POTUS Pardons follow a pattern

Trump’s clemency spree shows white-collar felons it’s more about who you know than what you did

via WaPo Daily 202 – By James Hohmann with Mariana Alfaro

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Billionaire investor Nelson Peltz hosted a fundraiser at his $95 million home in Florida on Saturday night that raised $10 million for President Trump’s reelection campaign. On Tuesday, the White House listed Peltz in a news release as one of the people supporting Trump’s pardon of Michael Milken.

Milken, “the junk bond king” who inspired Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” character in the movie “Wall Street,” served two years in prison after pleading guilty in 1990 to six felony counts, including securities fraud, mail fraud and aiding in the filing of a false tax return.

Other megadonors, including casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, were also on the White House’s list of individuals supporting the Milken pardon. So was the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, as well as Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo and Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) were among the 33 names listed. Steven Mnuchin was not on the list, but the Wall Street Journal notes that Milken has cultivated a friendship with the Treasury secretary and even flew him from Washington to California last year on his private jet.

“You know, oftentimes — pretty much all the time — I really rely on the recommendations of people that know them,” Trump told reporters as he prepared to board Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews. He was explaining why, and how, he’d just issued seven pardons and four commutations.The big-name endorsements rolled out by the White House press office gave the distinct impression that these presidential decisions to show mercy were driven as much by whom the convicted felons know as what they were convicted for.

The head of the Justice Department’s pardon office during the first two years of the Trump administration told The Washington Post recently that he quit last year because the White House largely ignored the formal process in favor of taking recommendations from celebrities, political allies and Fox News.

Ariel Friedler is one of the least famous beneficiaries of Trump’s Tuesday pardons. The former chief executive of Simplicity pleaded guilty in 2014 to conspiring to hack into the computer systems of two competitors to improve his company’s software development and sales strategy. Chris Christie, who advises the president, also takes on legal clients. Friedler is one of them. Records show Friedler never even applied to the pardon office at the Justice Department. But the White House listed the former New Jersey governor as someone supporting Trump’s full pardon.

Edward DeBartolo Jr., the billionaire former owner of the San Francisco 49ers, pleaded guilty in 1998 for failing to tell authorities when ex-Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards (D) sought a bribe for a riverboat casino license. On the White House’s list of individuals advocating for his pardon were New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Both of them gave a million bucks to Trump’s inaugural committee.

The president also pardoned David Safavian, a senior official in the George W. Bush administration who was convicted of obstructing a federal investigation and making false statements related to his dealings with the lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Abramoff took him on a luxury golf trip to Scotland and London, and Safavian helped him with business before the General Services Administration. Safavian now works for the American Conservative Union Foundation and frequently tweets support for the president. His list of endorsers includes Republican lobbyist Matt Schlapp, who chairs the American Conservative Union, and his wife Mercedes Schlapp, who works on the president’s reelection campaign and spent nearly two years as the director of strategic communications in the Trump White House.

Former New York police commissioner Bernie Kerik went to prison for tax fraud and lying to White House officials when George W. Bush was preparing to nominate him to be secretary of homeland security. Kerik would later withdraw. His pardon was pushed for by Giuliani, who was Kerik’s boss as mayor of New York. Fox News personalities Andrew Napolitano and Geraldo Rivera were also named by the White House as advocates. So was attorney Sidney Powell, who represents former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn.

The president seems to have something of a soft spot for white-collar criminals. For someone who has spent months professing to be so profoundly concerned about corruption in Ukraine, Trump signaled with these pardons and commutations that he’s far less worried about taking a hard line against corruption here at home.

Here are four other takeaways from Trump’s latest announcements:

1) Fox News remains immensely influential. 

As he explained why he commuted former Democratic Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich’s sentence, Trump told reporters: “I watched his wife on television.”

Patti Blagojevich made at least seven appearances over the past two years on Fox News, appearing on the shows of Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Jeanine Pirro, to praise the president and plead for his mercy. (Blagojevich was also a contestant on Trump’s show “The Celebrity Apprentice” in 2010.)

Kerik, a frequent Mar-a-Lago guest, appeared on Fox News as recently as Monday night.

Angela Stanton was pardoned for her role in a car-stealing ring. The former “Real Housewives of Atlanta” star has previously appeared on Fox News, where she’s praised the president.

2) The perceived enemy of Trump’s enemy is his friend.

The president said the 14-year prison sentence for Blagojevich, who was caught on a wiretap talking about trying to sell Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat to the highest bidder, was “ridiculous.”

“It was a prosecution by the same people – Comey, Fitzpatrick – the same group,” Trump told reporters on Tuesday. Last year, Trump also falsely blamed Blagojevich’s treatment on “the Comey gang and all these sleazebags.”

In fact, however, former FBI director James Comey was in the private sector during Blagojevich’s prosecution. And “Fitzpatrick” seems to be a mistaken reference to Patrick Fitzgerald, who as U.S. attorney in Chicago did prosecute Blagojevich and is indeed good friends with Comey.

3) Trump is clearly not going to let up his attacks on the Justice Department.

Trump is deeply animated by his sense of grievance and victimhood. He told reporters on Tuesday as he discussed the pardons that he partially agreed with Attorney General Bill Barr that his tweets about active criminal cases do make his job more difficult. But he said that won’t stop him. “Social media, for me, has been very important because it gives me a voice,” said Trump, who as president controls the biggest bully pulpit in the world and has an enormous press corps that hangs on his every word.

Trump doesn’t appear to see himself as “above the law.” Instead, he seems to believe he is the law. “I’m allowed to be totally involved,” he told reporters, as he defended his tweets about the case of his longtime adviser Roger Stone. “I’m actually, I guess, the chief law enforcement officer of the country. But I’ve chosen not to be involved.”

The president clearly feels emboldened by the Senate’s vote to acquit him. “The pardons and commutations followed Trump’s moves to punish witnesses in his impeachment trial, publicly intervene in a pending legal case to urge leniency for a friend, attack a federal judge, accuse a juror of bias and threaten to sue his own government for investigating him,” Toluse Olorunnipa and Beth Reinhard report.

Barr has told people close to Trump — both inside and outside the White House — that he is considering quitting over Trump’s tweets about Justice Department investigations, three administration officials told Matt Zapotosky, Josh Dawsey, John Wagner and Rachel Weiner: “So far, Trump has defied Barr’s requests, both public and private, to keep quiet on matters of federal law enforcement. It was not immediately clear Tuesday whether Barr had made his posture known directly to Trump. The administration officials said Barr seemed to be sharing his position with advisers in hopes the president would get the message that he should stop weighing in publicly on the Justice Department’s ongoing criminal investigations. ‘He has his limits,’ said one person familiar with Barr’s thinking …

“The standoff between Trump and Barr intensified Tuesday when Trump declared in a string of early morning tweets that he might sue those involved in the special counsel investigation into his 2016 campaign and suggested that [Stone], his friend convicted of lying to Congress in that probe, deserved a new trial. Hours later, a Justice Department official said prosecutors had filed a sealed motion in court arguing the opposite and that they had Barr’s personal approval to do so. Barr had a previously scheduled lunch with the White House counsel Tuesday and was still the attorney general by day’s end — indicating that the president’s moves that day were not enough to push him to resign.”

4) Follow the money.

“Paul Pogue, a construction company owner who pleaded guilty to underpaying his taxes by $473,000 and received three years probation, was issued a full pardon and clemency by the president,” the Daily Beast notes. “According to FEC filings, Pogue’s family has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in direct contributions and in-kind air travel to the Trump Victory Committee. Beginning in August 2019, Ben Pogue—CEO of Pogue Construction and son of Paul Pogue—and his wife Ashleigh made over $200,000 in contributions to the campaign.

“In August alone, Ben Pogue donated $85,000 to Trump Victory while Ashleigh Pogue contributed $50,000 that month. The following month, Ben Pogue made an in-kind air travel contribution of $75,404.40. The couple also made several large donations to the Republican National Committee and each donated $5,600 to Donald Trump for President Inc. On the day of their first donation to the Trump campaign, Ashleigh posted an Instagram photo of her and her husband posing with Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, at the Hamptons.

“Prior to the Pogues’ sudden significant donating spree to Trump and the Republicans, the couple was not seen as big campaign spenders, having donated a few thousand dollars for Paul Ryan’s congressional campaign in 2017 and $5,400 for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s 2016 Republican presidential run. Notably, one of the advocates for Pogue’s clemency: Santorum, who is now a CNN contributor.”

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