Irving Kristol, a New York intellectual and youthful communist who became a guru of the American right, once defined a neoconservative as “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” Thanks to Donald Trump, we have a new definition of a criminal justice reformer: a rich person who is shocked to see his felonious friends punished as though they were poor.
Sorting out the motives behind the president’s sudden slew of clemency actions for people he knows and likes is not terribly difficult. Trump is a monumental sleazeball who is comfortable with other sleazeballs, provided they are people of means and fame. It also helps if they are willing to play the role of toady because Trump likes to see people grovel before him.
Rod Blagojevich gained his favor during their time together on Trump’s reality TV show, “The Celebrity Apprentice.” In dismissing him from the competition, Trump said, “Governor, I have great respect for you. I have great respect for your tenacity, for the fact that you just don’t give up.” Afterward, he made a point of saying how badly he felt for the guy who tried to sell a Senate seat.
In commuting Blagojevich’s 14-year prison sentence, of which he has served nearly eight years, Trump lamented the heartless severity of the criminal justice system. “You have drug dealers that get not even 30 days, and they’ve killed 25 people,” claimed the president, with his usual habit of making stuff up. “They put him in jail for 18 years, and he has many years left. And I think it’s very unfair.”
What Trump didn’t mention is that the disgraced Illinois governor got off easy. After his 2011 conviction, prosecutors and the presiding judge agreed that the federal sentencing guidelines for his crimes, which mandated 360 months to life, were excessive. Judge James Zagel said a more reasonable range was 188 months to 235 months. He then imposed an even lighter sentence, 168 months.
It’s safe to assume that Blagojevich strove to ingratiate himself with Trump during their TV time. If that weren’t enough, his wife, Patti, went on Fox News repeatedly to praise Trump and plead for help, while heaping blame on Barack Obama and James Comey. She knew Trump’s triggers.
Blagojevich was in appropriate company Tuesday. Trump also pardoned former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who pleaded guilty to eight felonies, including tax fraud, got off with a four-year sentence instead of the 30 years he could have received, and was released after serving three years.
The dirty cop, who served under Trump henchman Rudy Giuliani, responded to Trump’s decision with a maudlin lament: “Going to prison is like dying with your eyes open. Its aftermath of collateral consequences and the permanent loss of many of your civil and constitutional rights are personally devastating.”
It’s enough to break your heart. But the savage cruelty of incarceration never occurred to him when he was supervising a department that arrests hundreds of thousands of people every year so they can be prosecuted and imprisoned.
Trump also announced pardons for Michael Milken, a crooked Wall Street billionaire who did time for securities fraud, and former San Francisco 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr., convicted of failing to report a felony in a gambling industry scandal. The president has a remarkable capacity for mercy when it comes to people blessed with wealth or power who, like him, hold the law in contempt.
This is the same guy who in 1989 took out an ad in The New York Times demanding the restoration of the death penalty in New York and suggesting it would be appropriate for the Central Park Five. Never mind that rape was not a capital crime when the state had the death penalty. Never mind that the five, after serving time, were exonerated of the infamous attack.
Trump lusted for the harshest penalty, and he didn’t agonize over whether it might be applied to the innocent. But then, the wrongly convicted boys, who ranged in age from 14 to 16, weren’t wealthy, powerful, well connected, white or in a position to kiss Trump’s feet.
Another rich, arrogant New Yorker, hotel magnate Leona Helmsley, who went to prison, was quoted by her housekeeper as saying, “We don’t pay taxes; only the little people pay taxes.” Under Trump, the little people pay the full price for their crimes, and the big people get a discount.