When Donald Trump said on Tuesday that he would commute the 14-year prison sentence of Rod Blagojevich, the disgraced former Illinois governor, he invoked the names of former US justice department officials he has long denounced.
“It was a prosecution by the same people — Comey, Fitzpatrick [sic] — the same group,” the president said, referencing James Comey, the FBI director he fired, and Patrick Fitzgerald, Mr Comey’s friend who prosecuted Mr Blagojevich for corruption as the US attorney in Chicago.
The comments gave an unmistakable personal and political tinge to a sweep of clemency for high-profile white-collar criminals, including Michael Milken, the junk bond trader, shortly before Mr Trump’s longtime friend Roger Stone is set to be sentenced in Washington.
The pardons are the latest instance of Mr Trump granting leniency to famous and well-connected defendants. They were also a stark reminder of the president’s broad authority to undo federal convictions — including, potentially, associates who helped him win the White House in 2016.
“I think he’s written the cheque, and he’s just waiting to put the date on it,” said Patrick Cotter, a former New York mob prosecutor now at Greensfelder in Chicago.
Mr Trump issued the pardons after setting off controversy over Mr Stone’s case with repeated comments and tweets that attacked the federal prosecutors assigned to Mr Stone’s case, a juror from his trial and Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who will sentence Mr Stone on Thursday for lying to Congress and witness tampering.
Among other things, Mr Trump denounced the justice department’s recommendation that Mr Stone be sentenced to up to nine years in prison as unnecessarily harsh. William Barr, the attorney-general, then reversed that recommendation, and the four prosecutors who secured Mr Stone’s conviction quit the case.
Mr Barr, who has said he made the decision independently of the president, has urged Mr Trump to stop commenting publicly on justice department matters. He has reportedly said in private that he may quit if the president keeps tweeting about justice department investigations. A spokeswoman for Mr Barr said Tuesday he “has no plans to resign”.
Mr Stone is just one of several associates of the president who either languish in jail or are awaiting sentencing in cases initially brought by Robert Mueller — the special counsel who investigated claims of Russian meddling in the 2016 election — that involve lying to the government about the events surrounding the presidential race.
Paul Manafort, Mr Trump’s former campaign manager, is serving 7.5 years in prison for tax and bank fraud, false statements and witness tampering. His co-operation with the special counsel’s office collapsed after Judge Jackson ruled he had lied in interviews.
Michael Flynn, Mr Trump’s former national security adviser, is still awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to lying to the FBI in 2017. He has sought to withdraw his plea. His attorney, Sydney Powell, was named by the White House on Tuesday as one of the people who supported a pardon for Bernie Kerik, the former New York police commissioner convicted of tax fraud and making false statements.
The question of whether Mr Trump would pardon associates featured in Mr Mueller’s final report, which concluded that the president and his allies had used the possibility of clemency to persuade witnesses in the probe not to co-operate.
Mr Trump, who has issued a slew of pardons throughout his first term in office, is far from the first president to attract controversy for his pardoning decisions.
“The history of presidential pardons is hardly pristine or inviolate,” said Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University who was called by Republicans to testify before the House judiciary committee on Mr Trump’s impeachment.
Bill Clinton, on his last day in office, pardoned Marc Rich, the Glencore founder who was a fugitive from charges of racketeering, fraud and tax evasion. Rich, now deceased, had been married to a Democratic donor.
Barack Obama issued several waves of clemency grants throughout his two terms in office, primarily for drug offences, although he saved his most controversial commutation — for Chelsea Manning, convicted of leaking military and diplomatic secrets to WikiLeaks — for his last week in office.
George HW Bush pardoned six former officials convicted of crimes in the Iran-Contra scandal shortly before leaving office.
Mr Barr, who served as attorney-general under Bush, had advocated for a full sweep of pardons for officials caught up in Iran-Contra, rejecting suggestions to only pardon the former secretary of defence.
“I said, ‘No, in for a penny, in for a pound’.” Mr Barr recalled in 2001 in an interview with the Miller Center.