The most controversial presidential pardons in US history

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President Trump on Tuesday pardoned or commuted the prison sentences of 20 people in what’s expected to be the start of a final spree of presidential clemency.

The Constitution gives the president nearly unfettered power to pardon people or spring them from federal prison, and throughout US history presidents faced criticism for wielding the power.

One advocate told The Post last month they believe Trump could be the “most merciful” president in history in his final days in office.

Here’s a look at some of the most controversial pardons and commutations in history:

10. 1858: Buchanan pardons the Mormons

President James Buchanan issued a blanket pardon for Mormons, including leader Brigham Young, in exchange for the religious minority accepting US authority over Utah.

This ended the more than year-long Utah War against US authorities. The conflict took a toll on civilians, including when more than 100 non-Mormon migrants en route to California were killed in the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Buchanan’s proclamation said that he was “offering to the inhabitants of Utah who shall submit to the laws a free pardon for the seditions and treasons heretofore by them committed.”

9. 1865: Johnson pardons Confederate soldiers

In an effort to reunify the country after the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson offered a pardon to Confederate troops willing to pledge allegiance to the US government.

More than 13,000 men applied for and received pardons, but some high-ranking leaders of the slave states’ rebellion were excluded.

The oath required ex-Confederates to say they “will henceforth faithfully support and defend the Constitution of the United States” and “abide by and faithfully support all laws and proclamations which have been made during the existing rebellion with reference to the emancipation of slaves, so help me God.”

8. 1977: Carter pardons draft dodgers

President Jimmy Carter offered a blanket pardon to Vietnam War draft dodgers during his first full day in office, allowing thousands of young men to return to the US from Canada and other countries.

Although a controversial move, Carter’s predecessor, President Gerald Ford, in 1974 offered conditional amnesty to troops who deserted during the war — a more serious crime that could result in the death penalty — if they worked two years in a public service job.

7. 2001: Clinton pardons Patty Hearst, Weathermen

On his last day in office, President Bill Clinton pardoned left-wing radicals from the 1960s and ’70s, including Hearst newspaper heiress Patty Hearst and two women affiliated with the Weather Underground.

Hearst, kidnapped in 1974 by the Symbionese Liberation Army, later helped the group commit armed robberies. She was sentenced to 35 years in prison, but Carter commuted her sentence in 1979 before Clinton pardoned her.

Clinton also gave last-day pardons to Weathermen Susan Rosenberg, convicted of possessing 740 pounds of dynamite, and Linda Evans, convicted of helping bomb the US Capitol building in 1971.

6. 2001: Clinton pardons his half-brother

Also on his last day in office, Clinton pardoned his half-brother Roger Clinton, who was convicted in 1985 of cocaine trafficking.

The president’s troubled sibling later was arrested in 2001 and 2016 for drunk driving.

5. 2017: Obama frees WikiLeaks source Chelsea Manning

President Barack Obama in 2017 commuted the 35-year prison sentence of WikiLeaks source Chelsea Manning, who was arrested in 2010 for sending to the secrets-spilling site thousands of documents on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Manning, who revealed she is transgender in 2013, was given the unusually long sentence just two months after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents on US government surveillance programs. Her penalty was widely interpreted as a warning to other would-be leakers.

Manning’s detractors say she risked the lives of troops and US sources by allowing for the publication of potentially sensitive field reports.

WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange, whose allies are lobbying Trump for a pardon, was charged in 2019 under the Espionage Act for allegedly encouraging Manning to send him documents.

Trump has declined to comment publicly on Assange, but told The Post in August that he’s open to Snowden returning to the US without prison time.

4. 1971: Nixon frees Lt. William Calley

President Richard Nixon in 1971 ordered the release of Lt. William Calley, the only person convicted in connection with the 1968 massacre of villagers by US troops in My Lai, South Vietnam.

Calley was convicted for a role in murdering 22 of the villagers, but received broad public sympathy.

Trump also has intervened to spare US troops who he says are forced to make difficult decisions during war. Last year, he pardoned alleged war criminals Mathew Golsteyn and Clint Lorance and reversed the demotion of Eddie Gallagher.

Golsteyn faced a murder charge for allegedly killing a Taliban bombmaker. Lorance was sentenced to 19 years in prison for ordering subordinates to shoot Afghans who weren’t militants. And Gallagher allegedly stabbed a 17-year-old ISIS detainee before posing for a photo with his corpse and texting a friend, “got him with my hunting knife.”

On Tuesday, Trump pardoned four Blackwater contractors involved in a 2007 Baghdad massacre at a traffic circle that killed more than a dozen civilians. They said they believed they were under fire.

3. 1999 and 2017: FALN terrorists

Clinton in 1999 outraged members of both parties when he offered prison commutations to 16 members of the Puerto Rican terrorist organization FALN, which set off more than 100 bombs in the 1970s and ’80s, killing six.

Clinton said the FALN members were serving disproportionately tough sentences and that those offered clemency “were not convicted of crimes involving the killing or maiming of any individuals.”

Many bombings hit New York, and Clinton’s wife, Hillary Clinton, then running for the Senate in New York, said she opposed the action. The Senate voted 95-2 to oppose the clemency and the House voted 311-41. But because the presidential pardon power is absolute, the votes could not reverse the action.

Years later, President Barack Obama released another FALN member, Oscar Lopez Rivera, who had refused to accept Clinton’s clemency offer, which required the separatists to renounce violence, because it didn’t free all members of the group.

2. 1974: Ford pardons Nixon

Ford pardoned former President Nixon in 1974 after he resigned during the Watergate scandal.

Nixon resigned when Republicans began to abandon him in impeachment proceedings. A “smoking gun” tape confirmed Nixon had ordered a coverup of the burglary of a Democratic office.

Though extremely controversial at the time, Ford said he pardoned Nixon to allow the nation to move on after an intense political scandal.

In 1978, Carter leaned on the legacy to posthumously pardon Confederate President Jefferson Davis, saying, “Our Nation needs to clear away the guilts and enmities and recriminations of the past.”

1. 2001: Clinton pardons Marc Rich

In his most controversial final-day pardon, Clinton pardoned billionare fugitive Marc Rich after his ex-wife, Denise Rich, lavishly donated to Democrats.

The pardon was widely viewed as a legal form of bribery. The New York Times called it “a shocking abuse of presidential power.” 

Rich fled to Switzerland in 1983 after he was indicted for evading $48 million in taxes and buying $200 million of Iranian oil in violation of a US embargo during the 1979 hostage crisis.

Denise Rich gave more than $1 million to Democrats, including more than $100,000 to support Hillary Clinton’s New York Senate run and $450,000 to Bill Clinton’s presidential library.

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