President Trump Takes a Hands On Approach to Pardons

May 25, 2018
Originally published on May 25, 2018 6:36 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The White House had an unexpected visitor this week, actor Sylvester Stallone. He stood by President Trump as the president announced a posthumous pardon for legendary boxer Jack Johnson.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I am taking this very righteous step, I believe, to correct a wrong that occurred in our history.

SHAPIRO: It was just the latest of President Trump's high-profile acts of clemency, as NPR's Ayesha Rascoe reports.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: When former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, an early supporter of the president, was convicted of criminal contempt last year, speculation grew that President Trump might intervene.

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TRUMP: Was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job? That's...

RASCOE: He hinted at his intentions at a rally in Phoenix last August.

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TRUMP: I'll make a prediction. I think he's going to be just fine, OK?

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RASCOE: Just a few days later, Trump granted Arpaio the first pardon of his presidency. Since then, Trump has granted three more pardons and one commutation. Compare that to the three presidents that came before Trump. They issued no pardons during their first two years in office. All of the cases Trump took action on involved public figures or received a lot of media attention. I asked White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders in April how Trump chooses his cases.

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SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: He looks at each one individually and makes a decision. And we make that announcement.

RASCOE: The Justice Department has guidelines to review clemency applications. Presidents don't have to follow these, but they usually do. So far, President Trump generally has not. Kevin Ring is president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. He says Trump's focus on high-profile cases means more prisoners will try to get their stories on Trump's radar.

KEVIN RING: One thing prisoners are looking for wherever they can find it is hope. And as soon as President Trump announced Arpaio, they just viewed it as he was willing to use the authority, and we're going to try.

RASCOE: Amy Povah knows what it's like to try to get the attention of a president while behind bars.

AMY POVAH: I received clemency from President Clinton on July 7 in 2000 after serving nine years on a 24-year conspiracy drug case.

RASCOE: After years of feeling ignored by lawmakers, everything changed when she scored a Glamour magazine profile.

POVAH: I would not have gotten out if I hadn't had people advocate directly to President Clinton.

RASCOE: Povah now works to publicize the stories of others in similar situations. Right now she's helping Alice Marie Johnson, a great-grandmother sentenced to life for a first-time offense. One person who heard Johnson's story is mega TV star Kim Kardashian West, the wife of Trump fan Kanye West. Here she is in an interview on mic.com.

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KIM KARDASHIAN WEST: I've been in communication with the White House and trying to bring her case to the president's desk and figure out how we can get her out.

RASCOE: The White House didn't respond when I asked if Trump is considering that case. But if Trump's pardon of Jack Johnson is any indication, having a celebrity in your corner makes a difference. After all, it was Sylvester Stallone that lobbied Trump to pardon the boxer.

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SYLVESTER STALLONE: I want to thank you, Mr. President. It's incredible.

RASCOE: Still, critics say the existing clemency process can feel like a lottery system where winners seem to be chosen randomly. They say Trump's focus on high-profile cases likely won't change that dynamic. Mark Osler is a law professor who works on clemency issues.

MARK OSLER: If it is a celebrity-driven pardon system, who's left behind are some of the people who are most deserving. It's just that those stories aren't being taken up by a celebrity or a major media outlet.

RASCOE: But Osler says you can expect those desperate for clemency to do what they can to get Trump to notice them.

OSLER: When people have been convicted, have done their time and want a pardon, they're going to go to what works. And if what works with this president is going on Fox News, you're going to see a lot of people trying to go on Fox News.

RASCOE: That approach can't work for everyone, though. There are more than 10,000 pending applications for clemency. Ayesha Rascoe, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF HENRI-PIERRE NOEL'S "AZAKA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.