Trump Pardon Scandal Widens

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A shocking allegation that then-President Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani was selling pardons for $2 million got lost. Why it matters now.

It’s remarkable, in hindsight, that Donald Trump even showed up for work during the last week of his twisted 45th presidency in January 2021. After all, his fantasies that some sort of coup could overturn his stinging election defeat to now-President Joe Biden had melted in the deadly violence of Jan. 6, 2021, which prompted his unprecedented second impeachment.

But Trump had to race through some important unfinished business before the clock struck noon on Jan. 20, Biden’s inauguration day. The night before, the ongoing president issued a whopping 144 pardons and commutations as he wielded one of his few utterly unchecked powers granted in the U.S. Constitution. Indeed, looking just at pardons, Trump issued 116 of just 143 during his four years in office in his final month, January 2021.

To the very end, Trump ignored the practices of past presidents — who’d worked mostly off petitions that had been investigated by the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney — and granted clemency largely for connected folks that he tended to know, from close cronies like Roger Stone and Steve Bannon to his reality-TV pal Rod Blagojevich, the disgraced Illinois governor, to his son-in-law’s dad, Charles Kushner. Then there was an additional category: those who’d paid good money to Trump World insiders to plead their case.

On Jan. 17, 2021, the New York Times published an article headlined: “Prospect of Pardons in Final Days Fuels Market to Buy Access to Trump.” Based on more than three dozen interviews with key players, the Times confirmed that wealthy convicted felons were paying tens of thousands of dollars to insiders like a former Trump personal attorney, John Dowd, in the rush to gain clemency. To be clear, hiring a lawyer promising special access — while perhaps unseemly — is not new and probably not unlawful. But a Times passage about convicted ex-CIA leaker John Kiriakou, who paid an unnamed Trump associate $50,000 with a contingent promise of $50,000 more if a pardon was granted, included a jaw-dropping if unproven allegation:

“And Mr. Kiriakou was separately told that Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani could help him secure a pardon for $2 million. Mr. Kiriakou rejected the offer, but an associate, fearing that Mr. Giuliani was illegally selling pardons, alerted the F.B.I. Mr. Giuliani challenged this characterization.”

Admittedly, the political world was ablaze on Jan. 17, 2021. It was four days after Trump’s second impeachment and three days before Biden took office, and in the massive forest fire of White House corruption, it seems that no one heard this tree falling. The FBI, battered victims of years of abuse from Trump and his allies in the right-wing media, seems to have taken the Kiriakou tip and placed it in a file, maybe the circular one. Over the last 28 months, that stray paragraph in a Times investigation had been completely forgotten.

Until last week.

That’s when a previously unknown aide to Giuliani named Noelle Dunphy backed up a gasoline tanker truck and unloaded it on the barely smoldering remains of the story. In a 70-page lawsuit alleging gross (literally) sexual misconduct and that the former Time Person of the Year mostly stiffed her for nearly three years of work, Dunphy also repeated the Kiriakou claim — that Giuliani bragged he could obtain a Trump pardon for that exact price of $2 million — with a new twist, that the big payday was meant to be divided with Trump. If true, Dunphy’s allegation means the money wasn’t an outrageous legal fee, but a bribe.

Look, I’m not going to go crazy — as I might have back in 2017 — and declare this is finally THE THING THAT WILL TAKE DOWN TRUMP. We know too much now about the neo-fascist indestructibility of the bond between Trump and his supporters, as we enter the “shoot-someone-in-the-middle-of-Fifth-Avenue” phase of what’s become a cult. The ex-president greatly expanded his lead in the 2024 GOP primaries even as he was indicted in Manhattan, a jury found that he sexually abused and defamed the writer E. Jean Carroll, and as other prosecutors close in from Georgia to the District of Columbia. Is this allegation any different?

Yes, and no. It’s true the 78-year-old Giuliani is a highly problematic figure. His drinking problem is well documented and, as the Washington Post’s Philip Bump noted in an analysis, his sexual desires toward Dunphy could have been a motivation to exaggerate his political clout and influence. But there’s also a lot of good reasons for the FBI to yank this out of the cold-case cabinet where it never should have been filed in the first place.

For one thing, bribery of a U.S. president is a highly serious offense; along with treason, it’s one of just two specific “high crimes and misdemeanors” spelled out in the Constitution. And in this case, I’m struck by the details that Dunphy and Kiriakou each provided — and by how their stories are consistent with each other. In her lawsuit, Dunphy said Giuliani not only told her to be on the lookout for millionaire pardon clients but said they must avoid the formal application with the Justice Department — which would create a paper trail.

Pennsylvania-born Kiriakou served prison time for what he disclosed about CIA operations in blowing the whistle on torture of post-9/11 terror suspects. He is, in other words, a truth teller. After Dunphy’s lawsuit last week, he was interviewed by Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman and revealed that he met personally with Giuliani, and others, at what was then the Trump Hotel in D.C. in the first week of January 2021.

“Interestingly, [a Giuliani associate] said we had to meet at noon because the mayor had a drink … or two, or five earlier in the day,” Kiriakou said. He went with his lawyer to meet Giuliani, his assistant and another associate. After some chitchat, Kiriakou recalls “finally I said, ‘So Mr. Mayor, there’s this issue of a pardon,’ and Giuliani immediately said he needed to use the men’s room and stood up and walked away.” The associate then told Kiriakou he was not to mention the pardon directly to Giuliani and that “Rudy’s going to want two million bucks.” The ex-CIA agent said he laughed at both the figure and the audacity and soon walked out of the meeting.

Kiriakou never received a pardon from Trump.

Roger Stone, a longtime adviser to then President Donald Trump, gestures as he leaves the Prettyman United States Courthouse in Washington, D.C., after facing charges from Special Counsel Robert Mueller that he lied to Congress and engaged in witness tampering, on Jan. 29, 2019. Stone was convicted but later pardoned by Trump. He is now under investigation for a possible role in instigating the Capitol riots.
Roger Stone, a longtime adviser to then President Donald Trump, gestures as he leaves the Prettyman United States Courthouse in Washington, D.C., after facing charges from Special Counsel Robert Mueller that he lied to Congress and engaged in witness tampering, on Jan. 29, 2019. Stone was convicted but later pardoned by Trump. He is now under investigation for a possible role in instigating the Capitol riots.Read moreOlivier Douliery / MCT

So who did, and more importantly, why isn’t the FBI out there interviewing each and every one of them, in addition to scouring every line of Giuliani’s bank records? The long list of millionaire business executives, sports bettors, hip-hop artists and the like to whom Trump issued executive clemency in his final hours in the Oval Office would be a target-rich environment. But a full-blown criminal investigation should just be the starting point. It’s past time for pardon reform.

A defining feature of the Constitution is the web of checks and balances that arose from the Founders’ fear of autocracy, and yet the president’s authority to issue pardons or commutations has no check whatsoever. And abuse of a system intended to reward citizens who’d redeemed themselves after a criminal past was rising before Trump came on the scene. Actions that were unethical but not illegal — like George H.W. Bush pardoning actors in the Iran-contra scandal he himself might have been involved in, or Bill Clinton pardoning political donors like Marc Rich — set the stage for the arrival of a president with no moral compass whatsoever.

Trump tested the waters early in his presidency by granting a pardon to a major political supporter, former Phoenix-area sheriff Joe Arpaio, before Arpaio could even be sentenced for his conviction related to unconstitutional traffic stops of Latinos. When there were no consequences, Trump soon relished in this one power that was truly dictatorial in nature. His most outrageous moves involved clemency that kept close political associates like Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn and Roger Stone out of prison. Both Stone and Flynn used their presidential get-out-of-jail-free card to rile up Trump supporters ahead of the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Since Trump left office, the Justice Department has won guilty pleas or convictions of close to 600 of those insurrectionists. In seeking to retake the White House, Trump has made a stunning promise — to pardon perhaps most of those convicted — the centerpiece of his campaign. In a moment of legitimate fear over the future of U.S. democracy, this leading candidate is blatantly telling us he would rule as a king, and not a benevolent one. This would come on top of his documented first-term pardon abuses — and now the allegation of attempted bribery as well.

Enough already! The relative calm of the Biden presidency seems to have slowed one good idea for pardon reform, which would be to remove the pardon review office from the more politicized Justice Department and establish a bipartisan review commission, with a goal of clearing the backlog of more-deserving cases that was totally ignored by Trump.

But maybe a full-blown pardon scandal, as alleged last week, could be an impetus for the all-but-impossible reform that’s truly needed: a constitutional amendment. Let’s spell out the things that the framers were too naïve to include: that the president can’t pardon himself or his family members, and that they can’t issue pardons as a “lame duck” when they don’t worry about the political consequences — or impeachment. It might be necessary to design checks and balances involving Congress or the judiciary. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton hoped there would never be a Donald Trump. But he’s here — and we need to deal with this.

Source: Why was this massive Trump scandal hiding in plain sight for 28 months? (inquirer.com)

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