Last-minute pardoning sprees have long been a tradition for outgoing presidents, but President Trump may try to stretch his clemency powers further than any of his predecessors. He is reportedly considering pardons for as many as 20 aides, allies, and family members, and those may include preemptive pardons — which would provide protection against federal offenses, but not state crimes — prior to any charge or conviction. Trump may even try to preemptively pardon himself, which he has long claimed he has the right to do, though that remains a constitutionally untested theory.
It’s far from clear who will ultimately make Trump’s final list. According to an Axios report, the president recently told an adviser he was going to pardon “every person who ever talked to me,” and Trump has apparently developed a habit of interrupting conversations to, per Axios, “spontaneously suggest that he add the person he’s speaking with to his pardon list,” regardless of whether or not they want to be on it or have committed a crime. The president reportedly fears that President-elect Joe Biden will seek retribution against him via criminal charges against his family members and associates, but Biden has expressed no interest in doing that.
Trump has already granted pardons to numerous aides and allies during his presidency, but so far only one during the lame duck — to his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Meanwhile, the clamor for Trump’s pardon pen may have already led to additional crimes, as the Justice Department recently announced an investigation into a potential “bribery-for-pardon scheme” involving the White House.
Below is a running list of who Trump may try to pardon and why, based on recent reporting and speculation.
Members of the Trump family
The Constitution does not prohibit a president from granting clemency to close friends and family, even if the pardon is an apparent conflict of interest. But it’s unclear whether a president can issue them general pardons when no member of the Trump family has yet been accused of any federal crimes. Pardons have typically been used to protect against specific crimes or sets of activities. “There is little precedent laying out the degree to which a pardon can be used to instead foreclose criminal liability for anything and everything,” according to the New York Times.
The president’s eldest daughter and adviser has not been charged with any crimes, but could soon be in legal jeopardy. The Manhattan District Attorney and the New York attorney general have expanded their separate investigations into the Trump Organization to include apparent tax write-off schemes and reportedly subpoenaed Trump’s business for records pertaining to tax deductions taken on consulting fees, some of which Ivanka seemingly received despite being an executive officer, not a consultant, for the company. In addition, last week, Ivanka sat for a deposition with lawyers from the Washington, D.C., attorney general’s office as part of its lawsuit alleging the misuse of funds for Trump’s inauguration four years ago.
Should court cases materialize from the inquiries, which are at the state level, a preemptive pardon from the president won’t protect her. But according to the New York Times, Trump has expressed concern that the incoming Biden administration may try to seek retribution against him by having the Justice Department target his three eldest children.
Eric Trump hasn’t been charged with any crimes, but sat for a deposition in October as part of an investigation by the New York attorney general’s office into whether the Trump Organization improperly inflated the value of its assets. A preemptive pardon from the president would not protect Eric from any charges stemming from that investigation, but would shield him from any subsequent federal charges.
Donald Trump Jr.
Don Jr. was one of many in the president’s inner orbit ensnared in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Trump Jr. met with Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign in order to obtain damaging information on Hillary Clinton, and Mueller was looking into whether his ties to WikiLeaks and Russians promising Clinton dirt amounted to campaign-finance violations. Ultimately, Trump Jr. was not interviewed by investigators on the special counsel’s team and was never charged with any crimes.
Trump’s son-in-law and special adviser failed to mention several notable contacts with foreigners, including Russians providing dirt on Clinton during Trump’s 2016 campaign, on a form he filled out for his White House security clearance. “Under federal law it is a crime to provide inaccurate or incomplete information on the background check documents for security clearances,” according to the Times. Given his repeated misstatements to the FBI about foreign contacts, as well as concerns relating to Kushner’s family real-estate business and relationship with foreign governments, intelligence officials and White House aides determined that Kushner should not get clearance; Kushner was given one anyway after Trump allegedly intervened on his behalf.
President Donald Trump
Trump may also attempt to pardon himself, which no president has ever tried to do before. He has likely committed a number of crimes during his time in office, but has been constitutionally protected from prosecution as a sitting president. There is also the matter of probes in New York State of Trump’s business practices and taxes, including the only known active criminal investigation of Trump — though other criminal probes may be coming.
The constitutionality of a president pardoning himself remains unclear, even among legal experts, but either way Trump would not be able to shield himself from prosecution at the state level. The president has insisted he has the “absolute right” to pardon himself, though he also claimed he wouldn’t need to because he’s “done nothing wrong.” Trump has reportedly been considering a self-pardon since 2017 and has become “obsessed with the power of pardons,” a former White House official told CNN.
Trump aides and associates
Trump’s personal attorney and chief voter-fraud conspiracy peddler has reportedly spoken to the president about a potential preemptive pardon, though Giuliani has yet to be accused of any crimes. As recently as this summer, federal prosecutors in New York were investigating his business dealings in Ukraine, as well as his role in a plot to remove the American ambassador there.
Gates, who was Trump’s deputy campaign chairman in 2016, pleaded guilty to financial fraud and lying to investigators in a case stemming from the Mueller investigation and is reportedly hoping for clemency.
The former Trump campaign adviser pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his Russian contacts during the 2016 presidential race and served 14 days in prison. Papadopoulos was the first Trump adviser to be sentenced in Mueller’s investigation and is pursuing a reported reprieve. “Of course I would be honored to be pardoned,” Papadopoulos said in an interview. In 2019, the former aide said his lawyers had formally asked Trump for a pardon.
Trump’s former campaign chairman is currently serving a seven-and-a-half-year sentence on federal bank fraud, tax, and conspiracy charges. He was among the first people to be charged in Mueller’s investigation. In May, he was released to home confinement because of concerns about the coronavirus.
In August, the president’s former chief strategist was arrested and charged with defrauding people who donated to an online crowdfunding campaign advertised as raising money to build a border wall. He pleaded not guilty and may be angling for a pardon, given his level of legal risk, though the president distanced himself from Bannon’s private crowdsource efforts following the arrest, saying the project was “done for showboating reasons” and “inappropriate.”
Broidy, a former fundraiser for Trump — who may be involved in the potential “bribery-for-pardon scheme” that the Justice Department is investigating — pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate foreign lobbying laws as part of a secret effort to influence the Trump administration on behalf of Malaysian and Chinese interests. Trump’s previous assertion defending Paul Manafort’s foreign dealings as common practice “could just as easily be applied to an argument in favor of pardoning Broidy,” the Washington Post notes.
Other possible pardon recipients
Joseph Maldonado-Passage, the Tiger King star better known as Joe Exotic, is currently one year into a 22-year prison sentence for charges including two counts of murder for hire. His lawyers have been trying to get Trump to pardon him. “We are waiting on the pen to hit the paper, we think we are very, very close,” Eric Love, an attorney for the former Oklahoma zookeeper, said about a potential presidential pardon, according to ABC News. Asked whether he would consider a pardon for the Tiger King in April, Trump pledged to “take a look.”
The WikiLeaks founder has been indicted by U.S. prosecutors on 17 charges of espionage and one of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion, related to the 2010 release of classified American military documents. He is currently in a British prison cell, awaiting a judge’s decision on his potential extradition to the United States, where he faces up to 175 years in prison. Assange’s partner, Stella Moris, and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden have publicly called on Trump to pardon Assange in recent weeks. According to Assange’s lawyers, Trump associates offered Assange a pardon or “win-win” arrangement if he disclosed the source of the Democratic National Committee emails leaked to his site during the 2016 campaign to help clear up “ongoing speculation about Russian involvement” in the hacking. But as the Post notes, there is no evidence that the alleged offer stemmed from the White House.
Lots of other people
Many more are lobbying the White House counsel’s office for pardons. Criminal-justice-reform advocate Alice Johnson, whose life sentence was commuted by Trump in 2018 after Kim Kardashian directly lobbied him on Johnson’s behalf, told the Daily Beast that she had already sent the White House counsel “around 30 names” of people seeking reprieve. “I went to the White House in order to present cases before the president in the Oval Office, for people I know are very deserving people,” Johnson said, emphasizing “they all have outstanding rehabilitation records and outstanding prison records, and none of them pose a danger to the public.” Jared Kushner, a potential pardon contender himself, is reportedly leading a makeshift White House team “with a goal of announcing as many as hundreds of commutations for offenders now in jail for crimes ranging from nonviolent drug convictions to mail fraud and money laundering,” according to the New York Times.
The lame duck pardons thus far
On Thanksgiving eve, Trump announced he had issued a full pardon to his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to FBI investigators about his Russian contacts. The executive grant of clemency absolves Flynn from the crimes he admitted to in 2017, as well as any possible crimes connected to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election — a sweeping reprieve that some legal experts described as the broadest pardon since the one granted to Richard Nixon.