“You scratch my back,” the saying goes, “and I’ll scratch yours… and yours… and yours…”
The latest list of presidential pardons and commutations Tuesday night not only featured a long list of the President’s political allies, but also an even longer list of people who recommended those allies for the greatest gift a president can give.
The prime example was Steve Stockman, the Tea Partying former Texas congressman convicted of 23 felonies — what prosecutors called a “white-collar crime spree.” Stockman spent more than $1 million of donors’ money on personal expenses, including on a bumbling effort to spy on a political opponent and a trip to Egypt.
After his arrest in 2018, Stockman said that the charges against him came from the “deep state” — a potential clarion call to the President. But in the end, it was his connections that proved most valuable: Former congressmen Bob McEwen and Bob Barr endorsed their friend’s release from prison, as did the vocal evangelical Trump supporter James Dobson and L. Brent Bozell, founder of the right-wing Media Research Center.
“Ultimately, Mr. Stockman is lucky to have benefited from the Trump presidency,” the former congressman’s lawyer, Gary Tabakman, told the Houston Chronicle. “In another political environment and under another administration, this may have not been a reality.”
Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told TPM that Stockman’s pardon stuck out for its reliance on political connections.
“As best as I can tell, it really comes down to the fact that a bunch of political allies were pushing for him to be released,” Bookbinder said. “It’s just hard to see that there’s any reason that he’s in the mix, other than that high-profile allies of the President were advocating for him.”
Many of those on Trump’s pardon list Tuesday night had high-powered friends in high places, a fact the White House’s press release made clear by ticking off the names of the Trumpworld figures who advocated on behalf of each recipient of clemency.
Take, for instance, the health care fraudster Alfonso Costa, who’s clemency request was backed by his friend and former business partner, HUD Secretary Ben Carson. Former Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), who defrauded campaign donors, got the public support of the former Federal Elections Commission Chair Bradley Smith.
Some Trump allies apparently didn’t need the recommendations of power players: Former Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY), who committed insider trading literally on camera, had no names listed in support of his pardon. Nor did George Papadopoulos, whose guilty plea resulted from the Mueller probe. Alex van der Zwaan, another Mueller “process-related crime” prosecution (to quote the White House), was listed as having the support of former Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC).
Collins and Hunter, notably, were the first two members of Congress to endorse Trump’s bid for president in 2016.
A fellow victim of “selective prosecution” from the deep state, Utah State Rep. Philip Lyman, received a full pardon of his conviction for leading an ATV protest through archaeologically sensitive lands that the federal government had closed to motor vehicles. The pardon was supported by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT).
Trump, Bookbinder said, “sees the pardon power like he sees a lot of his other powers, as a way to reward friends and allies.” Sometimes, that means pardoning those who’ve helped Trump themselves, he said, “but some of it is giving pardons that allies and friends want. And that’s where these endorsements come in.”
Lower done on the White House pardon list, the lists of recommendations grew longer.
Philip Esformes, the leading figure in one of the largest Medicare fraud-bribery-kickback schemes in U.S. history, received a sentence commutation with the support of two former attorneys general — Edwin Meese and Michael Mukasey — as well as former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson.
And while President George W. Bush had already commuted the sentences of Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean, the former Border Patrol agents convicted of shooting a drug smuggler and attempting to cover up their actions, Trump gave the men full pardons. The White House noted the move was backed by some of the GOP’s fringiest Trump supporter: Reps. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), Steve King (R-IA), Ted Poe (R-TX), Paul Gosar (R-AZ) and Brian Babin (R-TX).
The individuals on Trump’s list with the most support were also those accused of the bloodiest crime: Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, and Dustin Heard, all former Blackwater mercenaries, were convicted for committing the 2007 Nisour Square massacre, killing 14 Iraqi civilians including children.
Or, as the White House put it: “[T]he situation turned violent, which resulted in the unfortunate deaths and injuries of Iraqi civilians.”
Trump has pardoned accused and convicted war criminals before, but these four have special ties: Blackwater founder Erik Prince is an informal Trump adviser with extensive connections inside the administration. His sister is the Education secretary, Betsy DeVos. The pardons were supported by Reps. Gohmert, Gosar, King, Babin, Ralph Norman (R-SC), Bill Flores (R-TX), Michael Burgess (R-TX), Daniel Webster (R-FL) and Ted Yoho (R-FL), the White House noted.
The mercenaries’ was another case, Bookbinder said, “where it seems like connections, beyond the people who were pardoned themselves, may have played a major role.”