Trump grants clemency to 11, including former junk bond king Michael Milken

Milken and Trump
Michael Milken, left, and Donald Trump at a tennis tournament in Palm Beach, Fla., in 2000.
(Getty Images)

President Trump issued a pardon Tuesday to Michael Milken, the disgraced former junk bond king who later became a prominent Los Angeles philanthropist, in a mass clemency to 11 convicted felons that marked a dramatic expansion of the president’s intervention in judicial matters since his Senate impeachment acquittal.

Among those whose sentences were commuted was former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who has served eight years of a 14-year prison term for trying to sell the open U.S. Senate seat that Barack Obama had held before he entered the White House.

Trump also granted clemency to Bernard Kerik, who led the New York Police Department after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and was nominated by President George W. Bush to head the Department of Homeland Security, although his name ultimately was removed from consideration. Kerik was sentenced to four years in prison in 2010 for tax fraud and lying to investigators.


The president made clear he had not ruled out pardoning his longtime friend and informal advisor Roger Stone, who is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court Thursday despite Trump’s demand on Twitter earlier Tuesday that the case should be “thrown out.”

Stone was convicted in November of seven counts of witness tampering, obstruction and lying to Congress during the special counsel investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Trump told reporters he thought Stone was “treated unfairly.”

Trump dismissed criticism that his growing tweet storms about criminal cases involving his former associates, the federal judges hearing them, and the prosecutors and jurors at their trials, have served to politicize the criminal justice system and raise questions about the integrity of the Justice Department.

“I’m actually, I guess, the chief law enforcement officer of the country,” Trump said when asked whether he had crossed a line by interfering at the Justice Department. “I’ve chosen not to be involved,” he said, adding, “I could be involved if I wanted to be.”

Though Trump’s authority to issue pardons and commutations was not in doubt, his judgment came under fire for showing leniency to mostly high-profile, white-collar felons with powerful connections.

“Is it on the merits? Or is it because the president thinks certain crimes are not a big deal?” said Orin Kerr, a law professor at UC Berkeley. “There are thousands of people in the federal system, and time and again he is picking high-profile individuals who are guilty of fraud and lying to government agents, [and] a corrupt politician, for clemency.”

Nearly all of those granted clemency had strong advocates who were the president’s close friends, including his personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, and even Eddie Gallagher, the former Navy SEAL who was charged with war crimes — all were named in the White House official statement.

Some of the offenses, including obstruction of justice, appeared similar to those that led to Trump’s impeachment in the House and subsequent acquittal in the Senate last month.

Henry Pontell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, viewed Trump’s slew of pardons and commutations as “a president normalizing and trivializing white-collar crimes.”

“If you’re going to control these sorts of behaviors, you need sentences that serve as a deterrent,” Pontell said. “Trump is saying, ‘It’s too harsh and it’s really not that big of a deal anyway.’”

Trump spoke at Joint Base Andrews as he embarked on a four-day swing to California, Nevada, Arizona and Colorado, and just hours after the White House announced the pardon of former San Francisco 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr., who was convicted in a gambling fraud scandal.

The president lauded Milken for his philanthropy, saying the financier who became the face of the financial scandals of the late 1980s has “done an incredible job for the world.” After Milken’s release from prison in 1993, he set up foundations that provided tens of millions of dollars for medical research, and spent years seeking a presidential pardon.

“He suffered greatly. He paid a big price, a very tough price, but he’s done an incredible job,” Trump said.

Trump also issued pardons to Ariel Friedler, an entrepreneur who pleaded guilty to accessing a protected computer; Paul Pogue, who underpaid his taxes; David Safavian, who obstructed justice; and Angela Stanton, once a star on “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” who served six months of house arrest for her role in a car theft ring.

Trump commuted sentences for two low-level drug offenders, Tynice Nichole Hall and Crystal Munoz, as well as Judith Negron, who orchestrated a $205-million Medicare fraud scheme.

Trump publicly floated a possible pardon for Blagojevich in May 2018 despite advisors’ warnings of political fallout from commuting the sentence of a politician whose crime exemplifies the kind of corruption Trump’s “drain the swamp” messaging vowed to root out.

Blagojevich, a Democrat, was convicted in 2011 of trying to sell his appointment to the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois that Obama had held. He has been imprisoned since 2012 in a federal prison in Colorado, and was not due for release until 2024.

Trump’s commutation frees Blagojevich from prison without wiping out his conviction.

Five Illinois Republicans in Congress criticized the decision, asserting that Blagojevich’s sentence was at “the low end of the federal sentencing guidelines for the gravity of his public corruption convictions.”

Some Democrats offered harsher criticism. The pardons “perhaps represent Trump’s most dangerous abuse of power precisely because the pardon power is unfettered and cannot be reviewed by Congress or the courts,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.), an outspoken critic of Trump’s past pardons.

The clemency came after a week of political turmoil over the Stone conviction. Four career prosecutors quit the case on Feb. 11, and one also resigned from the Justice Department, after they urged a judge to send the president’s longtime associate to prison for up to nine years — and then were publicly overruled by Atty. Gen. William Barr.

Barr, in turn, rebuked the president a day later, saying in a TV interview that the president’s tweets criticizing the Stone prosecution and other criminal cases were making his job “impossible.”

Stone’s lawyers followed up by filing a sealed motion to throw out Stone’s conviction. But federal prosecutors opposed that Tuesday in their own sealed motion — and Justice Department officials said Barr, who is said to be increasingly vexed by Trump’s tweets, had personally approved that recommendation.

In response, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson told the lawyers in a status conference Tuesday that she saw no reason to postpone the politically charged sentencing on Thursday. She said she would defer the start of any sentence until after she had resolved the legal challenges.

The judge did not address Trump’s desire for a new trial, or his tweets attacking her. She also did not ask about the four prosecutors who brought the case to trial but then quit in protest.

For his part, Trump fired off new tweets, criticizing the prosecutors — two of whom had worked for former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — and quoting a Fox News analyst who said Jackson should order a new trial because the Stone jury forewoman, Tomeka Hart, might have been biased.

Hart, who had disclosed to the court that she ran for Congress in 2012 from Tennessee but lost in the Democratic primary, wrote on Facebook last week that she couldn’t “keep quiet any longer” after Barr sought a more lenient sentence for Stone. She defended the prosecutors as acting “with the utmost intelligence, integrity, and respect for our system of justice.”

On the tarmac Tuesday, Trump said he had “total confidence” in Barr, suggesting that the rift between them may be partly for show, and accepted that his own tweeting complicates the attorney general’s job as head of the Justice Department.

“I do make his job harder. I do agree with that, I do,” Trump said. “He’s working against a lot of people who don’t want to see good things happen, in my opinion.”

Times staff writers Erin B. Logan and Jennifer Haberkorn in Washington contributed to this report.