Presidential Pardons, Compared

What is a presidential pardon or commutation? Who has been pardoned? How have past presidents used this power? Learn more about this Article II power.
President Donald Trump signs an executive order (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

President Donald Trump signs an executive order (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

What is a pardon?

A presidential pardon clears a convicted criminal of the consequences of their federal crime, including any remaining incarceration, any fines, any probation. A pardoned felon can vote in jurisdictions where a felon who has completed a sentence cannot; the same is true with running for office or owning a firearm.

Article II of the Constitution gives the president the power to “grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of impeachment,” an exception which has probably never seemed more relevant. The one thing a pardon cannot do is exonerate or clear the pardoned of guilt. According to a 1915 Supreme Court case, Burdick v. United States, the acceptance of a pardon is an admission of guilt, something former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio found out on live TV after accepting his pardon from President Donald Trump.

What is a commutation?

A sentence commutation, or clemency, means that the person convicted of a crime does not have to serve out the full sentence imposed by the court, but other consequences, like probation requirements and prohibitions for felons remain. On February 18, 2020, Trump commuted the 14-year prison sentence of former Illinois governor and “Celebrity Apprentice” contestant Rod Blagojevich. He was convicted in 2011 of 17 federal charges, including those related to trying to sell President Obama’s former senate seat. After leveraging a government asset for personal gain, a quid pro quo strikingly similar to that for which the House impeached Trump, Blagojevich was impeached and removed by the Illinois state legislature prior to his federal trial.

Though Blagojevich was let go from the prison that same day, he will still be subject to supervised release, and all other restrictions for convicted felons remain in place. He also has to comply with all the requirements of released convicted criminals under supervision of the federal court, including remaining in the jurisdiction of the court, submitting to DNA tests, submitting to drug tests, getting a job or performing community service and no commit any crimes. Unlike a pardon, which would remove the specter of a return to prison, a commutation only ends the incarceration.

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History of presidential pardons.

A president has nearly absolute power to pardon anyone except himself–though that’s yet to be tested–for any federal crime. Sometimes a tool for smoothing relations, sometimes a tool to right wrongs, and sometimes a tool for self-interest, pardons have a colorful history. Only two presidents issued no pardons or commutations: William Henry Harrison, who died of illness 31 days into his term; and James Garfield, who was assassinated a little more than six months into his term.

The pardoning power was first used in 1795 by George Washington, with the very first two of the new nation going to John Mitchell and Philip Weigel, both convicted of treason for their part in the Whiskey Rebellion. James Buchannan used the offer of pardon to those willing to submit to US authority to quell tensions with the Mormon community in Utah in 1858, a conflict referred to as the Utah War. In 1862, Abraham Lincoln pardoned 265 of 303 Dakota Native Americans condemned to death for the Dakota Conflict. Along with pardoning all confederate soldiers, Andrew Johnson also pardoned Samuel A. Mudd, a doctor convicted of conspiracy in Lincoln’s assassination.

Cronies benefit from pardons, too. Harry S. Truman pardoned former Boston mayor James Michael Curley for his mail fraud conviction. Gerald Ford infamously pardoned Richard Nixon, preventing any prosecution after Nixon left office. Ronald Reagan pardoned Yankees owner George M. Steinbrenner III for his conviction for making illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon.

George H. W. Bush pardoned six felons from Ronald Reagan’s administration convicted for their roles in the secret arms-sales conspiracy known as the Iran-Contra affair. Bill Clinton pardoned his half-brother, Roger, for drug charges. George W. Bush commuted the sentence of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, his vice president Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff–and one time Special Counsel to Nixon–for outing CIA agent Valerie Plame.

President Obama used his power of pardon and clemency largely for nonviolent drug offenders. He also commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, convicted of leaking protected materials to Wikileaks. Overall he pardoned 212 people and commuted the sentences of 1,715 more.

While other presidents generally follow a protocol within the Department of Justice, it is unclear that Trump is doing so with his pardons. He’s pardoned people with authority accused of abusing it, like former Sheriff Arpaio and Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher, who was convicted of war crimes. He commuted the sentence of Blagojevich, convicted for leveraging a government asset for personal gain, which Trump was also accused of doing. And he’s pardoned financial criminals, some legendary in the scope of their crimes, including Michael Milken with whom Trump had a personal relationship.

Overall, for Trump, pardons seem to come for cruelty, people he knows, and or for crimes similar to ones of which he’s been accused. More notable isn’t how many he’s granted, but rather how few and how selectively in comparison to other presidents.

Presidential pardons and commutations compared.

Compare pardons (P), clemency (C) and remissions (R). Remissions are a clearing of fines not already paid.

The specific grants of pardon and clemency for each president. 

The Rantt Rundown

A presidential pardon cleans the slate for a convicted felon, aside from the admission of guilt in accepting the pardon. Clemency commutes or shortens a sentence without erasing other conditions, like probation, voting or gun ownership provisions. Presidents have nearly absolute power to grant pardons, though it’s widely accepted a president cannot pardon himself. All presidents have used their power of pardons, aside from the two died early into their terms, sometimes with great controversy, sometimes with an aim to smooth things over. While Trump is not alone in using the pardoning power, he does seem unique in terms of his application and the select few pardoned, many with personal ties to him.

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Rantt 101 // Barack Obama / Donald Trump / Executive Power / Pardons