Charles Laffiteau's Bigger Picture
2018-07-15 14:42:07 -
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By Charles Laffiteau

When US President Donald Trump’s current personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, was asked if Trump’s legal team had ever discussed a pardon with his predecessor Michael Cohen, Giuliani said they had not. Giuliani then defended Trump’s “unfettered power” to pardon by claiming that President Ronald Reagan “gave out 900 pardons, far fewer than Obama or President Trump.” 

As both a lifelong Republican and a student of history, I want to attempt to set the record straight on past presidential grants of clemency, as well the differences between the Republican Party of President Reagan and the current party of President Trump. I will only cite real facts that can be substantiated by US Justice Department records, rather than ‘alternative facts’. I should also note that a presidential pardon forgives and nullifies federal convictions, while a commutation only reduces their prison sentence.

Since Giuliani mentioned both Presidents Reagan and Obama in his defence of President Trump, let’s look at their pardons and commutations and how they compared with other grants of clemency over the past 40 years. For starters, it is a fact that President Reagan only gave clemency to 406 convicts, not 900 — and of that total, 13 were sentence commutations and 393 were full pardons. On the other hand, President Obama issued just 212 pardons but commuted the sentences of 1,715 people, most of who were convicted of non-violent drug offences.

In contrast to President Reagan, fellow Republican President George Bush pardoned just 189 citizens and commuted the sentences of another 11, while his father President George HW Bush only pardoned 74 Americans and reduced the prison sentences of an additional three people. Democratic Presidents, on the other hand, have been much more generous when it comes to granting clemency. While they did not commute over 1,700 prison sentences like President Obama did, President Clinton issued more pardons (396) but just 63 commutations, while President Carter gave out 534 pardons and 32 sentence reductions.

It should also be noted that while all of these past presidents’ clemency grants were reviewed and processed through the US Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, none of President Trump’s have received this vetting. Thus far, Trump has commuted the sentence of a meatpacking executive who abused his illegal immigrant workers and a woman of colour, and has pardoned five white men who are held in high regard by other white Republicans.

But there is one other thing President Trump’s five pardons have in common. They also serve to advance the ‘alternative reality’ that these, as well as some other federal prosecutions, were politically motivated and therefore illegitimate. In addition to his most recent pardons, President Trump has also hinted he might pardon Martha Stewart for lying to federal investigators, and former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich for trying to sell President Obama’s Senate seat. Is it just a coincidence that both Stewart and Blagojevich were also past participants on Trump’s reality TV show The Apprentice?

Coincidence or not, such pardons would still support the notion that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecution of Trump allies like Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen for similar crimes is an abuse of power by corrupt federal law enforcement officials. Furthermore, pardoning Blagojevich would also promote the idea that we should not try to turn political manoeuvring into federal crimes. In other words, just as Blagojevich claimed that trying to sell Obama’s Senate seat was “just politics”, Trump could make the same claim about alleged Russian collusion.

However, regardless of who President Trump may or may not decide to pardon in the future, he will probably continue to receive overwhelming support from Republicans at the grassroots level. In fact, Trump has probably inspired more loyalty from the Republican Party’s rank and file than any previous Republican president, including Reagan. Although the latter also inspired loyalty from the vast majority of Republicans, he did so in a vastly different way. Moreover, the makeup of the Republican Party of 2018 is also vastly different to that of the 1980s.

President Reagan was a man who articulated a much more optimistic vision of America that extolled the virtues of lower taxes, smaller government and traditional values, as well as a world view that espoused expanded free trade and greater economic opportunities as a counterweight to communist dictatorships around the world. In contrast, while he also promotes lower taxes and smaller government, President Trump embraces a pessimistic view of an America that can only become great again by adopting anti-trade and anti-immigration policies and by winking at white racists and dictators.

Although the percentage of voters who identify as Republicans or Democrats is the same now as it was 30 years ago, the composition of both parties has also changed substantially. In 1992, nine out of 10 voters were white, but in 2016 only seven out of 10 were white. In 1994, only 38 per cent of college graduates identified as Democrats, but in 2016, more than half of them did. In 2008, older voters went Democratic by 48 per cent to 41 per cent, but in 2016 they went Republican by 52 per cent to 37 per cent. 

Unlike the party of Reagan, therefore, the GOP of the Trump era consists of older whites with lower levels of education and income that are afraid of losing their Social Security and Medicare benefits. They have also turned Republicans like me into anachronisms.

Charles Laffiteau is a US Republican from Dallas, Texas pursuing a career in public service. He previously lectured on Contemporary US Business & Society at DCU from 2009-2011 and pursued a PhD in Public Policy and Political Economy.
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