President Donald Trump unleashed another wave of pardons for his allies on Wednesday night, including his son-in-law’s father, Charles Kushner, and his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who lied to investigators looking into Russian election interference.
The lame-duck president—who in recent days has appeared determined to cause as much shock and confusion as he can before he leaves office on Jan. 20—also pardoned Roger Stone, whose sentence he commuted in July, and the wife of disgraced former Rep. Duncan Hunter, whom he pardoned on Tuesday.
The slew of Christmas week pardons—which included former Blackwater guards charged with war crimes, two border agents accused of covering up a shooting, and some more traditional candidates—appeared designed to reward devoted loyalists at a time when Trump has lost Republican support for his bid to subvert the election and is busy butting heads with Congress.
“In pardoning Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, and Charles Kushner, President Trump has made it clear that he believes the purpose of the pardon is to bail out rich white men connected to him,” Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington executive director Noah Bookbinder said in a statement. “Trump has turned an instrument of mercy and justice into just another way for him to be corrupt.”
Trump’s actions were also denounced by his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, who was sentenced to jail time for fraud despite his cooperation with the Mueller investigation into possible collusion by the Trump campaign with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election.
What happened tonight shows how broken the whole criminal justice sustem is. Despite me and family being threatened by @POTUS @realDonaldTrump, I still cooperated with a dozen federal/state agencies, Mueller, Congress...and all these criminals receive #pardons. This is wrong!
— Michael Cohen (@MichaelCohen212) December 24, 2020
U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), a Trump critic, was succinct in his assessment: “This is rotten to the core.”
Trump’s pardon of Manafort had largely been expected in light of his repeated praise for the convicted fraudster and complaints that he’d been victimized by the Russia “hoax.”
According to two sources with direct knowledge of the matter, for more than a year now, Trump has sporadically brought up in private conversations how “cruel” and unfair it was that Manafort was held in solitary confinement. In his mini-rants on the subject, Trump would suggest it bordered on “torture” of a political prisoner—even though he has never made the inhumanity of solitary lockup a policy priority or even tweeted about lesser-connected prisoners who endure it.
In a statement late Wednesday, the White House drilled down on the idea that Manafort had been punished because of his association with the president.
“As a result of blatant prosecutorial overreach, Mr. Manafort has endured years of unfair treatment and is one of the most prominent victims of what has been revealed to be perhaps the greatest witch hunt in American history,” it said.
Manafort reacted to his pardon by writing his first tweet in years to praise Trump. “Mr. President, my family & I humbly thank you for the Presidential Pardon you bestowed on me. Words cannot fully convey how grateful we are,” he wrote, telling Trump that he “truly did ‘Make America Great Again’” and had “accomplished more in 4 years than any of your modern-day predecessors.”
Mr. President, my family & I humbly thank you for the Presidential Pardon you bestowed on me. Words cannot fully convey how grateful we are.
— Paul Manafort (@PaulManafort) December 24, 2020
Some commentators were quick to note that the pardons could have a downside.
“Be careful what you wish for—the people getting pardons no longer enjoy 5th Amendment privilege. Meaning they can be compelled to testify about anything. Get your popcorn...” Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) tweeted.
In that vein, Andrew Weissman, who was one of special counsel Robert Mueller’s deputies, tweeted: “Easy enough to beat Trump at his game: put Stone and Manafort in the grand jury after 1/20/21 to get at what they have hidden from the government about Trump- and if they then lie, they can be prosecuted for perjury and obstruction.”
Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, who obtained an indictment against Manafort on state charges last year and is appealing its dismissal under the double-jeopardy rule, said the pardon for his federal crimes makes the New York case all the more crucial.
“This action underscores the urgent need to hold Mr. Manafort accountable for his crimes against the People of New York as alleged in our indictment, and we will continue to pursue our appellate remedies,” Vance said in a statement.
Just as it did with Manafort, the White House tried to justify Stone’s pardon by painting the unrepentant dirty trickster as a helpless victim “treated very unfairly” by Mueller’s investigators.
Trump’s longtime confidant was convicted of lying to Congress, witness tampering, and obstructing the House investigation into Russian election meddling. The president had commuted his 40-month sentence over the summer.
“Pardoning him will help to right the injustices he faced at the hands of the Mueller investigation,” the White House said.
Charles Kushner, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner’s father, was released from prison in 2006 after serving two years for tax evasion and witness tampering. He was accused of hiring a prostitute to seduce his brother-in-law so he could videotape the encounter and then send it to his sister to scare her off from testifying before a grand jury.
His prosecution was overseen by then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, who of course became one of Trump’s biggest supporters. Christie, who believes Jared Kushner orchestrated his ouster from Trump’s transition team as payback for the prosecution, has long insisted that the father deserved what he got.
“It’s one of the most loathsome and disgusting crimes that I prosecuted,” Christie, who could not be reached for comment on the pardon, has said in the past.
On Dec. 22, Trump pardoned a slew of others, including former campaign aide George Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty to lying to Mueller’s team during the Russia probe; former U.S. Reps. Chris Collins (insider trading) and Steve Stockman (campaign fraud); and four Blackwater mercenaries found guilty of slaughtering more than a dozen Iraqi civilians in 2014. Just before Thanksgiving, the president granted clemency to Michael Flynn, his first national security adviser who pleaded guilty—twice—to lying to the FBI.
The pardons were cheered in Trumpworld. “Paul has paid a price for his crimes,” Ed Brookover, a former senior adviser on Trump's 2016 campaign who worked with Manafort, told The Daily Beast. “Unfortunately Paul was also unfairly accused and convicted by the media for much else during the unwarranted Mueller investigation.”
Manafort, 71, was convicted of myriad financial crimes linked to his lobbying work for pro-Russian political entities in Ukraine, and he pleaded guilty in a case that revolved around obstruction of the Mueller investigation. He was sentenced to seven and a half years but in May was given permission to serve the remainder of his term in home confinement due to COVID-19 fears in prison.
Over the course of several years, which overlapped in part with his running of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, Manafort made millions advising Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. In 2016, Ukrainian investigators found handwritten ledgers showing more than $12 million in undisclosed cash payments for Manafort from Yanukovych’s party for work related to influencing the elections in favor of Yanukovych.
The ledgers were first made public by a Ukrainian investigative journalist and then by the country’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau. Records obtained by the Associated Press in 2017 showed that at least $1.2 million in payments from 2007 and 2009 listed in one of those ledgers—known as the “black ledger”—were received by his consulting firm.
Despite these documents, Manafort continued to question the ledger’s authenticity publicly after it was exposed. There were some in the media—particularly right-leaning columnist John Solomon, who is known to have peddled unverified theories about Ukraine—who claimed that the ledger had been forged and that George Soros was somehow behind the original leak. Solomon’s stories on Ukraine were closely aligned with the narratives pushed by Rudy Giuliani at the time. Others followed Solomon’s lead. Republican lawyer Joe DiGenova, who at one point repped Solomon, accused Soros in Fox Business interviews of controlling the State Department and FBI in an attempt to sway the politics in Kyiv.
At his 2019 sentencing on the obstruction charges, which added 43 months to the four years handed down for the financial fraud, Manafort told Judge Amy Berman Jackson, “I am sorry for what I’ve done. Let me be very clear, I accept the responsibility for the acts that caused me to be here today.”
Jackson was largely unmoved.
“It is hard to overstate the number of lies and the amount of fraud and the extraordinary amount of money involved,” she told him, adding, “Saying ‘I’m sorry I got caught’ is not an inspiring plea for leniency.”
Trump is reportedly considering further pardons on his way out the door and is said to have discussed pardoning not only members of his family to head off any possible future prosecutions but also himself. While virtually all U.S. presidents from both parties have granted pardons and sentence commutations before stepping down, Trump has been stunningly brazen about using his pardon powers to help friends and repay associates he sees as having been personally loyal.
As his White House departure nears, Trump is reportedly fielding countless requests from hopeful pardon-seekers. Those looking to be let off the hook for past crimes reportedly include Joe Exotic, the incarcerated Tiger King star, and former Trump campaign adviser Rick Gates, who pleaded guilty to financial fraud and lying to investigators during the Russia probe.
Former Trump campaign strategist Steve Bannon, who was indicted by a grand jury in New York for financial fraud, is also thought to be among the contenders for a potential pardon. Trump is also said to have weighed granting preemptive pardons to some of his own family members facing legal scrutiny, as well as his lawyer Rudy Giuliani.