Donald Trump's pardon of conservative author Dinesh D'Souza on Thursday came with little explanation from the President other than this, via Twitter: "He was treated very unfairly by our government!"
The D'Souza pardon is all of a piece with two other presidential pardons made by Trump during his first 16 months in office. D'Souza, former Bush White House aide Scooter Libby and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio were all seen, by some elements within the conservative movement/Trump's base, as martyrs -- people unfairly persecuted by some combination of out-of-control Democrats and the "deep state."
"Bravo! @realDonaldTrump," tweeted Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. "Dinesh was the subject of a political prosecution, brazenly targeted by the Obama administration bc of his political views. And he's a powerful voice for freedom, systematically dismantling the lies of the Left-which is why they hate him. This is Justice."
D'Souza himself played into that idea with a tweet of his own. "Obama & his stooges tried to extinguish my American dream & destroy my faith in America," he tweeted. "Thank you @realDonaldTrump for fully restoring both."
In all three of these cases, Trump chose not to consult with the Justice Department's Office of Pardon Authority -- making the call on his own. (A president is not required by law to huddle with the Office of Pardon Authority.)
And the message Trump appears to be sending with this trio of similar-if-not-the-exact-same pardons is this: If you are being unfairly prosecuted or persecuted by the deep state within the Justice Department/FBI, I have sympathy for you. I am willing to use my pardon power to absolve you. I've done it before. I'll do it again.
Why might that message be relevant, you ask?
Ask Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort.
Cohen, Trump's personal attorney, and Manafort, Trump's campaign chairman for a time in 2016, are both facing the possibility of significant criminal charges and penalties. Cohen's home, hotel and office were raided by the FBI and the documents seized in those raids are currently in the process of being reviewed by a special master in the Southern District of New York. Manafort has been charged by special counsel Robert Mueller with a variety of financial crimes -- most dealing with his interactions with the Ukrainian government.
Given the severity of the allegations against them, both men are under considerable pressure to flip -- to cut deals with prosecutors that minimize their legal vulnerability in exchange for cooperating with the ongoing Mueller probe into Russian election meddling and any possible coordination with members of the Trump campaign.
Already three members of Trump's 2016 campaign -- foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, national security adviser Michael Flynn and deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates -- have pleaded guilty and are cooperating with the Mueller investigation.
Trump has little ability to see into the Mueller investigation -- to know what Mueller knows and how close (if at all) Manafort and Cohen are to flipping. It's clearly a point of frustration for the President and his legal team; former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the public face of that legal team, has taken to suggesting the entire investigation is illegitimate and demanding all information about a confidential source used by the FBI during the 2016 campaign before the President even considers sitting down with the special counsel's office.
Without power over the actual investigation, Trump is reduced to sending messages via public channels.
Twitter is one way he uses that limited power. In a series of tweets last month, Trump sent a very clear message to Cohen about flipping. He wrote:
"The New York Times and a third rate reporter named Maggie Haberman, known as a Crooked H flunkie who I don't speak to and have nothing to do with, are going out of their way to destroy Michael Cohen and his relationship with me in the hope that he will 'flip.' They use non-existent 'sources' and a drunk/drugged up loser who hates Michael, a fine person with a wonderful family. Michael is a businessman for his own account/lawyer who I have always liked & respected. Most people will flip if the Government lets them out of trouble, even if it means lying or making up stories. Sorry, I don't see Michael doing that despite the horrible Witch Hunt and the dishonest media!"
The message is clear: Don't flip, Michael. This is all a witch hunt. Hang in there! I support you!
Presidential pardons are the other major weapon in Trump's arsenal to combat the pressure campaign by Mueller.
And it is impossible to dismiss the similarities of both the crimes from which D'Souza, Libby and Arpaio are being pardoned and the manner in which Trump chose to announce those pardons.
D'Souza, Arpaio, Libby: All perceived victims of an out-of-control deep-state government which sought to punish their commitment to principle. Railroaded by a machine that hates them because of what they believe and who else supports those beliefs. Forced to answer for actions that elites have gotten away with for ages. And so on and so forth.
The audience of these pardons is small: Really just the Trump loyalists and officials -- like Cohen and Manafort -- that Mueller has his eye on. And in case anyone missed the message sent by the Arpaio and Libby pardons, the D'Souza pardon makes sure that message hits you right in the face.