5 Controversial Presidential Pardons

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When President Donald Trump recently pardoned controversial former sheriff Joe Arpaio, he called him an “American patriot” who “kept Arizona safe.” (Arpaio had been convicted of criminal contempt for violating a court order to stop arresting immigrants suspected of being in the U.S. illegally.) Critics blasted Trump’s pardon, calling it everything from a support of racism to a violation of the rule of law. Welcome to the wacky world of presidential pardons, which can be as politically divisive as anything else in Washington. What the president and the party in power often see as a completely justified pardon can provoke anger and incredulity on the other side.

Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon has been praised by historians.

Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon was controversial at the time but has generally been praised by historians.

5. President Obama Commutes Sentence of Murderer

The U.S Constitution grants the president authority to fully pardon or commute the sentence of those convicted of crimes against the U.S. Throughout the 20th century, there were an average of more than 200 pardons and commutations per year. Most go completely unnoticed, but the ones that make headlines do so for the wrong reasons. That proved to be the case in 2014, when President Barack Obama commuted the sentence of Gerardo Hernández, a Cuban spy convicted of conspiracy to commit murder in 2001. And his case didn’t involve some James Bond-type spy murder; Hernandez was convicted for his involvement in a plot that resulted in the shoot down of two humanitarian-agency aircraft. Many critics pointed out the obvious — President Obama’s action coincided with his announcement of warmer relations between the U.S. and Cuba.


4. President Bush Commutes Sentence of VP’s Aide

The former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, Libby was convicted of five federal charges, including perjury and obstruction of justice, in a case that began with his disclosure of the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame. Sentenced to 30 months in prison, Libby appealed, and speculation immediately began that President George W. Bush would grant a pardon. Instead, the president took an unusual and unexpected approach: he commuted Libby’s sentence, but left him with a felony conviction, a $250,000 fine and probation. Bush took heat from both sides on the issue. Plame’s husband told CNN, “Scooter Libby is a traitor. Bush’s action … demonstrates that the White House is corrupt from top to bottom.” Others, including VP Cheney, argued that Bush should have granted Libby a full pardon.


3. President Obama Frees Chelsea Manning

Manning, a former Army soldier, was court martialed and convicted of espionage for leaking almost 750,000 classified or sensitive U.S. documents. Sentenced to 35 years in prison in 2013, many felt Manning deserved the death penalty as a traitor. In 2010, Donald Trump said, “They should try that young private and they should frankly either put him in jail for the rest of his life or maybe get the death penalty. You know, in the old days if you were a spy and that’s what he is you’d get the death penalty.” Instead, President Obama offered executive clemency to free Manning in 2017. A YouGov/Huffington Post poll found that only 33 percent of Americans supported Obama’s decision.


2. President Clinton Offers Clemency to Terrorists

The terrorist groups Los Macheteros and Armed Forces for National Liberation (aka FALN) carried out more than 120 bombings in the U.S. in the 1970s and ’80s in support of Puerto Rican independence. Sixteen terrorist group members who were convicted in the early 1980s appeared set to spend the rest of their lives in prison — until President Bill Clinton offered executive clemency (a commutation of sentences) for the terrorists. As a condition of the clemency, the terrorists were required to renounce their use of violence for a political cause; all but one of the convicted men agreed to the deal.

Why would Clinton commute their sentences? Critics say the move helped his wife earn political points with Puerto Rican voters in her U.S. Senate race in New York in 2000. As a strange postscript, the one terrorist who did not agree to Clinton’s clemency offer, Oscar Lopez Rivera, received a second chance when President Obama once again offered him clemency in 2017. As Washington Post writer Charles Lane asked, “What was Obama thinking, however, when he ordered the release of Oscar Lopez Rivera? … Unconditional release, for someone who claimed a right to wage war on the United States and repeatedly put innocent civilian lives at risk?”


1. President Gerald Ford Pardons Richard Nixon

This is without question the most famous and controversial presidential pardon of modern times. Nixon’s infamous transgressions need no further explanation. Ford said he issued the full and unconditional pardon to avoid further legal proceedings against Nixon that would have bitterly divided the nation. Ford paid a price for his action; his unprecedented pardon is seen as one of the main factors he lost the 1976 presidential election to Jimmy Carter. While Ford’s pardon of Nixon was controversial at the time, it has generally been praised by historians.

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