February 18, 2020

Today, Trump pardoned 7 people and commuted the sentences of four others, and I am fascinated that the high-profile individuals all appear at first glance to be those who have committed financial crimes that would have been investigated by the FBI.

Trump commuted the sentence of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, who was impeached and removed from office for corruption before being convicted on 13 counts of soliciting bribes and trying to sell a U.S. Senate seat and sentenced to 14 years in prison. He pardoned Michael Milken, convicted in 1989 of securities fraud and sentenced to a $600 million fine and 22 months in prison. He pardoned David Safavian, a former lobbyist who worked in George W. Bush’s budget office and who spent close to a year in prison in 2009-2010 for obstructing justice and lying for criminal lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He pardoned Bernard Kerik, the corrupt New York former police commissioner, who in 2009 confessed to tax fraud and lying to officials. He also pardoned Edward DeBartolo, Jr., the former owner of the 49ers football team, who was extorted by a former Louisiana governor for a gambling license and paid the money rather than reporting the felony. He was fined $1 million in 1998 and suspended for a year by the NFL.

There are a number of obvious reasons for Trump to pardon or commute the sentences of the people he picked. Jared Kushner and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin were pushing for a pardon of Milken. Milken is worth more than $3 billion, and it is not unreasonable to think that some of those duckies will find their way into Trump’s campaign fund. Trump’s sometime lawyer Rudy Giuliani wanted a pardon for Kerik, while the spokesperson for Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign, Mercedes Schlapp, endorsed Safavian. DeBartolo, whose case was over and cold long ago, has a strong following in Ohio, a region Trump needs to shore up before the 2020 election.

The pardons also took the oxygen away from the growing story of opposition to his politicization of the Department of Justice, and Trump is always a master at stealing the headlines away from negative publicity. At the same time, the narrative that everyone is corrupt—deal with it!—reinforces the message of indifference and despair the Trump campaign would like its opponents to internalize.

And that all might be reason enough for these pardons. But what jumped out at me was that these high-profile pardons were all of individuals who had committed financial crimes investigated by the FBI. I wrote here on December 27 about how Trump appears to have gone out of his way to purge the FBI of employees with, as national security and intelligence community expert Natasha Bertrand put in August 2018 in The Atlantic, “extensive experience in probing money laundering and organized crime, particularly as they pertain to Russia.” These people include Robert Mueller, James Comey, Bruce Ohr, Andrew McCabe, and Lisa Page.

I wonder if these pardons are designed to discredit the FBI’s financial crimes unit even further, both to set up a pardon for his friend, advisor, and self-proclaimed dirty trickster Roger Stone, and to try to pull the fangs of the upcoming discussion of his own financial records, currently moving toward a crisis.

This morning, bright and early, Trump began tweeting about Stone, complaining about how the FBI had handled his case. “These were Mueller prosecutors, and the whole Mueller investigation was illegally set up based on a phony and now fully discredited Fake Dossier, lying and forging documents to the FISA Court, and many other things. Everything having to do with this fraudulent investigation is... badly tainted and, in my opinion, should be thrown out. Even Mueller’s statement to Congress that he did not see me to become the FBI Director (again), has been proven false. The whole deal was a total SCAM. If I wasn’t President, I’d be suing everyone all over the place... BUT MAYBE I STILL WILL. WITCH HUNT!”

(I always feel obliged to point out that these statements are factually untrue. The Mueller investigation was not based on the Steele dossier, and the DOJ Inspector General said the investigation was proper and warranted despite problems with FISA requests for surveillance of Carter Page—who was not working for Trump at the time.)

My guess is that a pardon for Stone is still very much on the table, but more than that, my guess is that Trump has his eye on the fact that the Supreme Court in March will begin to hear three cases concerning whether or not two banks and his accounting firm must hand over his financial records to congressional investigators, as lower courts have ordered.

In one of the cases, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance has asked for financial records as he looks into potential lawbreaking in New York related to hush-money paid to adult film actress Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal. Trump’s lawyers are objecting to that investigation, building on the 1973 Justice Department memo that says sitting presidents cannot be indicted to argue that sitting presidents cannot be investigated, either. Lower courts have demolished this argument.

In the other two cases, Congress has subpoenaed the financial records on two grounds: first, to see if more ethics-in-government legislation is needed (this is to address the requirement that Congress must have a legislative reason to make such inquiries); and—this is the kicker—to pursue an investigation into foreign money laundering. There have long been questions about how Trump went from a developer who specialized in debt to one who paid lavish amounts of cash for real estate just as Russians were looking to launder ill-gotten gains, and it is well-known that the bank from which Trump borrowed more than $2 billion and which handled his assets—Deutsche Bank—has been deeply embroiled in Russian money-laundering.

I could be entirely off base about this. Perhaps Trump was using these pardons simply to try to line up money and goodwill for the upcoming election. But it seems to me as if Trump is working to dismantle and to undercut the reputation of the FBI’s financial crimes division… just as he is in danger of being investigated for financial crimes.