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In Trump’s Pardons, Disdain for Accountability

WASHINGTON — Randy “Duke” Cunningham maintained a “bribe menu” on his congressional office stationery that featured different levels of …

WASHINGTON — Randy “Duke” Cunningham maintained a “bribe menu” on his congressional office stationery that featured different levels of payments he required from military contractors if they wanted his help to win corresponding levels of federal contracts.

As mayor of Detroit, Kwame M. Kilpatrick turned City Hall into what prosecutors called “a private profit machine,” taking bribes, fixing municipal contracts and even using hundreds of thousands of dollars from a city civic fund to spend on friends and family, as well as campaign expenses.

Robin Hayes, a former member of Congress serving as chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, pleaded guilty to lying to F.B.I. agents about his role in a plot to bribe a state insurance commissioner as part of an effort to secure $2 million worth of donations toward state re-election campaigns.

All received clemency from Donald J. Trump early Wednesday morning in one of his final acts as president. And Mr. Trump’s choice to use his unchecked clemency power on their behalf highlighted a theme that coursed through the more than 235 pardons and commutations he issued during his presidency — a disdain for a justice system that seeks to hold public officials to account for violations of the public trust.

As the holder of the nation’s highest public office, Mr. Trump regularly expressed resentment about federal prosecutors, the F.B.I. and others responsible for policing official malfeasance, a posture rooted in his own oft-expressed grievance that the system was being used unfairly to target him and his allies and to undermine his presidency.

While he cast himself as a law-and-order president and relished images of himself surrounded by uniforms, he and his aides and allies repeatedly came under scrutiny, most notably during the special counsel’s inquiry into whether he obstructed justice during the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and its possible collusion with his team. Throughout his presidency, Mr. Trump’s business, close associates, aides and supporters have come under investigation over a wide variety of issues, sometimes leading to charges of wrongdoing, and his legal troubles did not end with his term on Wednesday.

Mr. Trump cast such investigations as witch hunts or hoaxes, and assailed the officials conducting them as motivated by a political bias, rather than an allegiance to the law.

That theme punctuated the official explanations offered by the White House for clemency grants, and its presence galled government watchdogs, ethicists, public officials and even some supporters of greater use of clemency.

They said they worried that Mr. Trump’s use of the power to reward friends and allies, and to undermine legitimate investigations, ran counter to its intent of showing mercy to deserving recipients without regard to political connections or wealth. While other presidents used their pardon powers expansively, they relied heavily on a formal Justice Department review process that Mr. Trump largely ignored, and none so overtly linked their decisions to their own political grievances.

In announcing the pardon last month of Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who had been convicted of financial violations, witness tampering and conspiracy to defraud the United States, the White House noted that his conviction stemmed from the special counsel’s investigation, which Mr. Trump’s aides asserted in their explanation “was premised on the Russian collusion hoax.”

In the final days of his presidency, Mr. Trump talked frequently with Mr. Manafort, an administration official said. Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, told associates that Mr. Manafort had been among those urging Mr. Trump not to pardon Mr. Manafort’s former associate Rick Gates. Mr. Gates, who cooperated with the special counsel’s Russia investigation, did not get a pardon.

The White House also invoked the “Russian collusion hoax” in announcing a pardon on Wednesday to Paul Erickson, the former boyfriend of the Russian operative Maria Butina, who was briefly pulled into the investigation of Mr. Trump by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel. Mr. Erickson was convicted last July of wire fraud and money laundering related to a business deal in North Dakota.

Mr. Trump’s anti-prosecutor ethos has at times taken precedence over his antipathy for the Democratic Party. While most of the political figures to whom he granted clemency were Republicans, there were several notable Democrats, including Mr. Kilpatrick and Rod R. Blagojevich, a former Illinois governor convicted of trying to essentially sell the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when he became president.

Paul Manafort, a onetime Trump campaign chairman, was among those who received a pardon from Mr. Trump.Credit…Jefferson Siegel for The New York Times

In announcing the pardon of Mr. Blagojevich, Mr. Trump claimed that the former governor was a victim of the same forces that investigated him for years, citing James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, and Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago who prosecuted Mr. Blagojevich.

“It was a prosecution by the same people — Comey, Fitzpatrick, the same group,” Mr. Trump told reporters, misstating Mr. Fitzgerald’s name.

Some people seeking pardons sought to capitalize on Mr. Trump’s obvious grievances.

Within weeks of stepping down as the president’s lawyer in 2018, John M. Dowd, who defended Mr. Trump in the special counsel’s investigation, began marketing himself as a potential conduit for pardons. He told some would-be clients and their representatives that Mr. Trump was likely to look favorably on petitioners who were investigated by federal prosecutors in Manhattan — who regularly took on cases that touched Mr. Trump or his associates — or tarnished by perceived leaks from the F.B.I., which he openly came to distrust and criticize during the Russia investigation.

One of Mr. Dowd’s clients, William T. Walters, a sports gambler convicted of charges related to an insider-trading scheme, had his sentence commuted by Mr. Trump early Wednesday. Mr. Dowd denied that he had boasted to anyone about his ability to obtain pardons and declined to answer questions.

And Karen Giorno, a top adviser to Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign, said that she had worked to help secure a pardon for one of her clients, a former C.I.A. official convicted in 2012 of leaking classified information, by seeking to “connect the dots” between the people and techniques involved in his prosecution and the special counsel’s investigation then dogging Mr. Trump’s presidency.

The argument resonated when Ms. Giorno made it in meetings with senior administration officials, she said.

“It was compelling,” Ms. Giorno said. “We were talking about witch hunts back then, and the abuse of power.” She said she did not speak directly to Mr. Trump or lobby anyone in his administration on behalf of her client, John Kiriakou, and no longer represented him. He did not receive a pardon.

Peter Smith, a former Republican House lawmaker from Vermont, said Mr. Trump’s actions show an extraordinary disregard for the integrity of government.

“He does not just distrust the law — he scorns it, he is opposed to it and he sees it as an obstacle to doing whatever he wants,” Mr. Smith said. “He is rewarding his friends. He is rewarding his allies, and he does not care what the implications look like. It is classic strongman behavior.”

Mickey Edwards, a former House member from Oklahoma who recently decided to leave the Republican Party, said that the rush of pardons for individuals convicted of public corruption echoed personality defects that have plagued Mr. Trump during his presidency.

“It is just a reflection of the character of a man who finds laws to be inconvenient and tries to get around it anyway he can,” Mr. Edwards said. “He doesn’t understand limits. He does not understand there are things you cannot do.”

Rod R. Blagojevich, center, a former Illinois governor convicted of trying to essentially sell the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when he became president, was among the Democrats who received a pardon from Mr. Trump.Credit…Laura McDermott for The New York Times

The list of pardons and commutations issued by Mr. Trump over the years covered an encyclopedia of corruption schemes that often involved the theft of government money or other benefits.

Chris Collins, a lawmaker from New York who was the first Republican in the House to endorse Mr. Trump’s election campaign in 2016, was convicted after he admitted to calling his son from the White House Rose Garden in 2017 to share confidential corporate information provided by the chief executive of a biotech company. The advance information about the failure of a new drug in a clinical trial helped his son and others avoid more than $768,000 in stock losses. Mr. Trump pardoned Mr. Collins last month.

On Wednesday, Mr. Trump pardoned Richard G. Renzi, a former Arizona lawmaker who was sentenced in 2013 to 36 months in prison. Mr. Renzi had been convicted of using his legislative influence to secure a bribe in exchange for helping to arrange a land exchange that benefited an Arizona real estate investor, whom Mr. Renzi owed money to.

Other former public officials who benefited from Mr. Trump’s recent clemency grants include Duncan Hunter of California, a former House lawmaker who pleaded guilty in 2019 to one charge of misusing campaign funds after prosecutors said he had funneled more than $150,000 from his campaign coffers to pay for a lavish lifestyle.

Mr. Trump granted clemency to Steve Stockman of Texas, a Republican House member who was convicted in 2018 on charges of fraud and money laundering after being charged with stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars meant for charity and using it to pay for personal expenses and his political campaigns.

Mr. Trump has also given pardons or commutations to several of his other former campaign aides convicted in cases related to political corruption, like Elliott Broidy, one of his top fund-raisers in 2016, who admitted that he had accepted $9 million from the fugitive Malaysian financier Jho Low, some of which was then paid to an associate, to push for favors from the Trump administration.

Don Fox, a former general counsel at the federal Office of Government Ethics, said he was hopeful that these flurries of pardons and commutations to government officials convicted of public corruption would not serve as a message to elected officials still in office.

“People who he pardoned for political reasons are not being held fully accountable for their actions, and in that sense, justice is not being served,” Mr. Fox said. “But I hope with the passage of time, this will be seen as a complete aberration. It is hard for me to believe that any public official will believe there is a blank check out there if they are loyal to their president any crimes or misdeeds will simply be pardoned at the end of the term.”

Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Haberman contributed reporting.

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