Trump Grants Clemency to Blagojevich, Milken and Kerik

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WASHINGTON — President Trump, citing what he said was the advice from friends and business associates, commuted the sentence of Rod R. Blagojevich, the former Democratic governor of Illinois, and pardoned the financier Michael R. Milken, the former New York City police commissioner Bernard B. Kerik and Edward J. DeBartolo Jr., a former owner of the San Francisco 49ers.

All were prominent public figures convicted of charges that included fraud, corruption and lying. Three received prison terms — Mr. Blagojevich was still serving a 14-year sentence — while Mr. DeBartolo paid a $1 million fine. The president also pardoned or commuted the sentences of seven other people on Tuesday as well.

But Mr. Trump gave no indication that he relied on the usual Justice Department vetting process that traditionally guides presidents making use of their constitutional authority to wipe away criminal convictions or commute prison sentences. Instead, he told reporters that he followed “recommendations” in making his decisions.

Those recommendations, according to a White House statement, came from the president’s longtime friends, business executives and political allies.

In pardoning Mr. Kerik, who was convicted of tax fraud and lying to the government, Mr. Trump said he heard from more than a dozen people, including Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor and Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer; Geraldo Rivera, a Fox TV personality; and Eddie Gallagher, a former Navy SEAL and accused war criminal whose demotion was overturned by Mr. Trump last year.

Mr. Milken, the investment banker who was known in the 1980s as the “junk bond king,” fought for decades to reverse his conviction for securities fraud. Richard LeFrak, a billionaire real-estate magnate and long time friend, and Nelson Peltz, a billionaire investor who hosted a $10 million fund-raiser for the president’s 2020 campaign on Saturday, were among those who suggested that the president pardon him.

Football greats Jerry Rice and Joe Montana — but also singer-songwriter Paul Anka — urged him to pardon Mr. DeBartolo, who pleaded guilty in 1998 to concealing an extortion attempt. Mr. DeBartolo avoided prison but was fined $1 million and suspended for a year by the National Football League. He later handed over the 49ers to his sister Denise DeBartolo York.

“You have to see the recommendations,” Mr. Trump said on Tuesday just before boarding Air Force One for a four-day trip to the West Coast, where he is scheduled to hold three campaign rallies. “I rely on recommendations.”

His choices appeared to be aimed at people who he viewed as the subject of unfair prosecutions or sentences, underscoring his own sense of grievance about being the subject of investigations he has derided as hoaxes and witch hunts.

Mr. Trump was particularly critical of the 14-year prison sentence for Mr. Blagojevich, who was convicted of trying to essentially sell President Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat for personal gain and once appeared on the reality series, “The Celebrity Apprentice,” which Mr. Trump hosted.

“That was a tremendously powerful, ridiculous sentence, in my opinion,” Mr. Trump said after announcing that Mr. Blagojevich would go free after serving eight years in prison.

“Seemed like a very nice person, don’t know him,” Mr. Trump told reporters.

But critics lashed out at Mr. Trump’s actions, accusing him of abusing the pardon power, as some previous presidents have done, to reward friends and repair the reputations of convicted felons who do not deserve it.

“The pardoning of these disgraced figures should be treated as another national scandal by a lawless executive,” Representative Bill Pascrell Jr., Democrat of New Jersey, said in a statement. “In office, Trump has used pardons almost exclusively to shield unrepentant felons, racists, and corrupt scoundrels like Blagojevich and now Milken, one of the most prolific financial criminals in U.S. history.”

Previous presidents have often waited until the final moments of their presidency to wield the pardon power on behalf of their friends. Former President Bill Clinton pardoned Marc Rich, a hedge fund manager and financier who was convicted of tax evasion and other crimes, on January 20, 2001, Mr. Clinton’s last day in office.

Others, including former Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, largely reserved their clemency authority for people convicted of nonviolent, low-level drug crimes and other offenses who were identified as part of a rigorous process run by a team of government lawyers in the Justice Department.

Mr. Trump, however, has shrugged off those traditions and the controversy that sometimes comes with the use of the pardon power. He issued a “full and unconditional pardon” to Joseph M. Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff and immigration hard-liner convicted of contempt of court, in August of 2017.

Less than a year later, he did the same for I. Lewis Libby Jr., a former aide to Mr. Bush who was convicted of obstructing justice and perjury.

In conversations with advisers, Mr. Trump has also raised the prospect of commuting the sentence of Roger J. Stone Jr., his longest-serving adviser, who was convicted in November of seven felony charges, including tampering with a witness and lying under oath in order to obstruct a congressional inquiry into whether the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to influence the 2016 election.

Asked about a pardon for Mr. Stone on Tuesday, Mr. Trump insisted that “I haven’t given it any thought.”

Earlier Tuesday, Mr. Trump left it to his deputy press secretary, Hogan Gidley, to announce the pardon of Mr. DeBartolo to reporters. Joining Mr. Gidley at the announcement was a host of N.F.L. legends who supported Mr. DeBartolo, including Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott, Jim Brown and Charles Haley.

“Eddie was like that 12th man that was on that football field,” Mr. Rice told reporters. “You know that this guy, you know, he wanted us to win. And I think he’s the main reason why we won so many Super Bowls. So today is a great day for him. I’m glad to be here and be a part of that.”

Along with Mr. Brown, Mr. DeBartolo was among the hosts of a pre-inauguration party in 2017 that honored people close to Mr. Trump at the time, including Michael D. Cohen, his personal attorney who later went to prison for campaign finance violations and tax evasion, and Omarosa Manigault Newman, a former contestant on “The Apprentice” who joined the White House staff before later being fired. Mr. Trump promoted the event on Twitter at the time.

In the late 1990s, Mr. DeBartolo was an investor in the Hollywood Casino Corp., a Dallas company seeking permission for a riverboat casino in Louisiana. On March 12, 1997, he met Edwin W. Edwards, the influential former governor of Louisiana, for lunch in California and handed over $400,000 that Mr. Edwards had demanded for his help in securing a license. The next day, the Gaming Board granted the license. A month later, federal agents raided Mr. Edwards’s house and office, seizing the $400,000.

“Why do it? It actually was just plain stupidity, and I should have just walked away from it,” Mr. DeBartolo told NFL Films for a biographical documentary in 2012. “I was as much to blame because I was old enough to know better and too stupid to do anything about it.”

Peter Baker contributed reporting.

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