Clemency: A Minefield of Quid Pro Quos for Trump to Exploit

Bypassing DOJ, a White House advisory group headed by Jared Kushner is handling petitions.

From early on in his presidency, Trump’s approach to both domestic politics and foreign policy has been described as “transactional.” The Ukraine extortion scheme highlighted how that works. It’s all about quid pro quos.

What we saw was that not only did the president withhold a White House meeting and military aid in an attempt to get Zelensky to announce investigations into his political rivals, it appears as though he engaged in a quid pro quo with Zelensky’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, where Javelin anti-tank missiles were traded for dropping investigations into Paul Manafort. Once that deal was done, Trump attempted another quid pro quo with Poroshenko: support for the Ukrainian president’s re-election in exchange for the announcement of an investigation into the Bidens. Trump also solicited lies from corrupt Ukrainians in exchange for getting rid of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch.

The picture all of that paints is that the president’s strategy for getting what he wants (i.e., support for himself or attacks on his enemies), is centered on offering to do something for anyone who’s willing to give it to him. Keep that in mind as the possibility of pardons for Trump associates like Stone and Manafort are discussed. If they happen, they are quid pro quos too. The message is: keep quiet and I’ll get you off the hook.

That is what is alarming about Trump’s latest fascination with clemency. Apparently, the news this week about his pardons was just the beginning.

The White House is moving to take more direct control over pardons and commutations, with President Trump aiming to limit the role of the Justice Department in the clemency process as he weighs a flurry of additional pardon announcements, according to people familiar with the matter.

Trump, who granted clemency Tuesday to a group of 11 people that included several political allies and supporters, has assembled a team of advisers to recommend and vet candidates for pardons, according to several people with knowledge of the matter who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The assembled team of advisors will be led by Jared Kushner. He is obviously one of the only people Trump trusts because he has basically been put in charge of everything. Also playing a major role in this advisory group is former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.

In addition to her role on the president’s defense team during the Senate impeachment trial, Bondi gained national attention over a potential quid pro quo with Trump. While serving as Florida’s attorney general back in 2013, a Bondi spokesperson announced that she was reviewing the possibility of joining New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s lawsuit against Trump University. Three days later, a committee that acted as Bondi’s fundraising arm for her re-election campaign received a check for $25,000 from the Trump Foundation. Bondi never said another word about joining Schneiderman’s lawsuit. Six months later, Trump hosted a fundraiser for Bondi at Mar-a-Lago.

Of course, Bondi says that her decision on the Trump University lawsuit had nothing to do with the fundraiser or the $25,000 donation. But because the latter came from Trump’s Foundation, it violated tax laws. In 2018, the foundation dissolved after an investigation by the New York attorney general uncovered a “shocking pattern of illegality.” Eventually, Trump was forced to pay $2 million to eight charities as part of a settlement over the foundation’s misuse of funds.

Was Pam Bondi involved in a quid pro quo with Donald Trump? We have no way of knowing for sure, but the evidence certainly points in that direction. She, along with Kushner, will now be heading up the team that decides who is considered for a grant of clemency from the president, with no review from what used to be an independent DOJ. That presents a veritable minefield of potential quid pro quos for Trump to exploit.

The idea of this being a nation of laws, not men, is about to take another flush down the drain.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.