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Stymied elsewhere, Trump turns to pardons to advance personal and policy goals

Mark Z. Barabak, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

As a candidate for president, Donald Trump vowed to accomplish a great many things with the ease and simplicity of snapping his fingers.

Once in office, however, he discovered that achieving those goals -- dismantling Obamacare, slashing the federal debt, building a wall along the border with Mexico, among other promises -- was far more frustrating and complicated than he supposed.

But there is one area where Trump can exercise nearly limitless sway: the power to pardon. He has made early and eager use of that unfettered authority, advancing his political agenda in the process.

His most recent exercise of this power came this week when he pardoned two Oregon ranchers serving five-year sentences for deliberately setting fire to federal lands -- a case that sparked the armed takeover of a wildlife refuge and stoked the anti-Washington sentiments forever stirring in the rural West.

The pardons were the sixth and seventh of Trump's presidency, and while the beneficiaries have been as disparate as Jack Johnson, the late black boxing champion victimized by Jim Crow law, and Joe Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff convicted of racial profiling, a common thread has been the notion of prosecutorial overreach.

It is something the president clearly empathizes with, seeing himself as the victim of an unwarranted and overzealous probe into his campaign's ties, if any, to Russian interference in the 2016 election.

 

It is also another of the countless ways Trump has shattered conventional norms.

Most recent presidents have issued their highest-profile pardons on the way out the door, sort of a last act of grace, and have followed a process overseen by the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney, which generally requires a five-year waiting period for applicants and, ideally, expressions of contrition and regret.

Trump has acted far more impulsively, singling out individuals whose cases appeal to his political base, whether the unapologetic conservative provocateur Dinesh D'Souza, who was convicted of campaign finance fraud; the Oregon ranchers, Dwight and Steven Hammond, who became martyrs to their fellow anti-government acolytes; or Arpaio, the public face of border-enforcement bellicosity.

"It's unusual for a president to pick out a few of these high-visibility cases and announce them in the middle of his term," said James Pfiffner, a policy professor at George Mason University, who has written about the presidential power to pardon. "He does seem to be doing this for political purposes."

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