Trump pardoning convicted criminals highlights the rot at the heart of the US establishment

US President Donald Trump
Peter Bolton

Donald Trump has just pardoned almost a dozen convicted criminals. The move is both illustrative and unsurprising on several levels. For one thing, it’s another apt demonstration of the Trump administration’s long record of pandering to shady characters. It’s also a microcosm of a wider pattern of double standards in which there’s one set of rules for the powerful and connected but a completely different set for everybody else. And this case is just one more example in a long and well-documented history of this trend.

Clemency for conmen and fraudsters

On 18 February, the White House announced the list of people who have been granted clemency. The list includes:

  • Rod Blagojevich – a former governor of Illinois who was convicted on multiple corruption charges in 2012.
  • Bernard Kerik – a former New York City police commissioner pleaded guilty to fraud and making false statements in 2009.
  • Michael Milken – a financial conman who swindled victims with high-yield ‘junk’ bonds and was convicted of securities fraud offences in 1990.
A familiar tale…

No one should be surprised; these are exactly Trump’s kind of people. He has seemed not just to turn a blind eye to criminality but to actively seek out criminally-inclined buccaneer capitalists to work with. In August 2018, for example, his former campaign manager Paul Manafort was convicted on eight counts including tax and bank fraud.

That same month, Trump’s lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to eight offenses including campaign finance violations and tax fraud. Manafort’s deputy Rick Gates also pleaded guilty in 2018 to conspiracy against the United States and making false statements during an investigation into interference in the 2016 presidential election. Long-time Trump adviser Roger Stone, meanwhile, has just been sentenced to over three years in prison for “lying to Congress, obstruction and witness tampering”.

…with a long history

Trump’s association with shady characters, however, long predates his entrance into politics. During his early business career, his lawyer was the notorious Roy Cohn – who is widely believed to have had extensive connections to the world of organized crime. Cohn was eventually disbarred after trying to force a wealthy client into leaving him his fortune.

Trump’s connections to the mafia apparently don’t end there either; they have been profiled by multiple mainstream publications including the Washington Post, the Guardian, Politico, and even the right-leaning Wall Street Journal. This should also come as no great surprise, though. Because Trump is just one case of the extensive intertwinement of US capitalism with criminality.

Double standards

This latest episode is also revealing for the incredible double standard that is shown to white-collar offences compared to other types of crimes in the US – a phenomenon that long predates the Trump presidency. As the New York Times pointed out in 1985:

The double standard – one for crime in the streets and one for crime in the suites – is well known. A man in Kentucky was sentenced to 10 years in jail in 1983 for stealing a pizza. When General Motors was convicted in 1949 of conspiracy to destroy the nation’s mass-transit systems, the company was fined $5,000. Dozens of corporations have been caught illegally dumping toxic wastes. Yet, only small fines followed.

The reason for this double standard is two-fold. First of all, because members of congress from both parties take large sums of money from wealthy corporations, the laws and regulations they enact naturally penalize their crimes less than those committed by average citizens.

The second explanation is the country’s privatized prison system. Private prison corporations like the Geo Group and Corrections Corporation of America have an incentive to keep the incarceration rate as high as possible since that means more profits – which are in the billions of dollars per year. Needless to say, white-collar criminals are not the preferred inmates of this prison-industrial complex. And, of course, these corporations themselves contribute generously to US politicians’ election campaigns and extensively lobby federal and state governments.

Trump is just an extreme example of the status quo

By adding another brick to this sordid wall of hypocrisy and venality, the Trump administration has further solidified its status as a quasi-criminal entity.

However, previous US presidents have also been more-or-less just as brazen in their abuse of the power of presidential pardons to spare powerful criminals from their already disproportionately lenient sentences.

As usual, Trump is just a more extreme example of the putrid status quo.

Featured image via Flickr – Gage Skidmore

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