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How Trump Used His Pardon Power

One of Donald Trump’s last significant actions as president was to issue a raft of pardons and commutations. With less than 12 hours left in the White House, he granted executive clemency to more than 140 people, including his former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who was charged in 2020 with defrauding donors as part of a private fundraising effort to build Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall. Trump also pardoned entertainers like the rapper Lil Wayne and several former congressmen.

[Related: Trump’s Pardons Have Been Sparse and Self-Serving — And That’s Without Even Pardoning His Kids]

So now that Trump’s presidency is officially over, how does he stack up against other presidents when it comes to his use of the pardon power?

How Trump’s pardons compare to other presidents | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

Trump won’t go down in history as the stingiest president in that regard. But as the table below shows, he issued far fewer pardons (143) and commutations (94) than his predecessor, Barack Obama, according to data from the Department of Justice. In the end, Trump was generally in line with other Republican presidents.

Trump’s pardon track record looks like other GOP presidents’

Total pardons, commutations and other forms of clemency granted by each president during their time in office

President Pardons Commutations Other Clemency
Carter 534 29 3 566
Reagan 393 13 0 406
H. W. Bush 74 3 0 77
Clinton 396 61 2 459
W. Bush 189 11 0 200
Obama 212 1,715 0 1927
Trump 143 94 0 237

“Other” includes forms of clemency that are less commonly used in the modern era, like respites and remissions.

Source: Office of the US Pardon Attorney, News reports

It was unusual, though, in just how last-minute Trump’s clemency spree was. Most presidents use their pardoning power more liberally once the end of their term is in sight, but nearly all of Trump’s commutations and pardons were issued in the last few months of his term. By the end of September 2020, Trump had issued 27 pardons and commuted 11 sentences. But in the following four months, he issued 116 pardons and commuted 83 sentences.

Most of Trump’s pardons came very late

Share of total pardons, commutations and other clemency grants issued by each president in the last fiscal year of their presidency

FY President share of total clemency grants issued
1981 Carter 14%
1989 Reagan 8
1993 HW Bush 49
2001 Clinton 56
2009 W Bush 19
2017 Obama 61
2021 Trump 84

Federal fiscal years run from Oct. 1 – Sept. 30, so this reflects the last four months of a presidency.

Source: Office of the U.S. Pardon Attorney

Overall, though, Trump didn’t really break with his pattern of issuing pardons and commutations to mostly wealthy, well-connected and controversial people. In the last few months of presidency, he essentially undid the work of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, by pardoning five of the eight people who pleaded guilty or were convicted of crimes as a result of Mueller’s work, including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and his former political adviser Roger Stone. And he granted clemency to a number of other wealthy and highly controversial figures, including Charles Kushner, the father of Trump’s son-in-law Jared, and four Blackwater guards who were convicted of killing 14 Iraqi civilians in 2007.

[Trump Is Leaving Office With a Bunch of Legal Problems — And We’re Not Just Talking About Impeachment]

And in many cases, according to research by Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith, Trump bypassed the official process for vetting applications for clemency, and had either a personal or political connection with the people he pardoned. That, to put it mildly, is not how executive clemency is supposed to work, according to experts I spoke with in December. They told me that Trump’s use of the pardon power not only was extraordinarily self-serving but could also set some dangerous precedents.

Trump ultimately didn’t push the envelope as much as he could have — in the end, he did not issue pardons to himself or his children, for instance. But the assessment that Trump was parsimonious and self-serving in his pardons is unlikely to be significantly altered by Trump’s final round of pardons even though it did include some more traditional candidates for executive clemency, like those serving life sentences for drug or fraud charges and whose cases were championed by criminal-justice-reform advocates. As several experts told me last month, Trump’s approach was mostly to grant clemency to people with the right connections — not the ordinary people who the power was designed to help.

Trump leaves White House today, more unpopular than ever | FiveThirtyEight

Did Trump change the rules of politics? | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior editor and senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.