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Most clemency grants bypass Justice Department and go to well-connected offenders

  • Author: Beth Reinhard, Anne Gearan, The Washington Post
  • Updated: February 3
  • Published February 3

Kim Kardashian in June with President Trump who has taken up clemency causes Kardashian championed. (Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford)

WASHINGTON - Two days after President Donald Trump freed a great-grandmother sentenced to life in prison, he praised the reality television star and social influencer who had championed her release.

"Kim Kardashian was great because she brought Alice to my attention," Trump said in 2018 of Alice Marie Johnson, who had served nearly 22 years for first-time, nonviolent drug-trafficking crimes.

Johnson's image reappeared Sunday during the Super Bowl in an ad run by Trump's reelection campaign touting his record on criminal justice.

The ad didn't mention Kardashian - or that all but five of the 24 people who have received clemency from Trump had a line into the White House or currency with his political base, according to a review by The Washington Post. As the administration takes its cues from celebrities, political allies and Fox News, thousands of other offenders who followed Department of Justice rules are waiting, passed over as cases that were brought directly to Trump leaped to the front of line.

For more than 125 years, the Office of the Pardon Attorney in the Justice Department has quietly served as the key adviser on clemency, one of the most unlimited powers bestowed by the Constitution on the president.

Under Trump, the pardon office has become a bureaucratic way station, according to government data and interviews with lawyers, criminal justice advocates, and former pardon and White House officials.

Most of Trump's grants of clemency have gone to well-connected offenders who had not filed petitions with the pardon office or did not meet its requirements, The Post review shows.

"The joy you get finding meritorious people, working on those cases, making recommendations that go to the White House, seeing people receive the grants - you feel like you've done something," said Larry Kupers, the former head of the office, who quit last year. "If that's not happening, it feels like you are spinning your wheels."

Trump's approach is perfectly legal. The Constitution's only restrictions on the pardon power is that it applies only to federal crimes and not to impeachment.

Trump has reveled in that clout, saying "the power to pardon is a beautiful thing," and claiming he has the "absolute power" to pardon himself.

He has used the power, however, very sparingly.

After roughly three years in office, Trump's six predecessors had signed off on hundreds or even thousands of petitions forwarded from the Justice Department. Most were denials, a disappointing but vital step for offenders in limbo who can't ask for clemency again until they are turned down.

Ronald Reagan set a low bar with 669 decisions during his first three years; 3,993 petitions processed during Barack Obama's first three years reached a high-water mark.

Trump has ruled on only 204 clemency requests - 24 approvals and 180 denials. That is the slowest pace in decades.

"I almost wish it would get denied. At least I would know that someone had looked at it," said 39-year-old Nichole Forde, who handwrote her petition in 2016 from the Minnesota prison where she is serving a 27-year sentence for nonviolent drug crimes.

In the most recent end-runs around the pardon office and over the objections of Pentagon officials, Trump in November pardoned two former Army officers: Maj. Mathew L. Golsteyn, facing trial for premeditated murder, and 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, convicted of murder after ordering soldiers to fire at unarmed men in Afghanistan. The White House cited endorsements from several Republican congressmen and a Fox News host.

Golsteyn's pardon means he will not stand trial. Three weeks after the Lorance and Golsteyn pardons, Trump brought both pardoned men onstage at a closed-door Republican fundraiser in Miami.

During the Super Bowl, the reelection campaign blasted a fundraising appeal invoking Johnson's release with 'Go Alice!"

The White House declined to answer detailed questions about the president's approach to clemency.

Asked what advice he would give offenders seeking leniency, Kupers said, "Find a way to get to Kim Kardashian. I'm very serious about that."

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Clemency can take two forms: commutations shorten sentences, and pardons erase the civil consequences of criminal convictions, including limits on gun ownership, jury service and voting rights.

For decades, federal offenders filed petitions for clemency with the pardon office, which assigns a staff attorney to investigate each case.

The office may be one of the least visible and least understood corners of a federal government scorned by a president who has declared war on what he calls the "deep state."

With an annual budget of about $4.5 million, the office employs about 19 people, including 11 attorneys.

For pardons, the office looks for acceptance of responsibility and good conduct for a substantial period of time after conviction, among other considerations, according to justice department guidelines. Commutations hinge on the undue severity of a sentence, the amount of time served and demonstrated rehabilitation.

The pardon office's decisions undergo scrutiny by the deputy attorney general, the number two official at the Justice Department, who makes final recommendations to the White House Counsel's Office. During the Trump administration, the counsel's office has been almost singularly focused on nominating conservative judicial nominees and more recently, on impeachment.

What's more, the administration inherited a backlog of more than 11,300 petitions, according to justice department statistics.

Nearly 7,600 petitions have been filed since Trump took office, as of late January. About 5,900 petitions have been closed by the pardon office during Trump's tenure because the inmate was released, died or ineligible for clemency.

Trump's decisions on only 204 petitions means nearly 13,000 people are waiting.

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to say how many of its recommendations are backlogged at the White House.

The current pardon attorney, Rosalind Sargent-Burns, said she was not authorized to talk to the press.

Justice Department spokeswoman Nicole Navas declined to comment on the pace or nature of clemency grants under Trump but noted his singular authority.

"The President always retains the plenary power granted to him by the Constitution to pardon or commute sentences, and does so at his sole discretion, guided when he sees fit by the advice of the Pardon Attorney," Navas said.

A former senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal decisions, echoed that assessment.

"The pardon power is one of the few presidential powers that is subject to few, if any, limitations," the official said. "Trump has used it in a way that is probably more transparently political than his predecessors, but all things considered, he's been reasonably restrained in the number of times he's exercised it."

Starting with his first pardon to former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, Trump signaled he would ignore convention.

The sheriff, a Trump booster who had defied a judge's orders on detaining suspected illegal immigrants, had not filed a petition and was pardoned just one month after his conviction on a contempt charge. Justice Department guidelines generally prohibit pardon requests until five years after conviction or release from confinement, whichever comes later.

A lawyer for George Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign aide who served 12 days in prison in 2018 for lying to the FBI in the Russia investigation, requested a pardon only a few months after his release.

"Because of the unique circumstances of George's case . . . it was very clear to me that a traditional submission to the DOJ Office of the Pardon Attorney would not be the most prudent strategy," said his attorney, Caroline J. Polisi. "Given what we knew about the unorthodox way the president has approached his granting of other pardons, we decided a less formal approach was appropriate." She declined to say whom in the White House she approached.

Former White House officials describe a freewheeling atmosphere in which staffers have fielded suggestions from Trump friends while sometimes throwing in their own recommendations.

Former White House staff secretary Rob Porter, whose job was managing the flow of paperwork and people into the Oval Office, took a leading role refereeing pardon requests before he left, according to four former or current officials. Senior advisers Kellyanne Conway and Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, also have relayed clemency requests to Trump in largely informal settings, those officials said.

When Trump began talking about pardoning Arpaio in the spring of 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions advised waiting until after a verdict. Trump was undeterred; Arpaio had endorsed him in early 2016 when he was a long shot candidate and the president thought the former sheriff had been treated unfairly, former White House officials said.

"It was so obviously political," a former official said. "The first early discussion we had was about Joe Arpaio, and there was discussion about, 'Do you want this to be the first?' "

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Most presidents in recent decades have faced accusations at one time or another that they exploited the pardon power. Bill Clinton issued pardons in the final hours of his presidency to his half brother, a Whitewater business partner, his former housing secretary and a fugitive commodities trader married to a major Democratic donor.

Presidents also have circumvented the formal pardon process to advance national interests, as when Obama offered clemency to seven Iranians charged with violating U.S. trade sanctions in exchange for the release of four Americans imprisoned in Iran, including Post reporter Jason Rezaian.

Under Trump, however, politically motivated grants have become the rule, not the exception.

"I don't blame Kim Kardashian putting forward names. I blame them for listening to her," said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a nonprofit that promotes sentencing reform. "It makes people cynical because the process isn't based on merit."

Of the five people who received clemency without White House connections or appeal to Trump's political base, one went to a man whose pardon from Obama mistakenly omitted one conviction. The other four were for men who committed minor crimes in the 1980s and 1990s.

Roy McKeever, one of the four, said he was a "stupid kid who wanted fast money" in 1988 when he was busted for transporting marijuana from Mexico to Oklahoma. He served one year in prison and one year probation. He applied for the pardon in 2016, he said, "so my dad wouldn't be so disappointed."

"It surprised me too," McKeever, now 50, said when he heard last year he had been pardoned. "I didn't think you could get a pardon unless you knew somebody."

Oklahoma City lawyer Michael Risley said he had no idea how his client - his first for a federal pardon - got to the front of the line. "My sincere hope is that it's because we did a good job on the paperwork," Risley said.

Money and access have proved to be far more valuable under Trump.

Celebrity attorney Alan Dershowitz, a Trump ally who defended the president at his impeachment trial, got in a pitch for client Sholom Rubashkin during a 2017 visit to the White House to discuss Middle East policy. Dershowitz said he used a few minutes with Trump in the Oval Office to urge clemency for the Iowa kosher meatpacking executive sentenced to 27 years of money laundering. Trump was sympathetic to the argument that the successful business owner had been mistreated by the government, Dershowitz said.

"That resonated with him. As a businessman, he understood it," Dershowitz said of Trump.

Dershowitz said Trump also was moved by his assertion that anti-Semitism had resulted in a disproportionately harsh sentence. Rubashkin's backers included conservative Jews and evangelical Christians, significant strands of Trump's political coalition. Kushner, an Orthodox Jew, was Rubashkin's most vocal advocate inside the White House, according to two former officials.

Other Trump advisers urged caution because of the severity of Rubashkin's crimes in which prosecutors said he had bilked lenders out of more than $26 million.

But Obama's denial of clemency for Rubashkin helped motivate Trump to adopt the opposite view, two advisers said.

"I would suspect a lot of pardons are given after face-to-face meetings," said Dershowitz, who had failed to persuade Obama to help Rubashkin.

- - -

Obama granted a record-setting 1,700 commutations under a sweeping initiative that prioritized nonviolent drug offenders and expanded the criteria for commutations, triggering a record-setting flood of applicants.

Nearly all of those selected had been sentenced under the severe, mandatory-minimum penalties deployed during the "war on drugs" of the 1980s.

Obama's clemency program was widely described as historic but also inefficient and chaotic. Then-Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff resigned in January 2016 in part, she said, because her office needed more staff and resources.

Kupers was a former federal public defender who joined the pardon office as a senior attorney in 2014, induced by Obama's program.

"The clemency initiative set up these hopes and then they were virtually and entirely dashed after Trump's election," Kupers said.

Under Trump, the pardon office quietly reverted to the stricter pre-Obama guidelines for commutations.

Yet Trump also has raised hopes - with off-the-cuff remarks that have taken his own aides aback.

On the day after Johnson's release, Trump vowed to grant more pardons. "We have 3,000 names," he told reporters. "We're looking at them. Of the 3,000 names, many of those names really have been treated unfairly . . . And I would get more thrill out of pardoning people that nobody knows."

Kupers, who served as acting pardon attorney and deputy pardon attorney during Trump's first two years in office, said he didn't know what the 3,000 referenced.

The White House declined to comment on the meaning of what Trump said.

Some criminal justice advocates said they assumed the president was referring to names sent directly to the White House - not the official pipeline.

But that mention rang like a fire alarm in the community of roughly 175,000 federal inmates and their families.

Forde, the inmate who said she handwrote her petition in her un-airconditioned room, dripping sweat on to the form, was so excited to hear about Trump's "list" that she followed up with a letter to the White House.

More than three years later, Forde is losing hope.

"Why did he bring it up at all?" she wrote in an email to The Post. "It makes me want to pull my hair out. To feel like freedom is so close."

"I wonder if that list is still sitting there," she added.

Mary Anne Locke, serving a 20-year sentence in the same prison as Forde, thought she, too, finally had a shot at a second chance after word of Trump's remarks spread through channels that people familiar with the criminal justice system dub inmatedotcom. She was indicted in 2008 as part of a methamphetamine distribution scheme. The long sentence stunned her family because she had cooperated with law enforcement.

"I'm extremely happy for each and every person that gets any kind of relief, but I wish there were more opportunities for those of us without those connections," Locke, who is 41, said in a telephone interview. "If a connection is what it takes, then I pray for the right person to come along for me."

Her father, John Owen, wrote an open letter in the Des Moines Register in July 2018 to Trump, describing his daughter's struggle to overcome her drug addiction.

"I'm frustrated that the entire system is so slow moving," he said in a recent interview with The Post.

- - -

Lawyers who specialize in clemency say the system has moved slowly for decades.

The way they tell it, the pardon office is like a black box - the only updates available on petitions are "pending" and "denied." Deputy attorneys general, who make the final determination before petitions reach the White House Counsel's Office, tend to be reluctant to mitigate decisions made by fellow prosecutors in the criminal justice system.

In that climate, a Kardashian endorsement becomes all the more coveted.

"It feels UNBELIEVABLE & AMAZING to have her (Kim) support me & advocate for my release!" wrote Chris Young, a 31-year-old serving a life sentence in a Texas prison for drug crimes, in an email to The Post. His commutation request was turned down by Obama - but Kardashian has talked him up to Trump. "I still have to keep a ton of humility & patience in me, cause i still haven't been released."

Even the judge who sentenced Young, Kevin Sharp, has praised Kardashian's advocacy for Young, tweeting after he left the bench: "What I was required to do that day was cruel and did not make us safer."

Young's attorney, Brittany Barnett, is the co-founder of a legal project that has received funding from Kardashian and assists inmates serving life sentences. Barnett has built a national reputation helping to secure commutations for eight people, including Johnson, whose clemency request previously had been rejected by Obama.

"I don't feel that someone seeking clemency should have to have a celebrity endorsement, but as a lawyer, if that's the avenue I have to free my client, then we have to pursue it," Barnett said. "My alternative would be to let my client die in prison because Trump's not following the protocol."

Kardashian declined an interview request.

Lorance, the former Army infantry officer convicted of murder, also failed to win clemency from Obama. After Trump's election, Lorance's story gained traction in the media as Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Pete Hegseth championed his case and a STARZ documentary highlighted inconsistencies in the prosecution.

"You never really know which pebble you drop on the scale of justice tips the balance," said Lorance's attorney, John Maher. "We were of the thought to use all of them."

The made-for-television decisions by Trump are what drove Kupers to leave the pardon office in June 2019. His colleagues included graduates of Yale, Northwestern and University of Texas law schools and former prosecutors and defense attorneys chosen for their strong analytical and writing skills.

"We had impartial lawyers who developed over time an expertise in evaluating applications and the skills to determine whether this is a person who could be a danger to the public," Kupers said. "If you leave it to the White House, you are more likely to get arbitrary, capricious pardons that may be perfectly legal but are not what the Founding Fathers had in mind."

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The Washington Post’s Alice Crites and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.

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