As Donald Trump’s presidency winds down over the next month, so too does his power to issue pardons and commutations.
The ability to set aside federal criminal convictions — even to try and prevent future prosecutions for a federal crime for which someone has not yet been charged — is one of the signature authorities of a president and it has few restrictions. (It does not, however, affect state crimes.)
Dr. Jeffrey Crouch, an American University professor and the author of The Presidential Pardon Power, says that most pardons typically only receive a "passing glance" from the public, because recipients are often lesser-known figures.
But Trump — who has made no secret of his desire to bend federal investigators to his will — has drawn scrutiny for his choice of pardons in a way few if any other presidents have, though past commanders-in-chief have also granted clemency to allies and even relatives.
Some of the most controversial pardons have been saved for the end of a president's term, under the lessened threat of voter and lawmaker backlash.
Indeed, with President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration some five weeks away, Trump has reportedly wondered about pardoning his family, his personal attorney or even trying to give himself a pardon.
“Legally speaking, Trump can pardon his allies and his family,” Courch tells PEOPLE. However, he says, “it would be an abuse of the pardon power if he did so, in my view.”
Since taking office in 2017, Trump has granted 29 pardons and 16 commutations: a mix of reformed convicts and notable figures in the criminal justice reform movement (which has been a rare bipartisan priority for his administration) as well as, more contentiously, his former aides.
A pardon essentially forgives someone of a crime and must be accepted by that person — if pardoned, a person is freed of their federal sentence and related federal liabilities from the crime. A commutation, however, modifies or usually reduces a sentence for a crime without forgiving the underlying conviction.
Neither act is meant to signify the government believes a person is innocent and a pardon does not expunge someone's criminal record.
A pardon is conventionally granted out of recognition for how someone has changed their life after accepting responsibility and the punishment for a crime.
While the government typically advises a president on who and how to pardon or commute a specific case, the Constitution is fairly broad in defining the power. In the case of President Gerald Ford’s treatment of predecessor Richard Nixon, he pardoned Nixon for crimes which had not yet been prosecuted — an untested form of pardoning power. Successor Jimmy Carter likewise pardoned thousands of people who had illegally avoided the Vietnam War draft.
Here are some of the most notable names Trump has pardoned thus far.
Last month, Trump pardoned his former national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, for “any and all possible” crimes connected to the Robert Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Flynn, 61, left his position in the Trump administration less than a month into his 2017 tenure and had faced federal charges for lying to Congress.
The former Trump official had twice pleaded guilty for lying to the FBI before he sought to take back the plea this year, ultimately receiving a pardon from Trump in November.
In July, Trump commuted a 40-month federal sentence of his friend and former adviser Roger Stone — at the same time denouncing the investigation into Russian election interference, a probe that ultimately ensnared Stone, as “witch hunts.”
In an official White House statement at the time, the Trump administration argued Stone, 68, “was treated very unfairly” throughout the investigation and proclaimed, “Roger Stone is now a free man!”
Stone had been sentenced for obstruction, lying to Congress and witness interference.
In April 2018, Trump officially pardoned Scooter Libby, the former chief of staff to former Vice President Dick Cheney, who was charged in 2007 with perjury and obstruction of justice.
Libby, now 70, was convicted for lying to investigators about his role in leaking the identity of a CIA officer, Valerie Plame, whose husband had written critical newspaper columns about the Bush administration.
Former President George W. Bush had commuted Libby’s sentence in 2007, before he left office, but had not issued a full pardon.
Trump’s pardon was celebrated by Cheney and his allies but simultaneously dismissed by critics as an attempt to send a message to other figures caught up in the Mueller investigation.
“[Trump was] saying, ‘If you get in trouble, don’t spill the beans, I’ll take care of you,’ “ Plame told The New York Times in 2018. “This is how the mafia works.”
In February Trump commuted the sentence of disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who had been a contestant on his show The Celebrity Apprentice in 2010.
The commutation cut short Blagojevich’s prison sentence, which he was given for attempting to take bribes in exchange for President Barack Obama’s former Senate seat in Illinois after Obama was elected president in 2008.
Blagojevich, 64, was sentenced to 168 months in prison in 2011.
The former Democratic governor told reporters outside his home that he was now “a Trump-ocrat” and said the president has "got obviously a big fan in me,” NBC News reported in February.
Susan B. Anthony
In a move that was cynically received by some given its campaign-season timing, Trump pardoned U.S. suffragist Susan B. Anthony in August, on the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment.
Anthony, who died in 1906, had been arrested in 1972 and fined $100 for voting before women were legally allowed to do so.
According to the National Susan B. Anthony Museum and House, the suffragist wrote in her diary: “I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty" and the museum said “to pay would have been to validate the proceedings.”
The organization rejected Trump’s pardon on the same premise, writing in a statement at the time that “to pardon Susan B. Anthony does the same" by validating the initial charges against her.
Alice Marie Johnson
Trump granted clemency to Alice Marie Johnson, 65, after a public campaign for mercy — including from Kim Kardashian West, who advocated for Johnson's release in a 2018 Oval Office meeting.
Johnson faced a life sentence for a first-time nonviolent drug offense and had served more than 20 years at an Alabama prison before she was released in June 2018 when Trump commuted her sentence.
The great-grandmother became the face of Trump’s efforts on criminal justice reform, appearing in a Super Bowl ad and speaking at this year's Republican National Convention in support of the president’s re-election bid.
Johnson also wrote a 2019 memoir, with a forward by West, 39.
Also during the 2020 RNC, Trump pardoned activist Jon Ponder.
Ponder, 54, was arrested in 2005 for an armed bank robbery. Since his release, the Nevada native founded an organization, Hope for Prisoners, which helps former prisoners re-enter society.
In a brief speech in a convention video, alongside Trump and Richard Beasley, the FBI agent who arrested Ponder in 2004, Ponder said he was "filled with hope" after having "been given a second chance."
“My hope for America is that formerly incarcerated people will be afforded the opportunity to take advantage of the fact that we live in a nation of second chances,” the activist added.
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