Looking beyond the upcoming election to the last few days of Barack Obama’s legal status as a president, it’s interesting to speculate who he might pardon from their past criminal behaviors, whether indicted, convicted, incarcerated or released, or whether they are just under investigation. Typically, pardons are done on the very last day a president is in office — for good reason, in that they are arbitrary and unregulated political acts.
One one hand, the presidential pardon process is pure politics — Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, for example — and on the other hand, it can express a general policy: We might see further evidence of President Obama’s views on the federal imprisonment of nonviolent drug offenders in the last batch of people he pardons.
Sometimes, it’s just family: Bill Clinton pardoned brother Roger Clinton for his drug conviction.
But we have also been through several recent and rather massive investigations of mostly political behaviors and alleged cover-ups that some believe involve criminal conduct at the margins, let alone other clear violations of law that have resulted in convictions, but nevertheless all of them in mostly political contexts.
Accordingly, we can assume that there are already various and extensive “lists” of potential presidential pardon recipients being worked by various White House political staffers in conjunction with political appointees at the Department of Justice. Along with this go the elaborate public affairs strategies and spins also in the works — designed to explain the president’s actions — no matter how outrageous they are.
In addition, there are literally thousands of “ordinary” people who write letters to the president asking for pardons, and there typically is a process to review this kind of request. A very few of these are usually approved — however, the motives are not so much mercy and forgiveness but rather to give some perceived balance and “spin” for the rest of the mostly political pardon process.
Also, there could be a longer list of pardons “needed” if Donald Trump is elected, to protect some former Obama appointees from their fears of criminal prosecution.
The focus here, however, is on pardons for various high-level political associated situations that have already resulted — or could result — in criminal prosecutions.
Mr. Obama could pardon:
• David Petraeus and James Cartwright. These are the two former four-star generals who did stupid stuff with classified information or lied about it to the FBI. These pardons would set up nicely, at least politically, the next category of pardons — some related to the compromise of classified information — and would be done for public affairs and “spin” context to avoid the appearance of purely political favors.
• Hillary Clinton and her pod of close advisers and confidants at the State Department. The only issue here would be how far out the pardons would go, because it would be for various infractions of rules, procedures and laws involving classified information and government records. There is precedent for this: Bill Clinton pardoned John Deutch, his CIA director, for having a bunch of CIA classified materials on his private home computer — sound familiar? Mr. Deutch had already agreed to a plea deal but had not been convicted. Ironically perhaps, if Hillary Clinton is elected president, she could be pardoned by Mr. Obama the day before she is sworn in.
• Sandy Berger. Now dead, Berger admitted that he stole highly classified National Security Council documents from the National Archives (he put them in his socks), in preparation for his testimony before the 9/11 Commission. One wonders — did he steal original “smoking gun” documents on the 9/11 attack? We may never know, because he destroyed the documents — but he pleaded guilty, was convicted, fined and lost his law license.
• Internal Revenue officials. This could be for various infractions of the law in the political targeting of conservative nonprofits.
• Bill Clinton. This one could be necessary for violations of the law relating to the solicitations of money in exchange for political favors in connection with the Clinton Foundation. One could also imagine irregular attributions of “donations” as opposed to “income” that could result in simple IRS code violations. There are some other mind-boggling aspects of this “big money” dynamic: If Bill and the Clinton Foundation are investigated — and Bill is criminally implicated and Hillary is elected president — she might pardon him on her last day in office.
• Democratic congressmen convicted of crimes. The one who comes to mind first is William J. Jefferson, the guy who kept his bribe money in the freezer and who is still doing hard time for it. For balance, and to avoid the appearance of a purely political favor, a former Republican congressman might be included — such as Duke Cunningham, also convicted of bribery.
• And don’t forget: Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich tried to sell the vacated Senate seat held by Mr. Obama, and is now serving 14 years in federal prison for corruption. Will Mr. Obama pardon him? Don’t be surprised.
Because the presidential pardon process is — mostly — a purely political one, the “standard” for pardons is well understood by Washington politicos: Does it make you sick? While some of these scenarios may do exactly that, it’s simply business as usual in our nation’s capital.
• Daniel Gallington writes about national security.