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President Trump Pushes The Boundaries Of His Pardon Power


Last night, President Trump pardoned or commuted the sentences of 20 people, including some whose cases did not even meet Department of Justice standards for the review that is supposed to proceed a pardon. They include former Republican congressmen convicted of corruption, people who pled guilty in the Russia investigation and security contractors convicted of killing civilians in Iraq.

NPR's Carrie Johnson has been following this one. Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So this is quite a list of people. What names stand out to you?

JOHNSON: Well, first, the names that stand out are four men who worked as contractors for the company called Blackwater. They took part in an incident in Iraq in 2007 in a busy traffic area. They used guns and grenades on a crowd of unarmed civilians. I was in court for their sentencing hearing five years ago. One boy who died named Ali was 9 years old. His mother asked the judge, why did they kill my son? His brother told the court Blackwater came to Iraq as a security company, but it didn't secure anything. This incident really strained international relations. Blackwater, of course, was founded by Erik Prince, a big supporter of President Trump. He's also the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

KING: So we see the president's connections there. There are also the lawmakers - convicted lawmakers. Who are the former members of Congress who the president pardoned?

JOHNSON: There are three Republicans who served in Congress until the Justice Department went after them. Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter of California and Chris Collins of New York were pardoned. And then Trump commuted, or shortened, the sentence of Steve Stockman of Texas. The president said Stockman is 64 years old and he's at higher risk of contracting COVID-19. All of them were brought to justice on charges related to corruption or fraud. President Trump said he'd been lobbied by other members of Congress to show them some mercy.

KING: OK. And then the Russia probe - who did he pardon who was involved in the Russia investigation?

JOHNSON: Noel, President Trump really seems to want to undo all of the work of the special counsel, Robert Mueller. He's already helped some of the other defendants. And then this week, he pardoned George Papadopoulos, who lied to the FBI. Papadopoulos is the young adviser to the Trump campaign who helped jump-start that whole investigation by dragging to - bragging to a diplomat over drinks at a bar. And the White House says that pardon, quote, "helps correct the wrong that Mueller's team inflicted on so many people." Trump also pardoned Alex van der Zwaan, a lawyer who lied to the FBI in the course of the investigation.

KING: Notably, there is still almost a month before Trump leaves office. Should we expect more pardons before Joe Biden is inaugurated?

JOHNSON: Absolutely. There are likely to be more pardons of people behind bars for drug crimes, people who are supported by nonprofit groups that advocate for prisoners who they say deserve a second chance. But they're also likely going to be more pardons that are extremely politically sensitive. Reports from the White House suggest Trump could pardon people connected to his company or his family members or even try to pardon himself. There are very few limits on a president's power to issue these pardons. Trump has pushed the limits for nearly four years. There's no reason to think he's going to stop now.

KING: Today, it's worth noting, is a day at the Department of Justice. It's the last day of Attorney General Bill Barr's tenure. Who is in charge at the DOJ once he leaves?

JOHNSON: The deputy attorney general, Jeffrey Rosen, will be at the wheel for the final weeks of the Trump presidency at the Justice Department. He's going to be under a lot of pressure from the White House. Trump wants him to appoint special counsels, a prosecutor to look at Trump's baseless claims of election fraud. And Trump also wants a special prosecutor to look at the taxes of President-elect Joe Biden's son Hunter. The U.S. attorney in Delaware is already doing that. And Bill Barr told reporters this week there's no basis to appoint extra special prosecutors. He thinks the investigation's being handled responsibly. We will see if his successor, Jeffrey Rosen, can resist some of that intense criticism that is likely to come at him from President Trump in the next month.

KING: Carrie Johnson covers the Department of Justice.

Thanks, Carrie.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.
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