US President Donald Trump granted clemency to a slew of high-profile individuals today.
They included Rod Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor who was convicted on corruption charges in 2011 related to trying to sell then-President Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat, and Bernie Kerik, the former New York police commissioner jailed on eight charges, including tax fraud.
Trump granted clemency to Michael Milken, who was charged with insider trading in the 1980s.
The White House also announced a pardon for Edward DeBartolo, the former owner of the San Francisco 49ers football team who pleaded guilty two decades ago for failing to report a crime.
Trump told reporters before boarding Air Force One that he had commuted the sentence of Blagojevich, noting that he'd seen Blagojevich's wife advocate for him on television and that the Democrat had appeared on Celebrity Apprentice.
"He'll be able to go back to his family after serving eight years in jail, which was a powerful and ridiculous sentence in my opinion," Trump said.
Blagojevich, 62, has been serving a 14-year sentence and is scheduled to be released from prison in May 2024.
Trump had raised the prospect of interceding on Blagojevich's behalf on multiple occasions since 2018, telling reporters travelling with him on Air Force One last northern summer that he believed the former governor "was treated unbelievably unfairly."
Several prominent Democrats have also lobbied for a shortened sentence, arguing that Blagojevich's punishment was too severe. The five Republicans in Illinois' congressional delegation, however, had urged Trump not to commute the former governor's sentence, citing the importance of taking "a strong stand against pay-to-play politics."
Blagojevich was a contestant on Trump's NBC reality show Celebrity Apprentice in 2010, after he was indicted but before his convictions. Trump praised Blagojevich at the time for having "a lot of guts" to appear on the programme.
Blagojevich was caught on FBI wiretaps talking about trying to sell Obama's vacated Senate seat, saying that it was a "valuable thing" and that "you don't just give it away for nothing." But Trump told reporters that he believed Blagojevich had sufficiently served his time for an offence the President did not view as particularly pernicious.
"He's been in jail for seven years over a phone call where nothing happens - over a phone call which he shouldn't have said what he said, but it was braggadocio, you would say," Trump told reporters last year. "I would think that there have been many politicians - I'm not one of them, by the way - that have said a lot worse over the telephone."
Last year, Illinois Republican Congressmen Darin LaHood, John Shimkus, Adam Kinzinger, Rodney Davis and Mike Bost urged Trump not to commute Blagojevich's sentence.
"It's important that we take a strong stand against pay-to-play politics, especially in Illinois, where four of our last eight governors have gone to federal prison for public corruption," the lawmakers wrote. "Commuting the sentence of Rod Blagojevich, who has a clear and documented record of egregious corruption, sets a dangerous precedent and goes against the trust voters place in elected officials."
Trump also pardoned Kerik, a regular guest at Mar-a-Lago and frequent pundit on Fox News. The former New York police commissioner was sentenced to four years in federal prison in 2009 after pleading guilty to charges of tax fraud and lying to White House officials.
"There are no words to express my appreciation and gratitude to President Trump," Kerik said in a statement. "With the exception of the birth of my children, today is one of the greatest days in my life - being made a full and whole American citizen again."
Trump was personally lobbied on Kerik by his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and CEO of Newsmax Media Christopher Ruddy, among others, according to a senior Administration official.
Republican Congressman Peter King, who signed a letter supporting the Kerik pardon, said the President "has had a lot of respect for Bernie over the years."
Geraldo Rivera also signed the letter and was instrumental in the pardon, King said.
Trump acknowledged that in deciding whom to pardon, "a lot of times I really rely on the people that know them."
The 11 clemencies mark the largest number Trump has granted at a time, but they barely make a dent in the record-setting backlog of nearly 13,000 people currently waiting for responses to their requests.
Most of the people who have received clemency under Trump were well-connected offenders who had a line into the White House or currency with his political base.
The head of the pardon office in the Department of Justice during the first two years of the Trump Administration told the Washington Post that he quit last year because the White House had sidelined his office in favour of taking its cues from celebrities, political allies and Fox News.
The list of supporters for individual pardons was a who's-who of the president's elite orbit. For instance, Nelson Peltz, the billionaire who threw Trump a fundraiser last weekend, backed pardoning Milken, along with Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Fox host Maria Bartiromo, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a range of Trump's New York friends and Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao.
DeBartolo, Kerik and Milken were all denied pardons under Obama, Justice Department records show.
Obama granted an unprecedented number of commutations, about 1700, under a sweeping initiative that prioritised nonviolent drug offenders. Nearly all of those selected had been sentenced under the mandatory-minimum penalties deployed during the "war on drugs" that critics say disproportionately punished minority communities.
Nearly all of the people who received commutations from Obama were men, and nearly 80 per cent were African American or Hispanic, according to a report by the US Sentencing Commission.
The programme ended when Trump took office. He has granted clemency to one African American man so far: the late boxer, Jack Johnson, who died in 1946.
Most presidents in recent decades have faced accusations at one time or another that they exploited pardon power. President Bill Clinton issued pardons in the final hours of his presidency to his half-brother, a Whitewater business partner, his former housing secretary and a fugitive commodities trader married to a major Democratic donor.
Under Trump, however, politically motivated grants have become the rule, not the exception.