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How Far Will Trump’s Pardon Obsession Go?

Trump’s fixation with “law and order” only applies when convenient

President Donald Trump arrives to speak at a rally at the Four Seasons Arena at Montana ExpoPark, in Great Falls, MontFact Check Week, Great Falls, USA - 05 Jul 2018

Carolyn Kaster/AP/REX Shuttersto

Remember back in 2016 when that group of ranchers occupied a wildlife refuge in Oregon for 40 days? They were doing it to protest a prison sentence that had been handed down to Dwight and Steven Hammond, a father and son who in 2012 were convicted of setting fire to federal land. On Tuesday, President Trump pardoned both men, primarily on the grounds that they are “respected in their community.”

As ranchers in Harney County, Oregon, the Hammonds were for years outspoken critics of the government’s management of the region’s federal land. In 2001, a group of hunters saw them illegally killing a herd of deer, after which a wildfire began to rage. Witnesses said in court that Steve Hammond was handing out matches and saying they were going to “light up the whole country on fire.” In 2006, the Hammonds started several illegal back-burn fires to prevent an already in-progress wildfire from destroying their winter feed. They did so without informing local firefighters, who the Hammonds knew were camped above where the illegal fires were set. In 2012, they were convicted on two counts of arson on federal land, the minimum sentence for which is five years in prison. As the statement released by the White House on Tuesday notes, the judge determined a five-year sentence would “shock the conscience,” and handed out far more lenient sentences. The federal prosecutors who had been seeking the five-year minimum sentence appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed that the mandatory minimum was “not grossly disproportionate to the offense.”

Tuesday’s pardon comes a little over a month after Trump pardoned conservative author Dinesh D’Souza, who in 2014 pleaded guilty to making illegal campaign contributions. Though D’Souza admitted wrongdoing in court, he would later cry foul, arguing that he was prosecuted for political reasons. Trump said that D’Souza had been “treated very unfairly” – a familiar refrain from the president when describing the myriad legal entanglements plaguing both himself and his allies. Hours after pardoning D’Souza, Trump reportedly floated the idea of pardoning both Martha Stewart, who in 2004 was convicted of lying to federal prosecutors, and Rod Blagojevich, the rampantly corrupt former governor of Illinois who is serving a 14-year prison sentence for attempting to sell the senate seat vacated by Barack Obama after he was elected president in 2008.

A few days later, a White House official told the Washington Post that the president had become “obsessed” with pardons, which he described as his new “favorite thing.” The report also noted that Trump asked staffers to compile a list of people he could pardon, and that he may sign “a dozen or more” in the coming months. It’s possible that the Hammonds were on that list, as their case had been gaining traction among some conservatives.

Trump has also pardoned Alice Marie Johnson, a first-time drug offender who in 1996 was given life without parole. Johnson’s case was brought to Trump’s attention by Kim Kardashian. A week prior to the D’Souza pardon, Sylvester Stallone had convinced Trump to grant a posthumous pardon to the boxer Jack Johnson, who was convicted of transporting a white woman across state lines in 1913.

Though the pardons of Alice Marie Johnson and Jack Johnson were widely commended, letting D’Souza off the hook was viewed as another signal that the president does not feel the rule of law has to be so ironclad when it comes to his political allies. So too was Trump’s 2017 pardon of administration favorite Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who had been convicted of contempt of court in what he described as, you guessed it, a “witch hunt.” Same goes for his out-of-nowhere pardon of former Dick Cheney aide Scooter Libby, who in 2007 was convicted of perjury and obstruction, charges that have and will continue to be relevant to Trump and his circle as Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation continues.

“I don’t know Mr. Libby,” Trump said in an April statement announcing the pardon, “but for years I have heard that he has been treated unfairly. Hopefully, this full pardon will help rectify a very sad portion of his life.”

Trump’s string of pardons underscores the notion that the president’s fetishization of “law and order” is nothing more than a marketing ploy that is only applicable when it’s convenient to Trump and his base. Though a federal court found it appropriate, some may argue that Dwight and Steven Hammond didn’t deserve five years for the two fires they set, despite that it was the federal minimum sentence for their crimes. Others, however, may argue that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders don’t deserve to serve the mandatory minimum sentence, either. Last year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ensured they would by reversing an Obama-era policy that instructed federal prosecutors not to divulge the quantity of drugs involved in the case, allowing judges to hand out more lenient sentences where they deemed applicable. No longer, ordered Sessions. “It is a core principle that prosecutors should charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense,” Sessions said.

More recently, the Trump administration instituted a “zero tolerance” policy regarding migrants crossing the border, ensuring that every last one would be criminally prosecuted (and that their children would be ripped away from them in the process). The administration argued that they were just upholding federal law. Sessions and Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders even invoked the Bible as a rationale for “enforcing the law,” regardless of how many families may be destroyed.

If anyone has been “treated unfairly,” it’s low-level drug offenders and migrants at the border, not a renegade father-son duo in Oregon. The Hammonds – “devoted family men” and “respected contributors to their community” – will soon be free. We’re not expecting anyone in the former groups, which Trump has likened to vermin, to be pardoned anytime soon.

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