The media strategy behind Trump's pardons

CNN's Brian Stelter looks at the media strategy behind who President Trump is deciding to pardon and what messages he may be sending.

Posted: Jun 7, 2018 5:51 AM
Updated: Jun 7, 2018 6:01 AM

Since being sworn in as President 16-plus months ago, Donald Trump has pardoned or commuted the sentences of six people, a pace that could pick up rapidly in the not-too-distant future.

Trump's latest pardon came Wednesday when he commuted the remainder of a life sentence for Alice Marie Johnson. Johnson had spent more than two decades in prison after being convicted of conspiracy to possess cocaine and attempted possession of cocaine -- and was featured in a video by the news site Mic last fall.

That's relevant because Kim Kardashian West saw the Mic video and became an advocate for clemency for Johnson. Last week, Kim K. was in Washington to personally lobby for a pardon for Johnson.

And, voila!, a pardon appeared.

According to CNN's Kaitlan Collins, the Johnson pardon may only represent the leading edge of a slew of clemencies Trump will grant in the coming weeks and months. Since last summer, Trump has pardoned former Maricopa County (Ariz.) sheriff Joe Arpaio, former Bush administration senior official Scooter Libby, boxer Jack Johnson (posthumously) and conservative author Dinesh D'Souza. He has also, of late, floated the idea of offering pardons to television personality Martha Stewart and former Democratic Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

What do the pardons Trump has already granted tell us about the pardons he might begin granting by the dozens sometime soon? Here's my attempt to explain it.

Trump's pardons -- and floated pardons -- to date fall into two basic categories: 1) Perceived victims of an over-aggressive and/or corrupt "deep state" and 2) Pet causes of famous people.

Let's take the second category first, because a) it's a smaller group and b) it's easier and quicker to explain.

There is a roughly 0% chance that Trump had even heard of Alice Marie Johnson prior to Kim Kardashian West raising the case with him last week. And there is that same 0% chance that, had Kardashian West not weighed in on behalf of Johnson, that she would be getting pardoned by Trump.

The same is generally true for boxer Jack Johnson, who Trump pardoned last month. While Trump is a sports fan, the real impetus behind the pardon of Johnson was the President's friendship with Sylvester Stallone aka "Rocky Balboa." Stallone, a boxing aficionado, had been a longtime advocate for the pardon of Johnson. (It didn't hurt that Lennox Lewis, the former heavyweight champion of the world, and WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder were also in attendance at the pardon ceremony.)

Trump likes famous people. He likes to be friends with them. He likes to host them. He likes to do favors for them. He likes them to owe him for something.

So, there are the Trump pardons of people famous people want him to pardon.

Then there is the other, larger and more important group of Trump pardons: People the President views as being persecuted and prosecuted by the so-called "deep state," a rump group of entrenched bureaucrats -- largely clustered within the Justice Department and FBI -- who are out to get anyone who isn't them.

Libby, Arpaio and D'Souza all fit neatly into that category. (Worth noting: In each of these examples, Trump did not seek counsel from the Office of Pardon Authority within the Justice Department. He is not required to do so, but presidents typically do.)

In each case, there was an argument made by some element within the conservative base that these individuals were being unfairly treated by a bureaucracy that simply disagreed with their ideas. Libby, a top aide to then Vice President Dick Cheney, was, to some, being martyred for Cheney's hawkishness in the Middle East. Arpaio's conviction on his refusal to obey existing immigration laws was a prisoner of conscience. D'Souza was punished by Obama's Justice Department for suggesting that the former president held "anti-colonial" views due to his father's Kenyan heritage.

In each case, an out-of-control and/or politically motivated Justice Department had railroaded a conservative hero.

Sound like anyone you know?

Yes, of course, this is about Donald Trump. Trump believes strongly that the ongoing special counsel probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election (and possible collusion between members of his campaign and the Russians) is all one big "deep state" conspiracy being run by Democrats unhappy with losing the 2016 election. (Robert Mueller, who is running the special counsel probe, is a Republican who was appointed to his current role by Trump's own deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.)

The more pardons Trump offers up to people who further that narrative -- see, all these people are victims of the "deep state" too! -- the easier it is for the President to convince his core supporters that whatever Mueller's report says is fundamentally illegitimate because it is a product of the same "deep state" that convicted these other conservative heroes.

But even before that stage, Trump's pardons play a critical role for the President. They say loudly and clearly to the likes of Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen -- two Trump allies being pressured to flip by prosecutors -- that he is ready, willing and able to pardon them if and when it comes to that. That no matter what Mueller (in the case of Manafort) or the Southern district of New York (in the case of Cohen) do, he can undo it. So they just need to stand strong and not flip.

That's it. That's why Trump pardons people. And why he will continue to do so. Both because he can and because he believes it helps the overall narrative of his presidency.

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