- President Donald Trump’s longtime fixer and lawyer, Michael Cohen, was sentenced to three years in prison on December 12.
- Another Trump associate, his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, is facing at least a decade behind bars.
- The Constitution grants the president sweeping powers to pardon people or grant clemency.
- Trump has granted clemency to nine people so far, and he could pardon either Manafort or Cohen if he chose.
President Donald Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, was sentenced on December 12 to three years in prison for what a federal judge called a “smorgasbord of fraudulent conduct.”
Cohen pleaded guilty to a slew of crimes, including tax evasion, bank fraud, lying to Congress about his role in a plan to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, and lying to Congress about payments he made in 2016 to two women who allege they had affairs with the president.
Cohen’s guilty plea and sentencing once again raises questions over Trump’s clemency strategy for his former associates convicted of crimes. In Cohen’s case, a pardon or commutation appears highly unlikely, given the abrupt about-face his relationship with Trump has taken in the last year.
Trump even tweeted on December 3 that he believed Cohen deserved to do hard prison time.
“‘Michael Cohen asks judge for no Prison Time.’ You mean he can do all of the TERRIBLE, unrelated to Trump, things having to do with fraud, big loans, Taxis, etc., and not serve a long prison term?” he said. “He lied for his outcome and should, in my opinion, serve a full and complete sentence.”
But the possibility remains open for Paul Manafort, the former chairman of Trump’s presidential campaign who was convicted last August of tax fraud, bank fraud, and failing to report foreign bank accounts. He’s due to be sentenced in February 2019, and has also pleaded guilty to to two conspiracy charges.
Manafort faces at least 10 years in prison for his crimes, and Trump has publicly sympathized with him, fuelling speculation that a pardon is possible.
“I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family. ‘Justice’ took a 12 year old tax case, among other things, applied tremendous pressure on him and, unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to ‘break’ – make up stories in order to get a ‘deal,'” Trump tweeted in August. “Such respect for a brave man!”
Pardons are a form of executive clemency granted to the president by the Constitution – and that power is sweeping.
Trump can decide carte blanche to legally forgive or free anyone, so long as the crimes were federal ones.
Pardons essentially forgive people who have been convicted of crimes, removing any remaining punishments and restoring their rights. Commutations, on the other hand, merely reduce a prisoner’s sentence.
If Trump pardoned Manafort, the move would fall in line with the president’s recent trend of granting clemency to political allies, as well as people who have been championed by conservative media, prominent Republicans, or celebrities.
Here’s who Trump has granted clemency to in the past.
Dwight and Steven Hammond
Trump pardoned Oregon cattle ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond in July, both of whom were serving five-year prison sentences for arson.
The ranchers had long clashed with the federal government over public land, and the length of their sentences infuriated many conservatives, who saw the prosecutions as an example of federal overreach.
The Hammonds’ cases even sparked the controversy that led to a 41-day standoff in 2016 at Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by a group of armed protesters who argued that federal control of public lands was unconstitutional.
In a statement, the White House noted that Dwight and Steven Hammond had already served three and four years in prison, respectively, and had paid $US400,000 to the federal government in a related civil case.
“The Hammonds are devoted family men, respected contributors to their local community, and have widespread support from their neighbours, local law enforcement, and farmers and ranchers across the West,” the White House said.
Alice Marie Johnson
Trump granted his second-ever commutation to Alice Marie Johnson in June, freeing the 63-year-old grandmother and great-grandmother from a life sentence in prison.
Johnson was given the sentence in 1996 over non-violent drug offenses she had committed several years earlier. Her case received nationwide attention in recent months after the reality-television star Kim Kardashian West championed her release and paid a visit to Trump in a high-profile White House meeting last week.
“Ms. Johnson has accepted responsibility for her past behaviour and has been a model prisoner over the past two decades. Despite receiving a life sentence, Alice worked hard to rehabilitate herself in prison, and act as a mentor to her fellow inmates,” the White House said in a statement. “While this Administration will always be very tough on crime, it believes that those who have paid their debt to society and worked hard to better themselves while in prison deserve a second chance.”
Johnson’s daughter Catina Scales told Business Insider the Wednesday afternoon she was en route to pick up her mother from the Aliceville correctional facility in Alabama, where Johnson was released.
“I have been literally shaking ever since I heard this news – this is the best present anyone could have gave me in my life,” Scales said. “Nothing will ever trump this feeling.”
Trump granted an unexpected pardon to the conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza in May.
D’Souza pleaded guilty in 2014 to illegally using straw donors in 2012 to donate to a Republican Senate candidate in New York. He used the straw donors to funnel his funds to the candidate under their names to try and get around campaign finance laws.
Though D’Souza fully admitted to knowingly violating the law, he lashed out at prosecutors at the time, arguing he was being singled out because of his conservative beliefs.
Though he was spared prison time, D’Souza was sentenced to five years of probation and a $US30,000 fine. A pardon relieved D’Souza of any remaining punishments stemming from his conviction, and would restore certain rights, such as his right to vote.
Trump granted a rare posthumous pardon on May 24 to Jack Johnson, the American heavyweight boxing champion who died in 1946 and was convicted in 1913 of taking his white girlfriend across state lines.
Johnson’s conviction reeked of racism and injustice at the height of the Jim Crow era. An all-white jury found Johnson guilty of violating the White Slave Traffic Act, also known as the Mann Act, which criminalized transporting women across state lines “for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.”
Johnson’s conviction and one-year prison sentence has prompted debate for years – and Trump is not the first president to consider a pardon.
Former President Barack Obama faced the same decision, but his Justice Department recommended against one, so as to focus more on pardons that could benefit living people, a former Obama administration official told The New York Times.
Johnson’s case received a recent publicity boost from the actor Sylvester Stallone, who visited the Oval Office to watch Trump sign the pardon.
Lewis “Scooter” Libby
Trump in April pardoned Scooter Libby, a former Bush administration official convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice after a special prosecutor’s investigation into the 2003 leak of the CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity.
Libby was originally sentenced to 30 months in prison, but former President George W. Bush commuted it. Despite intense pressure from his vice president Dick Cheney, who had hired Libby as his chief of staff, Bush declined to grant Libby a pardon, as well.
Trump said in a statement announcing the pardon that he didn’t know Libby, but “for years I have heard that he has been treated unfairly.”
Libby’s case contained echoes of Trump’s own legal battles – the president is the subject of a similar probe by a special counsel, Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian election interference and possible coordination with the Trump campaign.
In March, Trump pardoned Kristian Saucier, a former Navy sailor who took photos of classified areas inside a nuclear submarine in 2009. Saucier pleaded guilty in 2016 and served one year in prison.
He has previously said he took the photos merely as mementos for his military service. But federal prosecutors accused him of undermining national security by taking the photos, and then obstructing the investigation by destroying a laptop and camera.
Conservative media outlets such as Fox News had compared Saucier’s case with that of Hillary Clinton, who used a private email server while she was secretary of state but was never prosecuted.
Trump used Saucier’s case during his 2016 presidential campaign as a means to portray the perceived double standard of Saucier’s treatment by federal investigators with that of Clinton’s.
“Now you can go out and have the life you deserve!” Trump tweeted after granting Saucier’s pardon.
In late 2017, Trump issued his first commutation to Sholom Rubashkin, an Iowa meatpacking executive convicted of bank fraud in 2009 and sentenced to 27 years in prison.
Rubashkin had served eight years by the time Trump commuted his sentence and set him free.
Unlike Trump’s other clemencies, the decision to commute Rubashkin’s sentence had earned widespread bipartisan support, including from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah.
Rubashkin’s clemency bid also received the support of more than 100 legal professionals, including US attorneys general and federal judges.
They argued in a letter to Trump that Rubashkin was a first-time, non-violent offender who received a much tougher sentence than many people sentenced to “murder, kidnapping, sexual abuse, child pornography, and numerous other offenses exponentially more serious than his.”
In August 2017, Trump gave his first-ever pardon to Joe Arpaio, the bombastic former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona.
The 85-year-old ex-lawman is best known for illegally detaining Latinos and keeping inmates in brutal jail conditions during his 24-year tenure as sheriff. His aggressive tactics ultimately led to a criminal conviction after he violated a court order to stop racially profiling Latinos.
Arpaio had been an early and vocal supporter of Trump during his presidential campaign, often parroting Trump’s hardline stance on immigration, so the move was widely expected.
Yet it was still an unusual pardon, as Arpaio had not even been sentenced at the time. Though Trump may pardon whomever he wishes, people who petition for presidential pardons are told by the Justice Department to wait at least five years after completing their prison sentences before they file applications.
Who could be next?
Trump has also weighed pardons and commutations for a variety of other high-profile cases.
He told reporters in May he was considering pardoning Martha Stewart and commuting the sentence of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois in a string of clemency announcements he unexpectedly made in June.
A jury found Stewart guilty in 2004 of obstructing justice and lying to investigators about the reasons she sold shares of a company. She served five months in prison.
Blagojevich is serving a 14-year prison sentence after being convicted of corruption stemming from a scheme to sell the Senate seat left vacant by Barack Obama, who was elected president in 2008. Blagojevich is not eligible for release until 2024.
The Constitution is quite sweeping in granting presidents the power to pardon, so Trump can pretty much decide carte blanche to legally forgive or free anyone who’s been convicted of a federal crime.
“He shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment,” Article II, Section 2 reads.
If Trump chose to, he could pardon Manafort or Cohen.
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