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Explained: What is the US’ alleged bribery for presidential pardon scheme?

The latest disclosure comes amid a flurry of reports suggesting that President Trump is considering abusing his clemency power by pardoning members of his family and his closest aides during his final days in the White House.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: December 4, 2020 3:22:34 pm
US President Donald Trump addresses press at the White House (File/Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

The US Justice Department is investigating an alleged bribery scheme that was directing money to officials in the White House in exchange for a presidential pardon or commutation, according to recently released court documents.

The latest disclosure comes amid a flurry of reports suggesting that President Trump is considering abusing his clemency power by pardoning members of his family and his closest aides during his final days in the White House.

What are the bribery claims?

The heavily redacted documents, made public by the Washington DC District Court on Tuesday afternoon, state that investigators were looking into a “bribery conspiracy scheme in which [redacted] would offer a substantial political contribution in exchange for a presidential pardon or reprieve of sentence for [redacted]”.

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While the filings do not reveal a timeline of the scheme and the names of the people who are believed to have been involved have been blacked out, prosecutors say that the data points to potential “criminal activity”.

According to the investigators, the convict seeking the pardon was probably arrested earlier this year and two people working on behalf of the convict may have been part of a secret lobbying campaign that involved approaching White House officials. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram

The two people could have offered to transfer money in the form of political donations in exchange for a presidential pardon, the documents claim.

One passage in the 20-page document suggests that a lawyer for the convict in question had discussed a possible commutation or pardon with the White House Counsel’s Office. But it does not clarify whether the discussions were part of the scheme or just a regular conversation about the convict’s case, the New York Times reported.

Prosecutors sought a court order in August “so that the investigative team [could] access” evidence — such as emails and other forms of communication — that may have been protected by attorney-client privilege to confront the suspects.

The Chief Justice for the District of Columbia, Beryl A Howell, had granted the prosecutors access to the materials. More than 50 devices — including iPhones, iPads, laptops, and computer drives — were seized after investigators raided unidentified offices, the Guardian reported.

What is a presidential pardon?

All modern US presidents have the constitutional right to pardon or commute the sentence of people who have broken federal laws. The Supreme Court had held that this power is “granted without limit” and cannot be restricted by Congress.

The President has the power to pardon individuals for nearly any crime committed and is not answerable for his pardons. However, there are a few limitations. The power only applies to federal crimes and not state crimes and the President cannot issue a pardon in the case of impeachment of officials.

With his presidential term winding to an end, Trump has started handing out pardons, like all presidents before him. But Trump stirred controversy last week when he announced he was pardoning his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.

Multiple US media reports have stated that the president is mulling the idea of pardoning his close aides and family members, some even suggesting that he may try to pardon himself — a move that has never taken place in US history.

Is Trump involved in the alleged bribery scheme?

According to the New York Times, Trump has not been directly linked to the scheme. In fact, the US justice department has confirmed to Reuters that no government official is the “subject or target” of the bribery probe.

In a tweet shared soon after the documents were released on Tuesday, President Trump dismissed reports of the Justice Department’s investigation. “Pardon investigation is Fake News!” He wrote on Twitter.

So, who is behind the ‘bribery for pardon’ scheme?

The documents do not mention the names of the people involved or when the alleged scheme was carried out. They only indicate that the unidentified convict was facing a prison sentence and would be surrendering to the Bureau of Prisons.

On Tuesday, the DOJ said, “No government official was or is currently a subject or target of the investigation disclosed in this filing.”

The Justice Department is also investigating whether the two unnamed individuals in the documents were allegedly acting as lobbyists in the White House without complying with registration requirements.

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