Trump Got Tons of Campaign Cash Before Handing Out Pardon

Justin Baragona, Asawin Suebsaeng
REUTERS

President Donald Trump on Tuesday granted clemency to 11 people, including several convicted felons who are either Fox News regulars or have been championed by the president’s favorite cable-news network. And in another case, the family of one pardon recipient dished out massive contributions to the president’s re-election campaign just months before Trump’s clemency spree.

Among those granted pardons or sentence commutations were former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison for attempting to sell former President Barack Obama’s Senate seat; former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik, who was sentenced to four years in 2010 for tax fraud and lying to the feds; and Michael Milken, the “junk-bonds king” whose early-'90s insider-trading conviction made him a poster boy of white-collar crime.

Unsurprisingly, a key influence that led to Trump’s decision, particularly as it related to Blagojevich, was Fox News. The same could partly be said of the decision on Kerik, a frequent Fox News guest whose pardon was backed by several of the network’s stars; Milken, whose pardon was supported by Fox Business Network host and Trump loyalist Maria Bartiromo; and Angela Stanton, an occasional pro-Trump TV pundit whose pardon was pushed by frequent Fox News guest and evangelical leader Alveda King.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Trump made the Fox News connection abundantly clear, telling reporters that he decided to commute the rest of Blagojevich’s sentence because he’d seen the ex-governor’s wife Patti Blagojevich pleading her husband’s case on Fox.

“I watched his wife on television,” Trump declared, adding that he didn’t know the ex-governor “very well” despite Blagojevich’s appearances on The Celebrity Apprentice years ago.

In mid-2018, the president repeatedly asked close advisers to explore a Blagojevich pardon and, while doing so, emphatically referenced clips he’d seen on Fox, including a segment on informal Trump adviser Jeanine Pirro’s weekend show, according to two sources who independently discussed the matter with the president at the time.

According to liberal media-watchdog Media Matters for America, Patti Blagojevich took to Fox programming in April 2018 to push for her husband’s sentence to be reduced, making at least seven appearances on some of Trump’s favorite primetime shows such as Tucker Carlson Tonight and The Ingraham Angle.

The hosts, meanwhile, didn’t even bother with subtlety during the interviews. For instance, Tucker Carlson asked Mrs. Blagojevich what she would say “if you could speak to the president.” 

Kerik, meanwhile, has been a frequent guest of Fox News primetime programming for several years, generally offering on-air criticism of how Democrats handle New York City’s police department and criminal justice in general.

In what can generously be described as ironic, Kerik appeared the evening before his pardon on Tucker Carlson Tonight to rail against bail reform in New York while urging for harsher punishment for criminals, claiming crime was down when the police department increased arrests for “jumping turnstiles” and other low-level misdemeanors.

Kerik has also been used as a Trump-friendly critic of the so-called “deep state” on Fox News airwaves, at one point advocating for the arrest of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) for trying to carry out an “attempted coup” of Trump with the whistleblower complaint and impeachment inquiry.

According to the White House, Kerik’s pardon was supported by Fox News stars like Geraldo Rivera and Judge Andrew Napolitano. Additionally, the administration said, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani—a frequent Fox News commentator and Kerik's one-time boss—backed the decision.

Pirro, meanwhile, celebrated Kerik’s pardon and Blagojevich’s commutation on Twitter, personally thanking the president while declaring that “political prosecutions have no place in this country.”

The pro-Trump Fox News star, who brushed off Blagojevich’s crimes as “just practicing politics” in an April 2018 interview with Patti Blagojevich, has something of a sordid history with Kerik. Back in 2006, Pirro—who was then running as a Republican for New York attorney general—admitted she asked Kerik to bug her then-husband’s boat to see if he was having an affair after federal prosecutors began investigating whether she and Kerik illegally taped conversations.

While junk-bond king Michael Milken is not a Fox News regular by any measure, his pardon was backed by Bartiromo, yet another Fox star who has morphed into an unofficial mouthpiece of and adviser to President Trump. 

Additionally, Angela Stanton, who was pardoned for her role in a stolen luxury-vehicle ring, has appeared on Fox News as a pro-Trump commentator—much like her godmother Alveda King, who backed her pardon—often arguing that Democrats want more poor women of color to have abortions.

Appearances on Fox News and Fox Business—two of Trump’s favorite networks—are popular vessels for those seeking to make their cases for pardons or clemency directly to the president, a voracious consumer of TV and cable news.

The most prominent example was the sustained, successful on-air and behind-the-scenes campaign on Fox to lobby Trump to grant clemency to accused and convicted American war criminals. Fox & Friends Weekend host Pete Hegseth was a ringleader of that highly controversial effort.

“[Trump] knows how people play this game,” said one source close to the president. “He’s even told me before something to the effect of, ‘All these people keep getting themselves on Fox News begging me for a pardon,’ so he’s self-conscious about this stuff. But it doesn’t matter, it still has an effect on him.”

For those who didn’t receive the Fox News treatment, it appears that in at least one case, cold hard cash did the talking. Paul Pogue, a construction company owner who pleaded guilty to underpaying his taxes by $473,000 and received three years probation, was issued a full pardon and clemency by the president.

According to FEC filings, Pogue’s family has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in direct contributions and in-kind air travel to the Trump Victory Committee. Beginning in August 2019, Ben Pogue—CEO of Pogue Construction and son of Paul Pogue—and his wife Ashleigh made over $200,000 in contributions to the campaign.

In August alone, Ben Pogue donated $85,000 to Trump Victory while Ashleigh Pogue contributed $50,000 that month. The following month, Ben Pogue made an in-kind air travel contribution of $75,404.40. The couple also made several large donations to the Republican National Committee and each donated $5,600 to Donald Trump for President Inc.

On the day of their first donation to the Trump campaign, Ashleigh posted an Instagram photo of her and her husband posing with Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, at the Hamptons.

Prior to the Pogues’ sudden significant donating spree to Trump and the Republicans, the couple was not seen as big campaign spenders, having donated a few thousand dollars for Paul Ryan’s congressional campaign in 2017 and $5,400 for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s 2016 Republican presidential run.

Notably, one of the advocates for Pogue’s clemency: Santorum, who is now a CNN contributor.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Got a tip? Send it to The Daily Beast here

Get our top stories in your inbox every day. Sign up now!

Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside goes deeper on the stories that matter to you. Learn more.