October 26, 2020

Presidential Pardons and Commutations, From Whiskey Rebellion to Roger Stone

President Trump’s move on Friday to commute the 40-month prison sentence of the political operative Roger J. Stone Jr., a longtime friend of the president’s, is far from the first use of the presidential power to raise eyebrows.

The authority to issue pardons and commutations is one of the few executive powers that do not require direct approval from Congress — an echo of the British monarchy that the framers chose to include in the Constitution.

Here’s a look at controversial pardons and commutations throughout U.S. history.

ImageA painting attributed to Frederick Kemmelmeyer depicts George Washington and his troops preparing to march to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania.
Credit…Metropolitan Museum of Art

In 1794, uprisings erupted in Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania over a federal tax on whiskey. Known as the Whiskey Rebellion, it prompted President George Washington to employ militias across various states in hopes of quelling farmers who believed they were being unfairly burdened with the new tax.

Subduing the rebellion led to some being convicted of treason, said Lindsay M. Chervinsky, a White House historian and the author of “The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.”

As the nation’s first president, Washington understood how he would set precedent for future successors. Therefore, he decided not to tarnish the symbolic power of the rebellion, Dr. Chervinsky said, and pardoned two men, John Mitchell and Philip Weigel, in 1795.

According to Dr. Chervinsky, the move exemplified how Washington thought presidential pardons ought to be used: carefully, and with the intention to correct harsh wrongdoing.

“He understood that this was a moment to sort of try and be kind, and it wouldn’t harm him in any way,” she said.

Credit…Library of Congress

About three years after the end of the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson pardoned all soldiers who fought for the Confederacy, effectively removing any repercussions for having opposed the Union.

“I think he, in some ways, was acting with sort of this bigger concept that some of the other presidents had acted with as well, trying to heal the nation,” Dr. Chervinsky said.

Although possibly well intended, the move was poorly received, demonstrating the importance of timing in issuing pardons.

Credit…Gerald R. Ford Library, via EPA

When Gerald Ford entered the White House in August 1974, the country was in dire need of a reset after the presidency of Richard M. Nixon. In addition to tarnishing the image of the presidency, Nixon’s dodge of potential impeachment cast Ford in a comparatively positive light with the American people.

But the warm reception quickly cooled when, just over a month into his presidency, Ford announced that he was pardoning Nixon, exempting the former president from indictment and trial for, among other things, his role in the Watergate scandal. Many speculated that Nixon and Ford forged some sort of deal with each other, further amplifying distrust toward Nixon.

“He didn’t admit any guilt, but when you accept a pardon, that’s the idea,” said Dean Kotlowski, a history professor at Salisbury University in Maryland and the author of “Nixon’s Civil Rights: Politics, Principle and Policy.”

To avoid further disruption to American politics amid the Cold War, Ford believed a pardon of Nixon would be of the country’s best interest, Professor Kotlowski said. The move dealt a blow to Ford’s own presidency and severely battered his prospects for a second term.

Credit…Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

On Christmas Eve, after losing the 1992 election to Bill Clinton, President George Bush granted official pardons to six Reagan administration officials — including former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger — for their roles in the Iran-contra scandal.

Mr. Weinberger had been indicted by Lawrence E. Walsh, the independent prosecutor assigned to investigate the scandal, days before the election. Mr. Bush’s team derided the move as an effort to sway the vote.

It is unclear how much Mr. Bush, who had served as Mr. Reagan’s vice president, knew about the prohibited arms sales to Iran, said Jeffrey Engel, a history professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Credit…Mike Segar/Reuters

Marc Rich, a politically connected financier who fled the United States after his indictment on charges of tax evasion and other crimes, was pardoned on President Bill Clinton’s last day in office in a move that was widely criticized at the time — and was later called “terrible politics” by Mr. Clinton himself.

The I.R.S. had offered a $500,000 reward for Mr. Rich’s capture and the F.B.I. put him on the agency’s most-wanted list after he fled to Switzerland.

Eric H. Holder Jr., who was at the time deputy attorney general and later the attorney general under the Obama administration, at first said he was “neutral leaning favorable” on the pardon, but reversed his guidance weeks later.

It “really reeked of the president in his last days of office in effect selling a pardon,” Dr. Engel said. Mr. Rich’s wife had made large donations to the Democratic Party and the Clinton presidential library, and was close with the president and his wife; Mr. Clinton’s first public appearance after the Starr Report was at Ms. Rich’s apartment for a fund-raising luncheon.

Credit…Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

Pardons were on George W. Bush’s mind even in the last moments of his presidency, Mr. Bush wrote in his memoir. In a limousine with Mr. Obama on their way to the inauguration, Mr. Bush told his successor that he should decide on a pardon policy early in his term and stick to it.

Mr. Bush had struggled over what to do with I. Lewis Libby, known as Scooter, a onetime chief of staff to former Vice President Dick Cheney who had been sentenced to 30 months in prison after lying during a C.I.A. leak investigation.

Mr. Bush commuted Mr. Libby’s sentence — he still had to pay a $250,000 fine and the conviction remained on his record. And although Mr. Cheney repeatedly lobbied the president to grant Mr. Libby a full pardon, Mr. Bush’s advisers warned against it.

Ultimately, however, Mr. Cheney got what he wanted: President Trump pardoned Mr. Libby in 2018.

Notably, Mr. Bush did flip on a different decision, rescinding a pardon he had granted just a day earlier to Isaac R. Toussie, a New York real estate developer who had pleaded guilty to mail fraud and falsifying documents.

The White House said the reversal was “based on information that has subsequently come to light.” Though the statement did not elaborate, it was possible that the decision was made over concerns that Mr. Toussie’s father’s donations to the Republican National Committee and Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign could appear to have swayed Mr. Bush.

Credit…Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

When President Barack Obama announced that he would commute the sentence of Oscar López Rivera, a member of the Armed Forces for National Liberation, a Puerto Rican nationalist group, the announcement was met with joy as well as scrutiny.

The group, called F.A.L.N., was known for its staunch support of Puerto Rico’s independence and was behind major bombing attacks across the country in the 1970s and ’80s.

At the time of the commutation, Mr. López Rivera was serving a 70-year sentence for seditious conspiracy and for conspiring to escape from prison. In 1999, Mr. Clinton offered him and other F.A.L.N. members clemency, but Mr. López Rivera chose not to accept the offer.

Some saw Mr. Obama’s decision as bending to pressure from within his party, expressing dissatisfaction with his leniency toward a man whom many consider a terrorist.

“Pardoning a figure like Roger Stone is not an unusual act — doing so before an election is remarkable,” Dr. Engel said.

In most cases, as in the elder Mr. Bush’s postelection pardons, a pardon or commutation comes when there is little to no risk or political capital left to be lost.

Also, presidential pardons do not usually benefit people with whom the president has personal ties.

“For more modern presidents in the 20th and 21st century, it’s not personal,” Dr. Chervinsky said. “It’s generally not about politics, it’s more about values and social policy. Of course, this president is an exception to that.”

Dr. Engel says that Mr. Trump has an “unusual barometer for what is and is not politically damaging,” adding, “Every other president would have acted with a different calculus.”