By Stump Connolly

         It looks to me like Santa came down the chimney at the White House this week and dumped his naughty list on President Trump’s desk for reconsideration.

         The President started handing out pardons and commutations a couple days before Christmas, 20 in all for three Congressmen, two minor functionaries caught up in the Russian investigation, four Blackwater mercenaries who started an unprovoked shootout in Baghdad that killed 17 Iraqi civilians, two border patrol agents who shot an unarmed immigrant, four drug dealers, a Utah county commissioner caught driving an ATV on government land, and a moonshiner rolled up in a 1952 raid on his still.

         Okay, I’ll give you the moonshiner. He’s not likely to go back to his wicked ways. And anybody can lose their way on an ATV in the desert. But the Congressmen? All big Trump supporters, of course. What did they do?

         All Congressman Chris Collins (R-NY) did was pull out his cellphone at a White House picnic to tip his son to a failed FDA drug trial that would adversely affect his biotech company. The son, in turn, used that inside information to sell company stock and avoid a $750,000 loss. But isn’t that par for the course? Certainly no worse than the stock sales Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler made earlier this year after getting briefed on the Coronavirus, and they’re both running for re-election in the Georgia special election.

         Congressmen Duncan Hunter (R-CA) and Steve Stockman (R-TX) engaged in a more garden-variety form of corruption. Duncan took over $200,000 from his campaign funds and spent it on an extramarital affair, overseas vacations, private school for his children and plane tickets for his pet rabbits; and Stockman was serving out a 10-year sentence for a white-collar crime spree that included 23 felony counts of fraud and money laundering involving $1.1 million of campaign funds.

         And Trump was just warming up. The next day, he issued 26 more pardons. The marquee names were Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, once partners in a Washington political consulting firm, who both went to jail after stonewalling investigators in the Mueller Russian probe. Charles Kushner, Jared Kushner’s father, also made the list after serving 14 months in 2005 for tax evasion and witness tampering.

The Pardon Process

         The granting of pardons is one of the more loosey-goosey powers of the presidency. Alexander Hamilton put it in the Constitution as a way for the government to show mercy or correct injustices, but presidents have wide latitude granting clemency and usually take full advantage at the end of their term.

         There is an Office of the Pardon Attorney in the Justice Department that has a budget of $4.5 million and 19 employees to sift through the current 14,000 pardon applications. Trump has largely gone around them to reward allies and supporters. Other presidents have stirred controversy with their pardons. Bill Clinton used his pardon power to erase his brother Roger’s drug conviction. George H.W. Bush used his to exonerate his former Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger and four others involved in the Reagan-era Iran-Contra affair. And Clinton’s controversial pardon of fugitive international trader Marc Rich, whose ex-wife was a major contributor to Hillary’s Senate campaign and the Clinton foundation, prompted a Congressional investigation after he left office.

         But Donald Trump has taken the pardon process to a whole new level, and it’s far from over. Will Rudy Giuliani get a pardon for bad lawyering? Can Saudi Arabian Prince Mohammed bin Salman get a pardon for chopping up a Washington Post columnist with a bone saw? Will Trump give a blanket pardon to his sons, Don Jr. and Eric, his daughter Ivanka and husband Jared for crimes yet to be charged? Will he pardon himself? Is that even possible?

Manafort and Stone

         The pardons for Manafort and Stone are signs of how much Trump values loyalty. Both were central figures in the Russian investigation, and both were found guilty of lying to authorities about what they knew. Stone once boasted of his close relationship to Wikileaks head Julian Assange then dodged Congressional inquiries into his role in Assange’s release a new trove of Democratic emails two hours after the Access Hollywood tapes surfaced.

         Manafort was serving a seven-year sentence for tax charges related to his political work in Ukraine. At one point, he cut a deal with prosecutors to testify about potential Trump campaign connections to Russia in exchange for leniency. Then he tried to co-ordinate his testimony with Trump’s lawyers, and the deal fell apart.

         The government was especially curious about a meeting at the Havana Club in New York where Manafort gave a packet of Trump campaign polling data – some public, some not – to his business partner Konstantin Kilimnik to pass along to Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch, and two other Ukrainian clients. Kilimnik came up through the ranks of the GRU as a translator for Russian intelligence, and Deripaska, a confidante of Vladimir Putin, had a habit of showing up during the campaign in cities where Trump was holding rallies.

         The government knew about the meeting because Rick Gates, Manafort’s deputy campaign manager, took the plea deal and told them he was there. As Gates weighed the government offer, Manafort told him to hold out. “Sit tight,” Manafort said, “We’ll be taken care of later.” So Manafort clammed up, Gates cooperated and Kilimnik fled the country before he could be questioned. He lives today in a $2 million house in a gated community outside Moscow.

The Code of Silence

         During the Mueller probe, The White House used every legal argument in its arsenal to protect the President. Subpoenas, documents and interview requests were routinely rejected as a violation of presidential prerogatives. When Mueller finally got the President to agree to an interview, his lawyers would only allow written questions, and Trump did not answer half of them. In his final report, Mueller cited ten incidents that might constitute obstruction of justice but left it to Congress to pursue charges because of a Justice Department rule against indicting sitting presidents.

         Andrew Weissmann, a senior prosecutor for Mueller, calls the pardons for Stone and Manafort “the final act” in Trump’s obstruction of justice. “The pardons from this President are what you would expect to get if you gave the pardon power to a mob boss.” By not “ratting” out Trump – an expression Trump used in one tweet ­– they earned them.

          “President Trump doesn’t use his pardon power often, but when he does, he abuses the process for all it’s worth,” the New York Times wrote in a Christmas Eve editorial. “Mr. Trump’s stingy, self-serving approach to clemency is due in part to his transactional view of the law as something to be used to punish his enemies and to protect himself his friends and his allies. But it’s a power that is easy to abuse because it is nearly unlimited.”

The King of Medicaid Fraud

         One of Trump’s most puzzling commutations went to Philip Esformes, the owner of a string of nursing homes that swindled Medicare and Medicaid out of $1.3 billion dollars. Last year, a federal judge in Miami sentenced Esformes to 20 years in jail for cycling elderly, destitute and drug-addicted patients through his network of 20 facilities and billing millions of dollars to government programs, often for services never rendered. The judge called it an epic violation of trust “unmatched in our community, if not the country.”

         Trump’s commutation means Esformes will serve less than a year of his sentence. His clemency was sponsored by the Aleph Institute, an organization founded by the Chabad-Lubavitch sect of Hassidic Jews. Jared Kushner attends services at a Chabad temple near his home in Washington, and advocates for Esformes included Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr, attorneys for Trump during his impeachment, who are affiliated with the institute.

         White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany justified the clemency on the grounds that Esformes, who is 52, suffers from declining health and “has been devoted to prayer and repentance.”

         Before he got sick and found God, the Chicago Tribune reported Esformes would fly around in private jets between mansions he owns in Los Angeles and Miami and a luxury condominium on Michigan Ave. He drives a $1.6 million Ferrari Aperta, once chauffeured prostitutes to Orlando for a tryst at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and paid $300,000 to the men’s basketball coach at the University of Pennsylvania to get his son into school there.

         Some 90 percent of the pardons Trump has issued so far have gone to friends of his allies or campaign donors, according to The New York Times. And the holidays have just begun. Over the next three weeks, I’m sure there will be more.

         Donald Trump is going to pardon anyone he wants, for whatever reason he wants, because he can. And they can all celebrate afterwards over dinner on the patio in Mar a Lago.

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