USRESIST NEWS Blog
The Trump Watch: A new USRESIST NEWS Blog Post series intended to report on the activities of President Trump at the end of his Presidency and after he leaves the White House.
# 2 Trump Issues Pardons and Creates Nuisances for the Biden/Harris Team on his Way Out the Door
By Sean Gray
Trump’s last days were marked by chaos, scandal and general ineptitude. Donald Trump’s swan song as a one term president has been unlike any before him. Self dealing and empty bombast have been the cornerstone of Trump’s political brand. With his tenure at an end, those chickens have come home to roost. Trump faces a second impeachment trial for his inciting role in the siege at the Capital. His use of pardons is coming under close scrutiny. And though he mostly abdicated governing since failing to acknowledge his November election loss, he took care to try to impede the Biden administration before it begins.
Donald Trump was as likely to be impeached twice as any president ever will be. For all the partisan bickering over his conduct in office, he was seldom held to account in any meaningful way. There existed more appetite for doing so in the final hours of his term. Organizing and instigating the insurrection at the Capital building was apparently a bridge too far in the eyes of his Republican allies. So much so that 10 GOP House members, along with the entirety of the Democratic caucus voted for the Articles of Impeachment against him. That prospect was unthinkable last time around.
With his term of office ended, a potential Senate trial serves as more of a referendum on Trump as a political more than anything else. When a trial begins, it will be after Trump is already out of office. Also different than the previous Senate trial, when the jury was publicly and vocally in the bag, most of Trump’s GOP confederates have been quite open in their condemnation of his behavior. If convicted by a 2/3 majority after exiting office, Trump would lose his presidential pension and a host of related perks. Soon-to-be Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, rather than whipping votes has told his Republican colleagues that their vote is ‘’one of conscience’’. No greater testament exists to how far Trump’s political star has fallen since his abortive coup on January 6th. Of most consequence in a post-presidency Senate trial would be a vote following conviction to bar Trump from holding office again, which would require only a simple majority. A vote to end Trump’s 2024 bid before it starts would serve as a thorough repudiation of him, at the risk of alienating an intensely loyal voting bloc.
Presidential pardon power is near absolute. Trump hasn’t shied from using it on felons in his orbit, as in the cases of Roger Stone or Paul Manafort. Once again he has demonstrated that norms are worthless if they’re ignored without consequence. Trump has treated his entire presidency transactionally on a personal level. His last few days have proven no exception. According to The New York Times, wealthy felons have spent good money to bend the outgoing president’s ear as he reviews the clemency process. Brett Tolman, a former federal prosecutor brought in to assist in the process has allegedly collected tens of thousands of dollars from deep-pocketed convicts looking to lobby Trump. He’s advocated on behalf of an imprisoned son of an Arkansas state senator, a Manhattan socialite who pled guilty in a fraud case, and Silk Road founder Russ Ulbricht. The lawyer brought in to assist this president with pardons and commutations monetizing the process is perhaps the most spot-on characterization of the Trump administration.
Former and current Trump attorneys John Down and Rudy Giuliani are also reportedly active in the pardon-lobby racket. Giuliani, who Trump has refused to pay for his recent legal work in relation to overturning the 2020 election, has taken the pay-for play scheme to audacious levels. Rather than mere ‘’access fees’’, Giuliani has taken an interest in the case of former CIA officer John Kiriakou. Kiriakou was convicted in 2012 for revealing the identity of a fellow CIA officer involved in torture overseas. Giuliani reportedly told Kiriakou a pardon would cost him $2 million, a price tag at which the latter balked. An associate of the former CIA officer informed the FBI of the conversation.
Such lobbying efforts appear to have been effective. A great many recipients of last minute pardons were wealthy, well-connected individuals; a fitting commentary on Trump’s political priorities from the beginning.
Steve Bannon, alt-right provocateur and Trump’s 2016 campaign manager was facing federal fraud charges related to swindling donors in the private financing of a southern border wall.
Eliot Brody, once-convicted fraudster and former head of the Republican National Convention pled guilty in October 2020 of acting as an unregistered foreign agent. He lobbied the Trump administration on behalf of the Chinese and Malaysian governments.
Each is off scot free and with seemingly little reason other than an intimate connection to Donald Trump. No other pardonees were as close to the seat of power, but convictions and accusations of fraud are the most prevailing trends among the other beneficiaries. A man awaiting sentencing in the Varsity Blues scandal received a pardon. As did the former husband of Fox News host, Jeannine Pirro, who had been convicted of tax evasion. Over a dozen pardons were issued to politicians of either party engaged in various acts of self-enriching misconduct. Some of the pardons issued did go towards more traditional and deserving recipients, such as those who’d served time, and shown a degree of contrition. But by and large, most of the issuances by Trump were a nod to the swamp he pledged to drain four years ago.
Unscrupulous as it may appear, neither Trump nor associates have run afoul of the law. Pardons are intended to ease punishment of offenders who’ve shown contrition, though it is not a hard-and-fast rule. The usual channel runs through a dedicated office within the Department of Justice. Dowd, Giuliani and Tolman are involved in what amounts to legal bribery. Their conduct violates the spirit of, but not the actual letter of the law. These ethical considerations provide ample food for thought without even mentioning an attempt by Trump to pardon himself.
Trump has still yet to and probably won’t acknowledge Biden as the legitimate president. As a parting gift to the incoming ‘’election, Trump has attempted to plant a few landmines for the Biden/Harris team.
In a letter to Congress, Trump has sought to freeze $27.5 billion in funding to key cabinet agencies. A provision in the 1974 Budget Impoundment and Control Act allows him to request freeze and rescind budget authority in specific areas. The proposed cuts, among them to the Environmental Protection Agency, mostly coincide with the ones rejected in Trump’s 2021 budget. With Democrats in control of all three branches of government, the move is unlikely to stick, or do anything more than delay inevitable funding to federal programs. Still, Trump’s attempt at forced austerity on his successor (after a term in which he ballooned the national debt) signal his intentions loud and clear.
With less than 72 hours left in his term, Trump nominated a political ally for the role of General Counsel at the National Security Agency. Michael Ellis is a former GOP operative and White House aide who also worked for blind Trump loyalist, Rep. Devin Nunes. He was involved in covering-up the call which led to Trump’s impeachment and fed disinformation to Nunes, which he used in an attempt to discredit Robert Mueller’s investigation. Such a partisan actor in what is supposed to be a strictly apolitical role would be problematic at anytime. For Trump to do so with less than three days remaining in his term is irregular and irresponsible. Politicizing intelligence helped Trump discredit information unflattering to him, and amplify intelligence he found agreeable, regardless of veracity. It also weakened national security and sowed confusion. Appointing a political hack to the top legal position in the NSA can only reinforce dangerous precedents. It also creates another headache for the incoming administration to contend with.
Trump’s budget maneuver is likely to be little more than a nuisance. Ellis’ appointment (to a civil service, not a political role) may be more difficult to undo. Notes of pettiness and sabotage may be detected in both. Each case was among several reported fires the Trump administration has started on the way out. It begs the question of what other nasty surprises await Biden/Harris upon assuming office.