Washington was sent into vapors of shock and disgust with news of the commutation of Roger Stone. Legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin declared it to be “the most corrupt and cronyistic act in all of recent history.” Despite my disagreement with the commutation, that claim is almost quaint. The sordid history of pardons makes it look positively chaste in comparison. Many presidents have found the power of pardons to be an irresistible temptation when it involves family, friends, and political allies.
I have maintained that Stone deserved another trial but not a pardon. As Attorney General William Barr has said, this was a “righteous prosecution” and Stone was correctly convicted and correctly sentenced to 40 months in prison. President Trump did not give his confidant a pardon but rather a commutation, so Stone is still a convicted felon. However, Trump should have left this decision to his attorney general. In addition to Stone being a friend and political ally, Trump was implicated in those allegations against Stone. While there was never any evidence linking Trump to the leaking of hacked emails, he has an obvious conflict of interest in the case.
The White House issued a statement that Stone is “a victim of the Russia hoax.” The fact is that Stone is a victim of himself. Years of what he called his “performance art” finally caught up with him when he realized federal prosecutors who were not amused by his antics. Stone defines himself as an “agent provocateur.” He crossed the line when he called witnesses to influence their testimony and gave false answers to investigators.
But criticism of this commutation immediately seemed to be decoupled from any foundation in history or in the Constitution. Indeed, Toobin also declared, “This is simply not done by American presidents. They do not pardon or commute sentences of people who are close to them or about to go to prison. It just does not happen until this president.” In reality, the commutation of Stone barely stands out in the old gallery of White House pardons, which are the most consistently and openly abused power in the Constitution. This authority under Article Two is stated in absolute terms, and some presidents have wielded it with absolute abandon.
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