The Flynn Pardon
Perhaps the most normal thing President Trump has done.
There is a lot of anguish about President Trump’s pardon yesterday afternoon of his 24-day National Security Advisor. But it was not only much-expected it’s not particularly unusual.
WaPo columnists Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent proclaim “Trump wages war on our country and the rule of law one last time.”
In a move no less appalling for it being no surprise, President Trump has pardoned Michael Flynn, his disgraced former national security adviser. Add him to the rogue’s gallery — among them Joe Arpaio, Dinesh D’Souza, Rod Blagojevich, Bernard Kerik and Roger Stone — of criminals and reprobates to whom Trump has given executive clemency, their loyalty and obsequiousness winning them an escape from full accountability for their misdeeds.
But Flynn stands apart from the rest, because his whole story contains so much of the Trump era in microcosm.
And in pardoning Flynn, Trump has waged what may be his final biggest act of war on our country.
Back in 2016, Flynn was given a close advisory role to the Republican candidate, mostly because he was one of the few retired flag officers who would stand behind Trump. The fact that he was a loony conspiracy theorist and venomous Islamophobe (he once said Islam is “a malignant cancer”) only helped. At the time, he was also secretly working on behalf of the Turkish government.
Flynn’s 24-day tenure as national security adviser came to an end when routine government surveillance of the Russian ambassador discovered the two officials in conversation before Trump was inaugurated. When the FBI questioned Flynn about it, he lied to the agents about the substance of their conversations, as well as to others in the Trump White House.
Flynn pleaded guilty to his crime, and that could have been the end of it. But then — and this is where his story becomes even more a Trump story — he was adopted by the far right as a martyr, a victim of the so-called deep state, a hero whose only crime was service to Donald Trump.
Attorney General William P. Barr injected himself into the case this past May, seeking to undo Flynn’s guilty plea. To say it’s unusual for the nation’s chief prosecutor to come to the side of someone who has already pleaded guilty would be an understatement. Along with the commutation given to Stone, it was as vivid an illustration of the corruption of the Justice Department as one could imagine.
Over at the NYT, Kenneth P. Vogel and Eric Lipton predict “Trump’s Pardon of Flynn Signals Prospect of a Wave in His Final Weeks in Office.”
When President Trump pardoned Michael T. Flynn on Wednesday, he did more than wipe clean the record of his first national security adviser, who had twice pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. He also bolstered the hopes of a wide array of clemency seekers that he might deliver a wave of pardons and commutations before leaving office.
Among the others looking for pardons are two former Trump campaign advisers, Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos, who like Mr. Flynn were convicted in cases stemming from the special counsel’s Russia investigation.
But lawyers and others who have been in touch with the White House say they anticipate that Mr. Trump will use his authority in cases that extend beyond those involving the special counsel’s inquiry and the lengthy cast of aides and associates who have gotten in legal trouble since he first ran for the presidency.
Alan Dershowitz, the law professor who represented Mr. Trump during his impeachment trial, is advising two of his clients — a New Jersey man serving more than 20 years for defrauding investors, and a billionaire businessman convicted in what’s been called “one of North Carolina’s worst government corruption scandals” — on whether to seek clemency.
Mr. Dershowitz said he recently discussed the pardon process with the White House. He praised Mr. Trump’s pardon of Mr. Flynn, and said that “he should extend that to others who are less well known.”
The end of any presidential administration is a time for intense lobbying related to pardons.
But in Mr. Trump’s case, it extends to his own personal and political considerations, his lingering bitterness over the Russia inquiry and his transactional approach to governing.
The sheer number of people in the president’s circle to have gotten in trouble with the law has also made the question of pardons especially fraught.
Mr. Flynn has been enmeshed in a long battle to clear himself despite his admissions that he had lied to investigators about his contacts with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition four years ago. The Justice Department had moved in the spring to withdraw the charge against him, but his case remained tied up in the courts.
In addition to Mr. Flynn, Mr. Gates and Mr. Papadopoulos, Trump aides and associates who have been convicted include Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former lawyer; Roger J. Stone Jr., his longtime friend and adviser; and Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman.
Others in the president’s circle to face federal charges include Stephen K. Bannon, his former strategist, who was indicted in August on charges of defrauding donors to a campaign to support Mr. Trump’s plans to build a wall along the border with Mexico, and Elliott Broidy, a top fund-raiser, who pleaded guilty last month in a foreign lobbying case.
I’ve been railing about corruption in the Trump administration—and Trump himself—since literally before it was sworn in. The self-dealing, conflicts with the Emoluments Clause, and the like were already evident in November 2016.
Still, I can’t get too upset with the Flynn pardon or even most of those to come. Even Presidents who I consider great patriots and public servants, like George H. W. Bush, used the plenary power granted to them under Article II to set aside the convictions—or forestall charges against—their close political allies. George W. Bush was actually excoriated by his own Vice President for simply commuting Scooter Libby’s sentence rather than going all the way and issuing a pardon (which Trump did early in his tenure).
Now, I don’t join Eli Lake or Glenn Greenwald in thinking that Flynn deserved to be pardoned. He’s a lying weasel who sold out his country. But no President would let the conviction of a loyal ally who got into legal trouble for trying to help him politically stand.
UPDATE: Looking at the Wiki for Presidential pardons, there aren’t all that many comparables. As pointed out in the comments, Nixon never pardoned any of his Watergate co-conspirators nor did Reagan do so for the Iran-Contra gang. My recollection was really triggered by these back-to-back cases in the 1990s:
George H. W. Bush
For their roles in the Iran-Contra affair
- Elliott Abrams
- Duane Clarridge
- Clair George
- Alan Fiers
- Robert McFarlane – National Security Adviser to President Ronald Reagan
- Caspar Weinberger – Secretary of Defense under President Ronald Reagan
- Henry Cisneros – Clinton’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count for lying to the FBI in 1999 about payments to a mistress, and was fined $10,000.
- Roger Clinton, Jr. – brother of Bill Clinton. After serving a year in federal prison (1985-86) for cocaine possession.
- John Deutch – Director of Central Intelligence, former Provost and University Professor, MIT. He had agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor for mishandling government secrets on January 19, 2001, but President Clinton pardoned him in his last day in office, two days before the Justice Department could file the case against him.
- Susan McDougal – business partner with Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton in the failed Whitewater land deal. Guilty of contempt of court, she served her entire sentence starting in 1998 and was then pardoned.
- Mel Reynolds – Former Democratic member of the United States House of Representatives from Illinois. Convicted of bank fraud and obstruction of justice in 1997; sentence was commuted.
- Marc Rich, Pincus Green – business partners; indicted by U.S. Attorney on charges of tax evasion and illegal trading with Iran in 1983 and fled the country that year. Pardoned in 2001 after Rich’s ex-wife, Denise Eisenberg Rich, made large donations to the Democratic Party and the Clinton Foundation.
- Dan Rostenkowski – Former Democratic member of the US House of Representatives from Illinois, indicted for his role in the Congressional Post Office scandal and pleaded guilty to mail fraud in 1996. Served his entire 17-month sentence, then pardoned in December 2000.
I agree that Barack Obama’s pardon of James Cartwright (“retired US Marine Corps four-star general, he pleaded guilty to giving false statements to federal investigators in 2016 and was awaiting sentencing. Pardoned on January 17, 2017”) is in a different category.