When Donald Trump pardoned self-hating historical fiction writer Dinesh D’Souza last May, many assumed the move was part of a larger plan. Trump, in what quickly became conventional wisdom, was sending a sign to his former associates who had found themselves in special counsel Robert Mueller’s crosshairs. “It has to be a signal to Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort and even Robert S. Mueller III,” Trump crony Roger Stone told The Washington Post at the time. “Indict people for crimes that don’t pertain to Russian collusion and this is what could happen. The special counsel has awesome powers, as you know, but the president has even more awesome powers.” (Seven months later, Stone himself faced some awesome indictments.) Other pardons doled out by Trump have been interpreted in a similar way. It didn’t matter if he was pardoning Joe Arpaio, Scooter Libby, or the long-dead Jack Johnson: Trump was letting everyone know that he would take care of his friends—if they didn’t flip.
On Wednesday, Trump issued two new pardons. One went to the former newspaper publisher Conrad Black, who has recently published a hagiographic paean to Trump, Donald Trump: A President Like No Other, and mused that the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville and killed a woman were a false-flag operation perpetrated by the Democratic Party. The other went to Patrick J. Nolan, the former leader of the California State Assembly, who is close with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner (and in fact, advised the Kushner family on how to deal with Jared’s father’s incarceration), and who also criticized the Mueller investigation last year.
As with much of Trump’s presidency, it’s tempting to overthink things when it comes to pardons, to see them as being chess moves in a larger assault on the rule of law. Trump’s willingness to pardon allies and, particularly, well-known conservative figures like D’Souza, Black, and the Hammond brothers—two ranchers whose imprisonment inspired a long, tense takeover of an Oregon wildlife reserve by anti-government militia groups—points to Trump’s unwavering commitment to his own base, which mainlines talk radio. Although he has not yet shown interest in pardoning figures involved in the Russia investigation, he has not exactly been shy about encouraging them to keep quiet.
But more than anything, these pardons point to how much of the Trump administration’s corruption is happening out in the open, right before our eyes. There is nothing subtle about the pardon of Black, who spent three years in prison after a fraud conviction in 2007. In 2015, writing in the National Review, Black acknowledged Trump as “an old friend, a fine and generous and loyal man, and a delightful companion.” Less than a year into Trump’s presidency—and before Trump had accomplished much of anything—Black wrote in the Canadian National Post that we were witnessing “the most effective U.S. president since Reagan.” In his book, he praised Trump as a master businessman and genius politician whose “raw toughness” was remaking the country.
This is not the first time a pardon has been issued for one of the president’s loudest devotees. Joe Arpaio, the racist Arizona sheriff who campaigned with Trump in 2016, was pardoned early in Trump’s presidency. D’Souza’s clemency came two months before the release of his film Death of A Nation—which portrays Trump as a modern-day Lincoln—and two years after his moronic, ahistorical anti-Clinton movie Hillary’s America.
Trump may very well be “sending a signal” or hoping to instill goodwill in allies with these pardons, but the path for each of these criminal figures has been straightforward. Exploit existing connections to the president. Make regular public comments about Trump’s greatness (writing a book or making a movie seems to help!). Then profit.
Political pardons are nothing new, of course. But they usually come at the end of presidential terms. As The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake noted on Thursday, “The scale and audacity with Trump is on another level completely.” There is apparently no consideration at all about “the perception this creates,” Blake went on to write—another example of Trump’s broader disinterest in political norms.
Bill Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich on his last day in office created a firestorm that led to a federal investigation. Trump’s pardons are clearly politically and personally motivated, but there is no similar outcry. One issue, of course, is that this White House is overrun by scandal. Black’s pardon—given his public comments about the president and about Charlottesville—is on par with Rich’s, which critics argued was granted in return for political donations. But it’s also just one among many similar acts of corruption. The overwhelming number of scandals acts, somewhat ironically, as a shield, preventing too much attention from ever accruing to one.
Trump similarly makes no secret of the fact that he privileges obsequious, cringing (often unreciprocated) loyalty above all else, and that he will bend the law whenever he feels like it if that results in more fealty and fawning praise. There is no secret to uncover about why Black and Nolan were pardoned; no conspiracy at work. In the case of Rich, there were a host of possible motives, from political donations to work with Israeli intelligence. With Black, it comes down to little more than tribute. Some Trump scandals will require years to unpack, but with the pardons, the dirty laundry is already up on the line.