Trump Wields Pardon Pen to Confront Justice System

Dinesh D’Souza outside federal court in Manhattan in May 2014. He pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations.

WASHINGTON — For more than a year, President Trump has struggled to control the United States’ law enforcement apparatus, frustrated that it remains at least partly out of his grasp. But he is increasingly turning to a tool that allows him to push back against a justice system he calls unfair.

In a burst of action and words, Mr. Trump demonstrated Thursday that, in some instances, he still has the last word. He pardoned Dinesh D’Souza, a conservative commentator convicted of campaign finance violations, and he said he may extend clemency to former Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois and Martha Stewart, the lifestyle mogul.

As he has for all of his acts of clemency since taking office, Mr. Trump bypassed the traditional system for granting pardons and disregarded more than 10,000 languishing applications to focus instead on prominent public figures whose cases resonated with him given his own grievances with investigators. Some critics said he may even be signaling associates — like one of his personal lawyers, Michael D. Cohen, who is under investigation for possibly violating federal campaign finance laws — to stay strong and not help prosecutors.

The pardon for Mr. D’Souza, who pleaded guilty in 2014 to making illegal campaign contributions, was a victory for one of the president’s most vocal bases of support, the conservative news media. Mr. D’Souza has argued that he was singled out for prosecution by President Barack Obama’s administration because of his conservative politics, an argument that mirrors Mr. Trump’s assertions that his predecessor targeted him, too.

Mr. Trump attributed his decision to absolve Mr. D’Souza and his interest in the other two cases to indignation over selective or excessive justice. Mr. D’Souza, he said, “was very unfairly treated.” He described the 14-year sentence imposed on Mr. Blagojevich, a Democrat convicted on corruption charges, as “really unfair.” He said Ms. Stewart, who spent five months in prison for lying to investigators in a stock case, “was harshly and unfairly treated.”

The president’s intervention in those cases came as he rails against Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department and the F.B.I. over various investigations into his campaign, his personal lawyer and his own actions that may have been aimed at obstructing the inquiry of Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel. Last week, he effectively ordered the Justice Department to investigate his investigators and reveal confidential information about the case to Republican allies in Congress.

Senator Mark R. Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was one of many critics who saw Thursday’s pardon and the dangling of other clemency actions as a strategy to ensure loyalty within the president’s own circle.

“The President’s ad hoc use of the pardon power is concerning enough,” Mr. Warner wrote on Twitter. “But the possibility that he may also be sending a message to witnesses in a criminal investigation into his campaign is extremely dangerous. In the United States of America, no one is above the law.”

All three cases have connections, if sometimes distant, to Mr. Trump, either through his political allies or his time in the private sector. Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, who accompanied Mr. Trump during a trip to Houston and Dallas on Thursday, pushed for the pardon for Mr. D’Souza. Mr. Blagojevich appeared on “Celebrity Apprentice,” Mr. Trump’s reality show, while Ms. Stewart hosted an “Apprentice” spinoff.

All three cases were also tied to prosecutors who have become nemeses of the president. Mr. D’Souza was prosecuted by Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in New York who was fired by Mr. Trump last year and has been one of his fiercest critics. Ms. Stewart was prosecuted by James B. Comey when he was in the Justice Department before he became F.B.I. director and was likewise fired by Mr. Trump, only to begin a running war of words with the president.

As for Mr. Blagojevich, he was prosecuted by Patrick J. Fitzgerald, a close friend and colleague of Mr. Comey’s. Mr. Trump previously pardoned I. Lewis Libby Jr., a top aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney, who was also prosecuted by Mr. Fitzgerald.

Mr. D’Souza made a direct link to Mr. Bharara’s conflict with Mr. Trump after the pardon on Thursday. “KARMA IS A BITCH DEPT: @PreetBharara wanted to destroy a fellow Indian American to advance his career,” he wrote on Twitter. “Then he got fired & I got pardoned.”

Advisers and analysts said Mr. Trump seems delighted by his pardon power. “It’s a way of Trump telegraphing that he’s in control of everything, including D.O.J.,” said Gwenda Blair, a Trump family biographer. “But there’s something about the almost capricious nature of this list that seems to me to suggest it’s like a little kid’s version of being in charge — I can do whatever I want and nobody can stop me.”

Other presidents have granted clemency in politically sensitive cases. President George Bush pardoned Caspar W. Weinberger, the former defense secretary, who was charged with lying to Congress about the Iran-contra scandal. President Bill Clinton pardoned his half brother, Roger Clinton; Marc Rich, the politically connected financier; and Susan McDougal, a former business partner who went to prison rather than testify against him in the Whitewater inquiry.

But such pardons were only some of those issued. “There’s never been a time when this was the only thing the president was doing, and he was doing these kind of special deals without any evident recognition that there was an actual program of pardoning that was open to ordinary Americans that really need relief,” said Margaret Colgate Love, the Justice Department pardon attorney for Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton.

Rather than go through the Justice Department, Mr. Trump considers cases brought to him directly, as when Sylvester Stallone persuaded him to pardon Jack Johnson, the African-American boxing legend. Kim Kardashian West visited the president at the White House on Wednesday to urge a pardon for a 63-year-old woman serving a life sentence for cocaine possession and money laundering. Aides are often left guessing whether he will proceed with a pardon or not.

Mr. D’Souza’s pardon was the fifth granted by Mr. Trump. Others went to Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff who became a hero of anti-immigrant conservatives, and Kristian Saucier, a former Navy sailor whose conviction for taking souvenir photographs on a nuclear submarine was cited as an example of double standards compared to Hillary Clinton’s exoneration by the F.B.I.

In April alone, Mr. Trump denied 82 requests for pardons and 98 requests for commutations that came through the pardon attorney’s office. An additional 2,108 petitions for pardons and 8,833 commutation bids remain pending, according to the office.

Mr. D’Souza, who was accused of using straw donors to donate $20,000 to a Republican Senate candidate, pleaded guilty to avoid prison and was instead fined $30,000 and sentenced to five years’ probation, including eight months in a supervised “community confinement center.” Mr. Trump said he should have been given “a quick minor fine” like others convicted of campaign violations. “What they did to him was horrible,” he told reporters traveling with him on Air Force One.

The president said he did not know Mr. D’Souza but called him Wednesday night to tell him he would pardon him. “Nobody asked me to do it,” Mr. Trump said.

But Mr. D’Souza told The Daily Caller that Mr. Cruz raised his case with the president, as did other members of Mr. Trump’s circle. In their phone call, Mr. D’Souza said the president told him, “You got screwed.”

Like Mr. Trump, Mr. D’Souza is prolific on Twitter, promoting conspiracy theories and posting about “fake news.” At one point, he accused Mr. Obama of executing the “anticolonial” agenda of his Kenyan father. He also supports Mr. Trump’s unproven claim that the F.B.I. planted a “spy” inside his campaign.

Mr. D’Souza thanked the president on Twitter. “Obama & his stooges tried to extinguish my American dream & destroy my faith in America,” he wrote after the pardon. “Thank you @realDonaldTrump for fully restoring both.”

Mr. Bharara defended the prosecution. “The President has the right to pardon but the facts are these: D’Souza intentionally broke the law, voluntarily pled guilty, apologized for his conduct & the judge found no unfairness,” he wrote on Twitter.

“Donald Trump has sent a message to his friends and cronies that if you break laws to protect him or attack our democracy, he’s got your back,” said David Donnelly, the president of the watchdog group Every Voice.

Mr. Blagojevich, who won two terms as governor, was sentenced to 14 years in prison after being convicted of 18 corruption charges, including trying to sell or trade Mr. Obama’s Senate seat when he resigned to move to the White House.

“What he did does not justify 18 years in a jail,” Mr. Trump said, misstating the sentence. “If you read his statement, it was a foolish statement. There was a lot of bravado” in talking about selling the Senate seat, Mr. Trump said. But “plenty of other politicians have said a lot worse. And it doesn’t — he shouldn’t have been put in jail.” A commutation would free Mr. Blagojevich, who has served six years in prison, without reversing the conviction.

Mr. Blagojevich wrote a column in The Wall Street Journal this week pleading his case in terms that seemed aimed directly at Mr. Trump’s antipathy for law enforcement agencies. “The rule of law is under assault in America,” Mr. Blagojevich wrote. “It is being perverted and abused by the people sworn to enforce and uphold it. Some in the Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation are abusing their power to criminalize the routine practices of politics and government.”

In a statement on Thursday, the former governor’s lawyer, Leonard Goodman, likewise made an argument meant to appeal to Mr. Trump, noting that prosecutors “used a cooperating informant to get a wiretap to record all of his conversations.”

During his conversation with reporters on Thursday, Mr. Trump mentioned Ms. Stewart, as well, but more in passing. “She used to be my biggest fan in the world” back “before I became a politician,” he said. “But that’s O.K., I don’t view it that way.”

In his recent book, “A Higher Loyalty,” Mr. Comey devoted an entire chapter to the case against Ms. Stewart. He wrote that he hesitated to charge her for fear of being attacked for making a “mountain out of a molehill,” but concluded that she had to be prosecuted “to protect the institution of justice, and reinforce a culture of truth-telling.”

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