Once again, President Trump has decided to squander the value of the presidential pardon in order to reward allies and score political points. On Tuesday, the White House announced five commutations and 15 pardons, including a full pardon for disgraced former U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine).
It’s hard to think of a recent political figure less deserving of a presidential pardon than Hunter.
For years, a growing trail of evidence showed that Hunter had treated campaign donations as personal slush funds to pay for video games, dog food, private school tuition for kids, hotel rooms for his mistress and all sorts of other personal expenses. Even after he was indicted by a federal grand jury for misusing a quarter of a million dollars in campaigns funds, Hunter tried to blame the spending on everybody but himself, or brush off the charges as a politically motivated witch hunt.
And when Hunter finally did plead guilty (after his wife Margaret made her plea and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors), he didn’t bother to apologize publicly to his constituents or donors.
The pardon arrives in the nick of time for Hunter; the former congressman was supposed to begin serving an 11-month prison sentence next month. But Hunter was no victim. He was greedy and abused the public trust, which is already pretty fragile. His estranged wife, who is currently serving three years of probation for her role in the misuse of campaign funds, was pardoned late Wednesday afternoon, a day after her husband.
Trump also pardoned another disgraced former Republican House member, Chris Collins of New York, who pleaded guilty last year to securities fraud and lying to investigators. And what do Collins and Hunter have in common? They were the first and second members of Congress to endorse Trump.
It should be no surprise at this point that Trump chose to overlook the self-serving crimes of two of his more ardent supporters. This is a man who puts fealty over morality. So much for Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” when he got to White House. He’s instead given some of the sleaziest characters in D.C. pool floats and cocktails to lounge in a bog of entitled corruption.
The president’s power under the Constitution to grant pardons can be an important safety valve when the criminal justice system fails or when an offender has served his time and turned his life around. Among his latest pardons, for example, Trump commuted the remaining sentences for several women convicted of drug offenses. (Granted, even these worthy pardons came as the result of advocacy by celebrities and high-profile supporters.)
Far too often, Trump has given pardons to undeserving recipients with whom he shares a personal or political affinity. He’s given clemency to former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, an epically corrupt politician who once appeared on Trump's reality TV series "Celebrity Apprentice”; former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a hero of the anti-immigrant right who'd been convicted of contempt of court for ignoring an order to stop racial profiling by deputies; and conservative provocateur Dinesh D'Souza, who was pardoned after pleading guilty to campaign finance fraud.
Just as troubling is that Trump has used pardons in an attempt to undermine the justice system. His actions Tuesday included pardons for two men who pleaded guilty to lying to investigators during the the Russia investigation. These were the latest in a series of pardons he’s given to allies who were successfully prosecuted as part of former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Trump also pardoned members of the U.S. military and military contractors accused or convicted of war crimes. On Tuesday, he pardoned four former U.S. service members who were convicted on charges related to the killing of Iraqi civilians while working as contractors for Blackwater in 2007.
During Trump’s remaining weeks in office, he is likely to use the pardon power again in offensive and damaging ways. He will test this country and its democratic norms all along the way out the White House door.
4:32 PM, Dec. 23, 2020: This editorial was updated after Trump announced the pardon for Margaret Hunter.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.