With weeks to go before he officially exits the White House and hands over the reins to his successor Joe Biden, US President Donald Trump is expected to make full use of the outgoing presidential tradition of granting pardons. In fact, Trump has insisted that he has the “absolute right” to pardon even himself.
But while President Trump has widely been criticised for several of the pardons and commutations he has passed since assuming office in 2016, he is most certainly not the first President in US history to issue controversial or self-serving pardons. All modern presidents of the United States have had the constitutional right to pardon individuals for nearly any federal crime committed in the country. They are not answerable for their pardons, and in most cases don’t even have to provide a reason for issuing one.
A president’s pardoning power is virtually unlimited, which also makes it one of the most disputed and dividing provisions of the Constitution. But not all pardons are murky as many presidents have wielded this power to right historical wrongs and diffuse political crises.
Here are some of the notable presidential pardons in US history
George Washington pardoned the Whiskey Rebels (1795)
One of the first and most historic pardons granted by the US’ first president George Washington was when he granted clemency to John Mitchell and Philip Weigel, who had been sentenced to death in 1795 for their role in the Whiskey Rebellion.
The insurrection broke out in western Pennsylvania after Washington imposed a costly federal tax on distilled spirits to reduce the national debt following the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). Poor farmers in the state refused to pay the tax and staged a series of violent protests.
Despite his advisors urging him to crack down on the protestors, Washington chose to use pardons in an attempt to quell the civic disruptions.
Brigham Young and the Mormon War in Utah (1857)
Brigham Young, the former Governor Utah and head of the Mormon Church, is widely blamed for the brief but bloody “Mormon War”. He famously founded Salt Lake City in 1850 and was known to resist federal authority. These tendencies caught the attention of then-President James Buchanan, who feared that the Mormon community led by Young would turn Utah into a theocracy.
And so, one of Buchanan’s first acts as president was to dispatch a troop of army soldiers to reclaim control of the territory in 1857. What followed was what is also commonly known as the Utah War — which was a one-year standoff between Young’s followers and the US Army.
Despite an incident where a group of Mormons killed over 100 civilians in a California-bound caravan, Buchanan later granted all the Utah mormons, including Young, pardons on the condition that they accept the sovereignty of the US.
Andrew Johnson pardoned every soldier in the Confederate Army (1868)
On Christmas Day in 1868, former President Andrew Johnson granted pardons to every soldier who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, absolving them of their activities against the United States.
The blanket pardon only exempted the soldiers who had personally contributed to orchestrating the secession of the South and the war against the Union. But eventually, even those who were not covered by the pardon were granted clemency. Johnson was said to have issued pardons to around 90 per cent of applicants, several of whom were high-ranking Confederate officials.
Many accused him of being too lenient, but Johnson insisted that this was the only way the country could reconcile and move forward.
Gerald Ford pardoned his predecessor Richard Nixon (1974)
In 1974, newly sworn-in President Gerald Ford made one of the most controversial announcements in US history, when he said he was pardoning his predecessor Richard Nixon “for all offences against the United States.”
The pardon came just weeks after Nixon resigned from office following the aftershocks of the Watergate Scandal, in which a group of men tied to Nixon’s re-election campaign broke into the Democratic headquarters in Washington DC’s Watergate complex.
After Nixon resigned, Ford — who was then serving as his Vice-President — ascended to the presidency. Ford claimed he granted the pardon to help the country move on, but many believe the controversial decision cost him a second term in office.
Jimmy Carter pardoned musician Peter Yarrow (1981)
Former President Jimmy Carter granted a controversial pardon to Peter Yarrow, a member of the folk rock group ‘Peter, Paul and Mary’, after he was accused of behaving indecently with a 14-year-old fan in 1970. On the day before he left office, Carter pardoned Yarrow, who pleaded guilty in the case over a decade ago. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram
Ronald Reagan pardoned Yankees owner George Steinbrenner (1989)
On April 5, 1974, the owner of the New York Yankees George Steinbrenner pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and illegally contributing to Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign. President Ronald Reagan agreed to pardon him in 1989 on the condition that he admitted to the act.
George HW Bush pardoned top aides involved in the Iran-Contra arms scandal (1992)
In 1992, then-President George HW Bush decided to pardon six top officials from the Reagan administration, including former secretary of Defence Caspar Weinberger, thus absolving them from any further punishment for their illegal dealings in the Iran-Contra scandal.
During President Reagan’s second term in office, some of his top aides facilitated the illegal sale of weapons to Iran, which at the time was under an arms embargo. The administration sought to use the money earned through the arms sale to fund an insurgent group in Nicaragua, called the Contras, who engaged in a guerrilla war against anti-America forces.
Bill Clinton pardoned his own brother Roger Clinton (2001)
In his final executive act as president, Bill Clinton dramatically pardoned his own half-brother Roger Clinton for drug charges after he had served the entire sentence more than a decade earlier. He also pardoned Marc Rich, the fugitive financier and Clinton supporter who was charged with tax evasion, illegal dealings with Iran and several other crimes. He went on to issue a pardon to Patty Hearst, the daughter of a newspaper tycoon, who was convicted in a 1974 bank robbery.
Obama commuted sentence of Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning (2017)
After spending seven years in prison, Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning walked out of prison in 2017 after her 35-year sentence was commuted by former President Barack Obama. Manning, a former intelligence official in Iraq, was arrested after she had leaked nearly 750,000 military files and cables to Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks in 2013. The White House later said that Manning had accepted responsibility, expressed remorse and served enough time, NBC reported.
Trump pardoned former adviser Michael Flynn (2020)
Last month, President Donald Trump pardoned his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. The pardon effectively ended Flynn’s prosecution in the Russian election interference probe, which shadowed the Trump administration for years, and which the President tried hard to discredit.
He has also pardoned people like right wing commentator and campaign fraudster Dinesh D’Souza, and Michael Milken, a financier convicted of securities fraud. In 2017, he granted a pardon to former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was found guilty of being in contempt of court for ignoring a federal judge’s order to stop arresting immigrants solely based on the suspicion that they were residing in the US illegally.
But not all of his pardons were problematic. Some were even widely celebrated. Earlier this year, he granted a full pardon to Alice Marie Johnson, who received a life sentence for a first-time drug offence and whose concerns were first raised by businesswoman and reality TV star Kim Kardashian West.
In 2018, he issued a posthumous pardon to boxer Jack Johnson, who was jailed over a hundred years ago for violating the racist ‘White Slave Traffic Act’ by crossing state lines with a white woman.
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