“Strong Island Hawk” reviews President Donald Trump’s recent pardons, which were largely political. -promoted by Laura Belin
Last month President-De-Elect Donald Trump issued executive pardons for dozens of people, including many of his former campaign officials and Republican colleagues. Many of these pardons were entirely political and, what’s worse, they absolved individuals for acts of public corruption. When this happened, a thought crossed my mind: Is the Republican Party now entirely corrupt?
In fact, I think it’s an issue that goes unnoticed by the media and even by some Democrats: today’s Republican Party may be so thoroughly corrupt it’s nearly systemic.
No party holds a monopoly on ethical behavior; Democrats have certainly had their troubles over the years. But the GOP may be experiencing an era of unprecedented party-wide corruption. I want to look at a handful of the most political cases and examine how they demonstrate the GOP’s indifferent approach to government ethics.
Presidential pardon power has typically been reserved for wrongful convictions, unusually harsh sentences or politically-motivated prosecutions. The framers designed it to give the president the ability to rectify errors in the justice system.
Abuse of the pardon power has not been uncommon; some presidents have pardoned political cronies, business connections and even family members and former presidents. But for the most part, presidential pardons have been uncontroversial. Trump has taken it to another level, however, by granting clemency to corrupt politicians who blatantly broke the law. The only reason to pardon them is political: to give a huge middle finger to Democrats, the media and law-abiding citizens everywhere. It says: We can do what we want.
Trump’s pardons of former campaign officials, George Papadapoulos, Michael Flynn, Roger Stone, and Paul Manafort, as well as former U.S. Representatives Duncan Hunter, Steve Stockman, and Chris Collins showcase the Republican Party’s complete ethical failures. These men flagrantly violated federal anti-corruption statutes that were designed to protect public integrity. To forgive these crimes is to endorse criminal behavior.
A disproportionate number of Trump’s December pardons were political; I count 20 of the 43 recent pardons as being political in nature, meaning the individuals were elected officials, federal government employees, or Republican political operatives. And that number is only for the lame duck. Another tally of his earlier pardons found that an astonishing 88 percent went to individuals with whom he has personal or political connections.
Trump himself is an unabashedly corrupt man with no concept of ethics. This is a man who uses his hotel as a bribe dropbox down the street from the White House. This is a man so dirty, his own personal lawyer went to jail, and his other personal lawyer is Rudy Giuliani. But we should not let Trump’s daily misdeeds obscure the numerous other Republican scandals that have flown under the radar the last several years. Now the pardons have brought many of them back to light.
The sheer number of pardons is one reason they are so shocking. An absurd number of Trump’s 2016 campaign officials have faced charges for their roles in the Russia scandal and literally every one of his 2016 campaign managers has been arrested and/or convicted of a crime. And did you know three recent former GOP congressmen are (or were, rather) serving time behind bars? (That doesn’t include former Representative Aaron Schock of Illinois the “Downton Abbey” congressman, who was jail-bound before the DOJ dropped his case.)
Let’s take a quick look at the corrupt nature of these crimes as well as the evidence supporting the prosecutions.
In these investigations the evidence is simple, straightforward and well-documented: these men obstructed investigations and lied to federal authorities about their dealings with foreign officials during the 2016 campaign. Most of this evidence comes from testimony, emails, text messages, bank statements and business documents obtained by the Special Counsel’s office. And t’s hard to argue their innocence considering Flynn and Papadapoulos pled guilty and Stone and Manafort were each found guilty by a jury of their peers.
As a young adviser, George Papadapoulos hustled to make a name for himself within the campaign, which included trying to track down “dirt” the Russians supposedly had on Hillary Clinton. Papadapoulos also refused to cooperate with officials and as a result of this obstruction, a target the DOJ wanted for questioning was able to flee overseas (See the Mueller Report, 80-95).
Michael Flynn got into legal trouble for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his dealings with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, which included discussions of dropping U.S. sanctions against the country. This made him vulnerable to Russian blackmail, compromising his role as National Security Adviser.
Roger Stone, a longtime GOP operative who traces his career back to Richard Nixon’s presidency, spent much of the 2016 campaign trying to track down the cache of Hillary Clinton emails that Russian hackers released through WikiLeaks. Stone bragged on TV, radio, and social media about his connections to WikiLeaks but when Congress and the FBI questioned him, he lied about it. He said he had no emails or texts regarding WikiLeaks and was caught red-handed when investigators uncovered dozens of them. He also told an associate to keep his mouth shut about their dealings with Wikileaks (See DOJ Indictment of Roger Stone, 1-23).
Before joining the Trump campaign in 2016, Paul Manafort had literally been working with Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs through his international consulting business. According to the Mueller report, on several occasions, Manafort emailed a Russian contact who the FBI knew was a spy, and Manafort even sent him polling information. Mueller’s team also found he was a huge money-launderer and Krusty-the-Clown-level tax cheat.
FORMER GOP MEMBERS OF CONGRESS
In the cases against the three congressmen, prosecutors only had to look in the campaign filings for evidence. It’s important to note that campaign finance data is self-reported, so their campaigns submitted the numbers, including illegal payments, to the Federal Election Commission. In Collins’s case, the paper trail consisted of stock trades and even his own legislation. Hunter and Collins were the first House members to support Trump’s candidacy in 2016.
Duncan Hunter (California)
Hunter spent more than $250,000 of campaign money on personal, non-campaign related items such as tuition for his children’s private school, board shorts, video games, international trips for his mother-in-law and even cross-country transportation for the pet rabbit to join the family on vacation. He also used campaign money to carry out extramarital affairs with lobbyists and congressional staffers at fancy hotels. When questioned about the improper spending, Hunter initially tried to blame his wife.
Steve Stockman (Texas)
Stockman was a national embarrassment for the GOP, even by “Crazy Texas Republican Congressman” standards. Stockman ran an old-fashioned grift that is close to the president’s heart: he ran a bogus charity and pilfered thousands of dollars from his campaign for personal use. He was sentenced to ten years in jail after spending more than $1.2 million dollars of charitable and campaign contributions on himself, including flights to Africa, a new dishwasher and his nephew’s summer camp expenses.
Chris Collins (New York)
Collins was doing time for basically running an insider-trading ring in the halls of Congress. He was a board member of an Australian biotech firm and spent a lot of time on the Hill promoting the company’s stock. He convinced a number of family members and donors to invest in the company (several members of Congress bought in as well, likely at Collins’s urging, one may have invested as much as $100K!). And along with former (now disgraced) Representative Tom Price, he sponsored legislation that would benefit the company.
When Collins got word that the company’s MS treatment failed in trials, he tipped off his son, who dumped his shares before the stock went belly-up. Investigators found that this incident of corruption literally, perhaps appropriately, occurred on the White House lawn.
These men willfully betrayed the public trust, and their guilt is undeniable. They weren’t the victim of set-ups or wrongful prosecutions or flimsy evidence. In fact, some of them expressed no remorse. Hunter, despite the clear-as-day evidence against him (reported by his own campaign, remember) whined that the prosecution was a deep-state conspiracy and as of March reportedly thought he did nothing wrong. Despite being under federal investigation, he and Collins, both still ran for reelection, twice, and the GOP seemingly had no objections. They ultimately left office after pleading guilty.
And in an attempt to excuse their own actions, Papadapoulos and Flynn have complained about non-existent conspiracies against them. Stone made an Instagram post that appeared to threaten a federal judge.
As Bleeding Heartland previously reported, two of Trump’s pardons went to former Ron Paul presidential campaign staffers involved in the Kent Sorenson scandal. I should also add that one of them, Jesse Benton, is married to Sen. Rand Paul’s niece/Ron Paul’s granddaughter – a favor perhaps?
But that is hardly the extent of Republican corruption. These are only the ones who got caught. There is an abundance of other brewing scandals from two senators from Georgia both neck-deep in STOCK Act violations to the president’s family hijacking more than $600 million (!!!) from his campaign (which might literally be the biggest theft of all-time?). There’s much more, too many to list here.
Additional pardons could be on the way. With more than a week left in his presidency, Trump has plenty of time to let the rest of the syndicate- his family, Steve Bannon, and Rudy Giuliani- off the hook. New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi quoted an unnamed White House staffer as saying this week that Trump is “pretty generous with the offers” of pardons to people working for his administration.
Trump’s abuse of the pardon power has underscored how corrupt the party has become. The sheer amount of Republican scandals is too big to ignore. The “Party of Personal Responsibility,” which famously said “Character Matters,” currently has few members that exhibit either. It is now defined by the most corrupt man to ever occupy the White House. And he is using the power of the office to exonerate members of his party who have committed crimes, an act of corruption itself.
The news of the pardons hasn’t led to an outcry from prominent Republicans, and I doubt it will. Don’t forget: Trump is in office today only because a partisan bloc of senators covered for him in the impeachment trial, too afraid to hold him accountable for his abuse of power.
Now, I know my Republican friends and family do not condone this behavior. And of course, not every GOP politician is corrupt. Still, I’m left with the impression that Republican leadership does not give a damn about ethics.
At what point does corruption within a party become so widespread that it is systemic? When does it simply become a part of how the party operates?
“Strong Island Hawk” is an Iowa Democrat and political researcher based in Des Moines. Prior to moving to Iowa in 2018, he lived in DC for seven years, researching campaign finance, lobbying and ethics issues for one of the nation’s top public interest groups. In 2018, he canvassed for Cindy Axne’s run for the U.S. House, and in 2019 and 2020 he volunteered for Elizabeth Warren’s caucus team and served as a precinct co-captain.
Top image: President Donald Trump signing a bill on December 27, 2020 at Mar-a-Lago in Florida. Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead.