The White House on Wednesday announced full pardons for another slate of Donald Trump allies and friends, including former campaign advisers Roger Stone and Paul Manafort, plus Charles Kushner, the father of Mr Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner.
The first two men faced charges stemming from the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in US politics, and neither cooperated with the special counsel.
In 2019, Mr Stone, a longtime Republican operative and informal adviser during the president’s campaign, was convicted on seven counts alleging he lied to Congress about communicating with WikiLeaks, tampered with witnesses, and obstructed justice in a House intelligence committee investigation into the president’s 2016 campaign. Earlier this year, the president granted Mr Stone clemency, letting him avoid prison time.
Meanwhile, Mr Manafort, who briefly led the Trump campaign, previously pleaded guilty to tax and financial fraud relating to his work for Ukraine’s former pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovych, crimes not directly related to the Russia scandal but still charged through the special counsel’s office.
The president’s former campaign leader, 71, spent two years in prison, including a stretch of time in solitary confinement, before being released to home confinement in May due to coronavirus concerns. He thanked the president in an emotional announcement on Twitter.
“Mr. President, my family & I humbly thank you for the Presidential Pardon you bestowed on me,” Mr Manafort wrote. “Words cannot fully convey how grateful we are.”
Mr. President, my family & I humbly thank you for the Presidential Pardon you bestowed on me. Words cannot fully convey how grateful we are.
— Paul Manafort (@PaulManafort) December 24, 2020
Despite the painstakingly detailed evidence of unsavoury contacts between the Trump inner circle and Russia contained in the 448-page Mueller report, the White House used the pardon announcement to continue raging against the investigation as a “Russian collusion hoax”.
“As a result of blatant prosecutorial overreach, Mr Manafort has endured years of unfair treatment and is one of the most prominent victims of what has been revealed to be perhaps the greatest witch hunt in American history,” the office of the White House press secretary wrote in a statement announcing the pardons. It also added, in regards to Mr Stone: “Pardoning him will help to right the injustices he faced at the hands of the Mueller investigation.”
Michael Cohen, the president’s former lawyer and fixer, who the Mueller team charged in 2018 for lying about a Trump Tower real estate project in Russia, lamented that he was never pardoned, even though he cooperated with various authorities.
“What happened tonight shows how broken the whole criminal justice system is. Despite me and family being threatened by @POTUS @realDonaldTrump, I still cooperated with a dozen federal/state agencies, Mueller, Congress…and all these criminals receive #pardons. This is wrong!” he wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.
What happened tonight shows how broken the whole criminal justice sustem is. Despite me and family being threatened by @POTUS @realDonaldTrump, I still cooperated with a dozen federal/state agencies, Mueller, Congress…and all these criminals receive #pardons. This is wrong!
— Michael Cohen (@MichaelCohen212) December 24, 2020
Lawmakers of both parties and ethics experts were dismayed at how the president was using the pardon power to aid his close associates.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg of the damage Donald Trump will do to our democracy in his remaining days as president,” Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, wrote on Twitter. “Every Senate Republican who has enabled his escalating abuse of power for the last 4 years is responsible for this.”
This is just the tip of the iceberg of the damage Donald Trump will do to our democracy in his remaining days as president. Every Senate Republican who has enabled his escalating abuse of power for the last 4 years is responsible for this. https://t.co/2EOyuKbJFx
— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) December 24, 2020
In regards to the pardons for the former Trump advisers, Ben Sasse, a Republican senator from Nebraska, told the Wall Street Journal , “This is rotten to the core.”
Ethics groups also criticised the move.
“Trump has turned an instrument of mercy and justice into just another way for him to be corrupt,” wrote Citizens for Responsible Ethics in Washington, an ethics group which regularly challenges the president.
Trump has turned an instrument of mercy and justice into just another way for him to be corrupt.
— Citizens for Ethics (@CREWcrew) December 24, 2020
But it wasn’t all about “Russiagate.”
The president also pardoned Charles Kushner, a multimillionaire east Coast real-estate developer and father of Jared, who pleaded guilty in 2004 to 18 counts of tax evasion, witness tampering, and making illegal campaign donations.
The charges came from a winding, salacious feud between Charles and his brother-in-law, William Schulder, a former employee who became a witness for federal prosecutors investigating the elder Mr Kushner for illegal campaign contributions.
As the feud escalated, Charles hired a prostitute to try and seduce Schulder in a New Jersey motel room, then sent a tape of the rendezvous to Esther Kushner, Charles’ sister and Schulder’s wife, who handed the tape over to authorities.
Former New Jersey governor and presidential ally Chris Christie, who prosecuted the case when he was a US attorney, called the scandal “one of the most loathsome, disgusting crimes” he’d ever seen.
The White House lauded his charitable work in announcing his pardon.
“Since completing his sentence in 2006, Mr Kushner has been devoted to important philanthropic organisations and causes, such as Saint Barnabas Medical Center and United Cerebral Palsy,” its statement read. “This record of reform and charity overshadows Mr Kushner’s conviction and 2 year sentence for preparing false tax returns, witness retaliation, and making false statements to the FEC.”
All told, the White House announced 26 full pardons in this new round of actions. Other notable recipients included the wife of former GOP congressman Duncan Hunter, who in 2019 pleaded guilty to use campaign funds for personal use.
The announcements follows a previous set of pardons on Tuesday that included four former Blackwater private security contractors who were convicted of murder and other charges for their role in a 2007 massacre in Iraq that left at least 14 civilians dead.
Most of those pardoned so far have personal connections to the president, according to Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith, who found that of the 65 pardons or commutations issued before Wednesday, 60 have some personal line or favour connecting them to the president.