What is the presidential pardon and who may Donald Trump pardon before he leaves office?

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Marcus Parekh
·4 min read
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trump pardons what presidential pardon who pardoned 2021 - Johnny Louis /Getty Images Contributor 
trump pardons what presidential pardon who pardoned 2021 - Johnny Louis /Getty Images Contributor

The final days of a presidential term normally see an outgoing president issue a series of pardons to those who have had criminal convictions.

Rumours are swirling about who Donald Trump may pardon, but what is a presidential pardon and how might Trump exercise this power?

What is a pardon?

A presidential pardon is a legal act under the constitution that allows presidents to unilaterally set aside a punishment for a federal crime.

This can involve commuting a sentence, removing a fine or providing clemency. A president can issue a pardon for any federal crime except impeachment.

US President Donald Trump holds a signed Executive Grant of Clemency for boxer 'Jack Johnson' in the Oval Office - Pool/Getty Images North America 
US President Donald Trump holds a signed Executive Grant of Clemency for boxer 'Jack Johnson' in the Oval Office - Pool/Getty Images North America

Pardons are issued unilaterally by the president, although the recipient can refuse a pardon that is offered to them.

A pardon can be issued preemptively. The most famous case involved Gerald Ford pardoning former president Richard Nixon following the Watergate scandal, before any charges could be filed.

Who has Trump already pardoned?

President Trump has issued a number of controversial pardons during his tenure in the White House. Perhaps the most striking of these was the one he handed to Michael Flynn, his one-time national security adviser. Mr Flynn was convicted of two counts of lying to the FBI following his infamous 2017 conversation with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition.

In the early days of his presidency, Trump handed a pardon to Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, former Chief of Staff to Vice-President Dick Cheney, who was convicted of perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements in 2007 over the release of the identity of an undercover CIA agent.

Following his election defeat to Joe Biden, Trump also issued pardons to two former campaign staff from 2016: Roger Stone and Paul Manafort. Mr Stone was convicted of seven counts of lying to Congress, witness tampering and lying to the House in relation to the Russia investigation, while Mr Manafort was convicted of bank fraud, tax fraud and conspiracy to obstruct justice.

Trump issued a pardon for Paul Manafort - Seth Wenig /AP
Trump issued a pardon for Paul Manafort - Seth Wenig /AP

Another of Trump’s controversial pardons was for Charles Kushner, the father of his son-in-law Jared. Mr Kushner was convicted of filing false tax returns and retaliating against a cooperating witness. The witness was his sister. Mr Kushner arranged to secretly videotape her husband being solicited by a prostitute and planned to use the video to blackmail the pair from testifying against him in the tax trial.

In a case that garnered international attention, Trump pardoned Alice Johnson after extensive lobbying from Kim Kardashian West. Ms Johnson was handed a life-sentence on drug charges, despite being a first-time offender.

In total, Trump has issued 94 pardons to date. By contrast, Barack Obama issued 1,927 pardons during his two terms in office, including 330 on the final day of his second term.

Who might he pardon?

Numerous media outlets are reporting that Trump may pardon as many as 100 people on his final day in office.

Rapper Snoop Dogg is reportedly lobbying to acquire a pardon for Death Row Records co-founder Michael 'Harry-O' Harris, who was convicted of attempted murder and kidnapping in 1988 and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Another potential recipient is Dr Salomon Melgen, a well-known eye doctor from Palm Beach, Florida, who is in prison for health care fraud.

Rapper Lil Wayne, who supported Trump's reelection bid, is also reportedly in line for a pardon - Jeff Haynes/Reuters
Rapper Lil Wayne, who supported Trump's reelection bid, is also reportedly in line for a pardon - Jeff Haynes/Reuters

Lil Wayne, who appeared to back Trump’s reelection bid last year, is expected to be pardoned after he pleaded guilty last month to a Miami gun charge and faces as many as 10 years in prison when he is sentenced on January 28.

Can Trump pardon himself? Why would he want to?

This is a source of great debate among constitutional scholars. No president has attempted to pardon themselves before, meaning that if Trump tried, the courts would be left to decide the legitimacy of such an order.

Trump faces a litany of potential legal issues when he leaves office, related to his tax returns, a phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and incitement of the January 6 Capitol riots.

The phone call to Mr Raffensperger is of particular concern. In it, Trump appeared to ask Mr Raffensperger to “find” 11,800 votes that would swing the state of Georgia in his favour. The call has attracted the attention of criminal investigators, who believe it may have violated state and federal election laws.

However, the New York Times reports that he has “no plans” to attempt to do this, as White House officials fear that any attempt to do so would cause more Republicans to turn on him during the Senate impeachment trial.