition of The Big Book of Pain: Torture & Punishment Through History.
“Idiot,” Trump said to Sessions when his recusal led to the appointment of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, demanding his resignation, and then made the unsuccessful demand that Sessions reverse his recusal. A couple of months later he disparaged Sessions as “beleaguered” and “very weak” and added that he would have never appointed him AG had recusal been a possibility. “What would happen if I fired Sessions?” he casually said inside the White House. This week, Trump flew over the Department of Justice and dropped yet another Twitter bomb on Sessions, writing that he wished he had picked a different attorney general. Oh, and he dismissed him as “Mr. Magoo” behind his back. Having all but said that Sessions betrayed him, what does the president have for his attorney general in his inexhaustible queue of abuse? The Pear of Anguish?
A pardon represents an act of forgiveness from the government for a crime and usually carries with it an acknowledgment of guilt from the pardoned. But not in the Trump universe. As many have noted, several of the president’s early pardons look like political weapons designed to protect himself. The Arpaio and D’Souza pardons especially signal to those indicted (and unindicted) in the Mueller investigations that the president doesn’t fear criticism for dispensing unmerited dispensations, that relief will eventually visit the guilty who remain loyal to the president instead of flipping.
Mother Jones‘ David Corn interprets the Libby pardon as an act of retaliation directed at both James Comey who appointed Libby’s prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, and at Fitzgerald, who now represents Comey. The president almost seems to be taunting Comey and Fitzgerald-and by extension, to Mueller-See, how with my presidential powers I can undo the fruits of your investigations and prosecutions? Likewise, the Johnson pardon demonstrates Trump disregard for longstanding Department of Justice pardon policies-in this case that the energies of the pardon process be “living persons who can truly benefit from a grant of clemency”-and illustrates that he’ll pardon anybody he wants any time he wants. The Johnson pardon has the added bonus of also giving Trump a way of thumbing his nose at his political enemies, Presidents Bush and Obama, who declined to absolve the fighter.
Former federal prosecutor Ken “Popehat” White posits a master theory for the pardons. “Trump’s drumbeat narrative [is] that federal law enforcement is corrupt and illegitimate,” he writes, and that prosecutions such as the ones he is overturning with his pardon and the investigation of his campaign are politically motivated. It’s no coincidence that Stewart went down for lying to investigators and Blago got caught obstructing justice, both being raps we associate with the Mueller investigation. In Trump world, these crimes aren’t crimes, they’re examples of political persecution. By pardoning them, he makes it so. Roger Stone-Trump loyalist and potential target of the Mueller probe-delivered similar pardon analysis. “It has to be a signal to Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort and even Robert S. Mueller III: Indict people for crimes that don’t pertain to Russian collusion and this is what could happen,” he said.
Forgiveness-true forgiveness-appears a scant resource in the Trump universe, so Sessions can stop seeking it. During the presidential campaign Trump was asked if he had ever asked God for forgiveness for his sins. (Close observers of Trump know he has never acknowledged doing anything wrong, much less ask for absolution, but we’ll leave that to the theologians for the moment.)
“I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so,” Trump said. “I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”
But don’t pity Sessions. As Eliana Johnson and Annie Karni wrote in Politico this week, he has a force greater than a pardon serving him: Leverage. If Trump fires Sessions, he’s just inviting him to become a friendly witness for Mueller. Even without Sessions’ cooperation, Trump’s nagging of Sessions that unrecuse himself looks like a slice of evidence of obstruction by itself. Now, if he fires Sessions, it will look like obstruction on top of obstruction, and it will be Trump in search of a pardon. Let’s hope the president is still on good terms with Vice President Mike Pence if it comes to that.
According to the Daily Caller, Stefan Halper kept a full dance card, including cutting the rug with the media while he was working as an FBI informant. In addition to surreptitiously interviewing Trump campaign associates Carter Page, Sam Clovis and George Papadopoulos for the FBI to assess their coziness with alleged Russian intelligence assets, Halper also chatted up the press, including the Financial Times. He told the paper for its December 16, 2016, edition that he had quit the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar because of “unacceptable Russian influence on the group.” The Caller also surmises but does not prove that Halper served as an anonymous source for press about Michael Flynn. Retired FBI man and CNN analyst James Gagliano told the Caller that such media contact was unkosher for a source, an asset, or cooperating witness.
Halper sure does get around. Politico‘s Kyle Cheney reported this week that in August 2017 the White House issued a press release on trade in which Halper “issued a glowing assessment of Trump’s decision.” Meanwhile, Axios reported that Trump’s trade guru, Peter Navarro, recommended Halper for one of the U.S. ambassadorships in Asia. Informant or opportunist? I guess it’s a matter of which reflection casts back from the hall of mirrors.
Here’s a great tool from CNN to track the investigation. Send tools to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. When my email alerts look into the mirror, they see my Twitter when what’s really there is my RSS feed.