By Michael Biesecker, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — There’s a common thread among the 11 felons who found favor with President Donald Trump this week — all who were pardoned or set free had advocates among the president’s wealthy friends and political allies.
In at least some cases, including former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and ‘80s junk-bond king Michael Milken, Trump has personal relationships with those he granted clemency. In three others he drew on the recommendations of a Tennessee grandmother he’d previously granted clemency at the urging of reality-TV star Kim Kardashian West.
“I rely on recommendations, very importantly,” Trump said Tuesday as he announced his decisions.
But, as with other aspects of Trump’s presidency, the president has veered from institutional norms. Historically, those recommended for presidential pardons are vetted through a formal process in which their petitions are reviewed by a team of Justice Department lawyers. In those past cases, typically there has been either strong evidence of wrongful conviction or the offenders have expressed remorse for their crimes and spent decades making amends.
Tuesday’s announcement from the White House instead often sought to minimize the severity of the crimes that had been committed, and listed the names of GOP mega-donors, celebrities and Fox News personalities who had advocated for the felons to get a break.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said his client, former Symplicity Corp. CEO Ariel Friedler, was pardoned after he personally vouched for the businessman during a call with Trump on Friday. A former federal prosecutor and cable-news regular, Christie said it was the only time he discussed Friedler’s case with Trump.
“’Are you convinced he’s a really good guy?’” Christie, a Republican, says Trump asked him, recounting the conversation Tuesday in an interview with NJ Advance Media. Friedler pleaded guilty in 2014 to conspiring to hack into the computer systems of one of his business competitors, serving two months in prison.
“Yes, Mr. President,” Christie says he replied. “Mr. President, he got treated wrong and you can help right it.’”
Also on the pardon list was Edward DeBartolo Jr., the former owner of the San Francisco 49ers pro football franchise, convicted in a riverboat gambling licensing scandal. In its media release, the White House touted the “unprecedented 13 division titles and 5 Super Bowl Championships” won by Debartolo’s teams as well as the money the billionaire has given to charity. The MVPs of DeBartolo’s pardon hunt included a roster of Hall of Fame players, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and New Englands Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who recently had his own scrape with the law.
Critics of Trump’s clemency actions, including some members of the president’s own party, said Wednesday that Trump was undercutting federal prosecutors who seek to hold the powerful accountable, especially those who betrayed the public’s trust.
David Safavian, a former high-ranking official at the General Services Administration, was pardoned by Trump despite felony convictions for making false statements and obstructing an investigation tied to the probe into the activities of disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Walter Shaub, who resigned as director of the federal Office of Government Ethics in 2017 after butting heads with Trump, noted Wednesday that training materials used for instructing federal employees on ethics have long included a cautionary photo of Safavian on a Scottish golf junket with Abramoff and former GOP Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, who was also later convicted on corruption charges.
“The training materials will now have to be updated: ‘POTUS says this is fine,’” Shaub wrote on Twitter.
According to the White House, among those who advocated for Safavian’s pardon was Doug Deason, a Dallas investor who serves on the finance committee of the pro-Trump America First Action PAC. Deason and his billionaire father have donated more than $1 million in support of the president, according to campaign finance records.
Also pardoned was former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who pleaded guilty to eight felony charges that included tax fraud and making false statements stemming from lying to the George W. Bush White House while being interviewed to serve as Homeland Security secretary.
DOJ records show President Barack Obama previously denied a request from Kerik to have his sentence commuted. Released from prison after a three-year stretch, Kerik now serves as a regular pro-Trump commentator on Fox News.
Among those who advocated for Kerik was his old boss, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is now Trump’s personal lawyer. In a quirk of fate, Giuliani also served as the top federal prosecutor in New York City in 1989, when his office charged Milken with 98 felony counts that included racketeering, insider trading and securities fraud.
Milken’s billionaire advocates included casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, who are ranked as the largest individual donors to Republicans, accounting for more than $200 million in publicly disclosed donations to GOP candidates and political action committees in 2016 and 2018. Groups directly supporting Trump got at least $30 million of that money.
In October 2018, the Adelsons gave another $500,000 to help pay the legal expenses of Trump aides caught up in the Mueller investigation into whether the president’s 2016 campaign colluded with the Russians. The White House announced a month later that Trump would award Miriam Adelson a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
The Adelsons were at the White House on election night that year, watching with Trump and a small group of GOP mega donors as the results came in. Though his own political giving has been comparatively modest, Milken was also in attendance, according to multiple media reports.
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Also vouching for Milken was Tom Barrack, a longtime Trump confidant and the chairman of the president’s inaugural committee, and Fox News personality Maria Bartiromo.
Trump also pardoned Texas construction magnate Paul Pogue, who pleaded guilty in 2010 to filing a false tax return and was sentenced to three years in prison. Campaign finance records show Pogue’s son, Ben Pogue, donated $85,000 last year to Trump Victory, the joint fundraising committee for the president’s reelection campaign and the Republican National Committee. Ben Pogue also maxed out to the Trump presidential campaign, giving $5,600 in August.
Pogue’s advocates included former GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum and current Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. Records show both have received political support and cash from the Pogues.
Far from showing contrition for their crimes, several of those Trump picked for clemency have continued to make claims of prosecutorial persecution that echo the president’s own complaints about investigations into his conduct.
“I didn’t do the things they said I did and they lied on me,” Blagojevich, who was impeached and removed from office by the Illinois Senate in a bipartisan 59-0 vote, said early Wednesday. He served a little over half of a 14-year sentence for trying to sell Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat.
Trump on Tuesday called Blagojevich’s sentence “ridiculous” while erroneously asserting that former FBI director and frequent Trump target James Comey played a role in prosecuting the former Illinois governor. The president also said he had decided to free the disgraced Democrat previously fired from his “Celebrity Apprentice” reality show after seeing his wife appear on television.
“They are trying to undo elections and play politics instead of doing what they are supposed to do,” Patti Blagojevich said on Fox News in 2018. “It takes a strong leader like President Trump to right these wrongs.”
Blagojevich’s release drew bipartisan criticism from elected leaders in his native Illinois.
“In a state where corrupt, machine-style politics is still all too common, it’s important that those found guilty serve their prison sentence in its entirety,” said state GOP chair Tim Schneider in a rare Republican rebuke of the president.
Also pardoned was Angela Stanton, book author and cast member of the BET reality show “From the Bottom Up.” She served six months of home confinement in 2007 sentence for her role in a stolen vehicle ring. In recent years, Stanton has frequently appeared in conservative media advocating for sentencing reform, and was a speaker at the 2018 Women for Trump conference. Her clemency request was supported by Alveda King, a niece of the slain civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King and a Fox News contributor.
Not all those granted clemency by Trump on Tuesday were wealthy or famous.
Tynice Nichole Hall, Crystal Munoz and Judith Negron were nonviolent federal offenders serving long sentences commuted by Trump, ensuring their early release.
All had their cases championed by Alice Johnson, a Tennessee grandmother convicted on felony drug and money laundering charges in 1996. She was released from prison in June 2018 after Kardashian West asked Trump to grant her clemency. Johnson said the president had been looking specifically for female candidates, and had asked her for a list of other women who deserved clemency.
Johnson, Hall and Munoz had all previously had commutation requests denied by Obama.
Johnson’s story was featured earlier this month in an ad for Trump’s reelection campaign that aired on Fox during the Super Bowl at a reported cost of $11 million.
“I’m free to hug my family. I’m free to start over,” an emotional Johnson says in the ad, which includes footage of the moments after she walked out of prison. “I want to thank President Donald John Trump!”
The ad was widely seen as an attempt by Trump to court black voters, who overwhelmingly have supported Democratic presidential candidates in recent decades.
White House spokesman Hogan Gidley denied that the president had any political motives in choosing who gets clemency.
“The president is clearly against excessive sentencing, whether it’s Rod Blagojevich or Alice Johnson,” Gidley said. “He does this because he wants to right wrongs.”
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in Washington, Michael Tarm in Chicago and Paul J. Weber in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.
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