President Trump raised eyebrows Thursday with an unorthodox use of his pardon power, letting filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza off the hook for campaign finance violations and suggesting reprieves for two more celebrity convicts: former Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich and lifestyle maven Martha Stewart.
Mr. Trump has used his power to grant clemency — one of the most absolute authorities a president possesses — in an unusual manner: by scanning TV and newspaper headlines and selecting cases where he sees injustice and then delivering his own brand of presidential mercy.
But the freewheeling use of clemency, though within his constitutional authority, is fueling suspicion on the left that Mr. Trump is merely warming up his pardon pen for allies caught up in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
One constitutional scholar has even cited impeachment as a potential remedy for abuse of the Oval Office’s power to issue pardons.
Mr. Trump said he didn’t have a personal relationship with Mr. D’Souza but knew about his case and thought he got a raw deal. “Nobody asked me to do it,” Mr. Trump told reporters traveling with him on Air Force One. “I’ve always felt he was very unfairly treated.”
Mr. D’Souza pleaded guilty in 2014 to making an illegal campaign contribution to New York politician Went Long. He was sentenced to five years of probation, eight months in a halfway house and a $30,000 fine.
Conservatives said the charges were the Obama administration’s political payback for Mr. D’Souza’s films that ripped President Obama and the Democratic Party.
The pardon spurred howls on the left.
Floating clemency for Blagojevich and Ms. Stewart, however, was startling.
“I have no idea why Blagojevich and Stewart are on the president’s radar,” said Andrew Rudalevige, a scholar of presidential powers at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. “But, the presidential pardon power is one of the few Article II powers that is not checked by the other branches, in part because it is itself a potential check on the courts.”
Regarding Blagojevich, who is serving 14 years for corruption as governor, including trying to “sell” an appointment to a vacant Senate seat, Mr. Trump said the prison sentence was too long.
“Plenty of other politicians have said a lot worse. He shouldn’t have been put in jail,” Mr. Trump said. “And he’s a Democrat. He’s not my party. But I thought that he was treated unfairly.”
Mr. Trump has links to both Blagojevich and Ms. Stewart, although neither is considered close or politically allied with the president.
Blagojevich was a contestant on Mr. Trump’s reality TV show “The Apprentice.”
Ms. Stewart starred in a spinoff of “The Apprentice.” She was prosecuted in 2004 by U.S. Attorney James B. Comey, who went on to become FBI director until he was fired by Mr. Trump.
Mr. D’Souza always insisted he was the target of politically motivated prosecution.
The U.S. attorney who oversaw his prosecution, Preet Bharara, was fired by Mr. Trump when Mr. Bharara refused to resign. Mr. Bharara has since become an outspoken critic of Mr. Trump.
Mr. D’Souza said his case showed how President Obama and Hillary Clinton “gangsterized U.S. politics.”
“With regards to Preet Bharara, I see him along with [former Attorney General] Eric Holder as sort of part of this Obama team of goons that was unleashed to get me in retaliation for the movie I made about Obama,” Mr. D’Souza said on Laura Ingraham’s radio show.
Mr. Bharara said the presidential pardon did not change the fact that Mr. D’Souza broke the law.
“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. The career prosecutors and agents did their job. Period,” tweeted Mr. Bharara.
Carrie H. Cohen, who led the federal prosecution of Mr. D’Souza, said he “pleaded guilty because he was guilty.”
Others on the left saw a more sinister motivation.
The liberal group Public Citizen described the pardon as a “blazing signal” to Mr. Trump’s allies that they will be rewarded for loyalty amid Mr. Mueller’s investigation.
David Donnelly, president of the liberal advocacy group Every Voice, said it “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.”
Mr. Trump weathered criticism for some of his previous four pardons. He was accused of bailing out cronies when he pardoned former Maricopa County (Arizona) Sheriff Joe Arpaio for contempt of court.
The left also accused Mr. Trump of sending a message to allies when he pardoned I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, an official in the George W. Bush White House who was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in the investigation of leaking the covert identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame.
Jamal Greene, a constitutional scholar at Columbia Law School, said the president’s power to pardon is broad but not absolute.
“If a president were to issue pardons corruptly — for example, to help insulate himself from criminal process or to punish his political enemies — I think Congress would be entitled to think of it as an abuse of office,” he said. “Whether the D’Souza or Libby pardons or the ones floated today rise to that level depends on facts that we don’t know yet, but the remedy, if any, is really with Congress and its oversight and impeachment powers.”
Mr. Trump also pardoned Kristian Mark Saucier for unauthorized retention of defense information.
He commuted the sentence of Sholom Rubashkin, the former CEO of what was America’s largest kosher slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant. He was sentenced to 27 years in prison for bank fraud, a sentence the White House said was too harsh compared with typical sentences for similar offenses.
Some clemency cases come to Mr. Trump’s attention not because the convict is a celebrity but because a celebrity has adopted the cause.
Reality TV star Kim Kardashian West visited Mr. Trump in the Oval Office Wednesday to push for prison reform and a pardon for Alice Marie Johnson, a great-grandmother serving a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense.
Johnson, 63, has spent two decades behind bars.
Mr. Trump posthumously pardoned boxing legend Jack Johnson at the urging of movie star Sylvester Stallone.
The president considered it the most important pardon he has granted so far, said White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley.
The 1913 conviction of Johnson, America’s first black heavyweight boxing champion, was widely viewed as a case of racially tinged prosecution.
Mr. Trump veers from norms with how he selects cases for clemency and how the pardon process is handled.
Of the five pardons he has issued so far, the ones for Mr. Arpaio and Mr. Libby did not follow standard procedure of going through the Justice Department’s pardons office.
Johnson, who died in 1946, could not have resubmitted his request for clemency to the Justice Department’s pardons office.
The pardon for Mr. D’Souza did get cleared by White House Counsel Don McGahn, said White House spokesman Raj Shah.
Mr. Shah balked when a reporter asked if Mr. Trump was sending a message about the Mueller investigation.
“No,” he said. “Each of the president’s actions — the pardons and other things — should be judged on the merits, looking at the facts and circumstances surrounding that case.”
Whatever the process Mr. Trump uses, it stands in stark contrast with that of the previous administration.
The Obama White House painstakingly reviewed clemency petitions. Mr. Obama also used the process to churn out 1,715 commutations, including 212 pardons, in eight years.
While most of Mr. Obama’s clemencies targeted long sentences for drug crimes that disproportionately impacted minorities, he also issued several controversial pardons, including for Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning for passing secret Pentagon documents to WikiLeaks.
Just before leaving office, Mr. Obama commuted the sentence of Oscar Lopez Rivera, 74, a member of the Puerto Rican militant group Armed Forces of National Liberation, who was convicted of conspiring to overthrow the U.S. government.