Recently Democrats in Congress called for presidential pardon powers to be curbed because of Donald Trump’s 140 last-minute pardons and sentence commutations before leaving office.
We might be happy, surprised, baffled, or outraged over certain presidential pardons, but it’s part of how our government works, and it shouldn’t be tinkered with. Pardons are always controversial to some, and a blessing for others. They are always political, too, but presidents have the constitutional authority to “grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States.”
It didn’t take long before our first president, George Washington, would use that authority to pardon men sentenced to hang for treason because of their part in our country’s earliest uprising – the Whiskey Rebellion.
James Madison pardoned pirate brothers Jean and Pierre Laffitte and crew for all their pirating because they helped us against the British in the War of 1812.
In 1854 Franklin Pierce pardoned Noah Hanson, a free black man who was convicted of helping slaves escape through the Underground Railroad network.
James Buchanan pardoned Utah Territorial Gov. Brigham Young in 1857 for his part in the Utah War, which lasted more than a year between Mormon settlers and the U.S. government.
Abraham Lincoln pardoned hundreds of Dakota Indians who attacked white settlers during the Great Sioux Uprising of 1862.
And on Christmas Day, 1868, Andrew Johnson declared a general amnesty that unconditionally pardoned everyone who’d fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.
On Christmas Eve, 1992, George H.W. Bush pardoned 25 people, and six of them were connected to the Iran-Contra scandal from Ronald Reagan’s administration. Pardoning these men meant it was unlikely that Bush, who had been vice president during the affair, would continue to be implicated in the ongoing investigation by Independent Counsel.
Reagan’s administration secretly sold weapons to Iran (which was under an arms embargo) for money to support rebels in Nicaragua known as Contras (to which funding had been prohibited by Congress).
Like Trump, Bush had just lost his re-election bid in November, so he pardoned these Iran/Contra guys:
Casper Weinberger, Reagan’s secretary of defense, who was facing several counts of perjury.
Elliott Abrams, a foreign policy diplomat for Reagan and Bush, who pleaded guilty to two counts of withholding information from Congress.
Duane Clarridge, CIA Latin American chief under Reagan who was indicted on seven counts of perjury and false statements.
Alan Fiers, Reagan’s chief of the CIA’s Central American Task Force, who pleaded guilty to two counts of withholding information from Congress.
Clair George, CIA official during Reagan’s administration indicted on 10 counts of perjury, false statements and obstruction, including perjury before Congress.
Robert McFarlane, U.S. National Security Advisor to Reagan who pleaded guilty to four counts of withholding information from Congress.
Marc Rich, who was indicted for tax evasion and illegal trading with Iran in 1983, fled the country, but Bill Clinton pardoned him the day he left office in 2001. Rich’s ex-wife, Denise Eisenberg Rich, by the way, made large donations to the Democratic Party, the Clinton Library Foundation, and allegedly to Hillary Clinton’s senate campaign. That same day, Clinton also pardoned Patty Hearst, granddaughter of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst. She was a convicted bank robber whose seven year sentence had previously been commuted after two years by President Jimmy Carter.
Carter posthumously pardoned Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who had been charged with treason, but was given amnesty. Carter also gave unconditional amnesty to Vietnam War draft-dodgers, following President Gerald Ford’s conditional amnesty offered to all Vietnam War draft-dodgers (some 50,000 people).
Ford also pardoned Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, and he gave us one of the most controversial and creative presidential pardons ever, when he granted outgoing President Richard Nixon a full and unconditional pardon for anything he may have done before he could be charged with anything.
Nixon pardoned Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa, sentenced to 13 years for fraud and bribery, but was released two days before Christmas in 1971, after serving less than five years, when the president commuted his sentence to time served. This was just in time for the union to endorse Nixon for his re-election bid in 1972.
One of Reagan’s well-known pardons was that of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, delivered just before leaving office in January 1989. A big-time Republican donor, Steinbrenner had been indicted on 14 criminal counts in 1974, and pled guilty to obstruction of justice and conspiring to make illegal contributions to Nixon’s re-election campaign.
Some of Trump’s pardons, even in his first year as president, were doozies. We should always pay attention to who we elect to have that authority, but we don’t need to change it.