President Donald Trump is privately telling aides that he is strongly considering pardoning Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old woman serving a life sentence, after meeting with Kim Kardashian to discuss her case, as he becomes increasingly fixated on his ability to issue pardons.
The pardon for Johnson could come as early as Tuesday, and the paperwork was being finalized Tuesday morning, according to a person familiar with the discussions. Trump’s aides and associates see Kardashian’s celebrity imprimatur as crucial and alluring to the president.
But the potential pardon of Johnson has caused consternation in the West Wing, with top advisers – including chief of staff John Kelly and White House counsel Donald McGahn – disturbed by the process, according to two people familiar with the discussions.
Kelly has reviewed Johnson’s background and her 1996 conviction – she was sentenced to life in prison on drug possession and money laundering charges – and is not convinced she deserves a pardon, an administration official said. And McGahn has also argued against the possible pardon as an unnecessary action by the president, a second official said.
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser who helped arrange the meeting with Kardashian in the Oval Office last week, has heavily pushed for a pardon for Johnson within the West Wing, these officials said.
Kushner attended the meeting between Trump and Kardashian, and having recently had his security clearance reinstated, has been described as newly emboldened by White House aides.
A White House spokesperson said Monday evening that the administration had no current announcements to make on pardons, and declined to discuss the specifics of ongoing deliberations.
Trump has recently become intensely focused on his ability to grant pardons, asking his lawyers to compile a list of candidates. A White House official this week said Trump is “obsessed” with pardons, describing them as the president’s new “favorite thing” to talk about. He may sign a dozen or more in the next two months, this person added.
For Trump, the presidential pardon holds a special resonance, representing one area where he has almost unchecked power as other aspects of his presidency – especially special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election – remain outside his control.
Trump entered the White House expecting to have few limits on his power – envisioning the presidency as more like his private business than a plodding bureaucracy. He has grown frustrated over what he views as Republican impotence on Capitol Hill, Mueller’s sprawling investigation and a coterie of aides at times riven by infighting.
But on pardons, he has been able to act unchecked, and has recently even floated the idea that he has authority to pardon himself, though suggested he will not do so. “As has been stated by numerous legal scholars, I have the absolute right to PARDON myself, but why would I do that when I have done nothing wrong?” he wrote on Twitter Monday.
So far, the president has issued a half dozen pardons. His first act of clemency came last August in the form of a pardon for former Arizona county sheriff Joe Arpaio, a campaign supporter and anti-immigration hard-liner. Last Thursday, Trump pardoned conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, who pleaded guilty in 2014 to campaign finance violations.
Though the White House has said the president is considering a long list of pardons, many of them provided to him by the Department of Justice, an undercurrent of celebrity runs through many of his recent choices and considerations. Trump posthumously pardoned heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson in May, after being lobbied by actor Sylvester Stallone.
Last week, Trump mentioned that he was considering commuting the sentence of Rod Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor who is serving a 14-year sentence for convictions in 2010 related to trying to sell President Barack Obama’s Senate seat, among other campaign finance violations, as well as a pardon for Martha Stewart, the television personality and lifestyle mogul. Stewart briefly hosted a spinoff of Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” in 2005, and Blagojevich appeared on “Celebrity Apprentice” in 2010.
The White House is also now weighing whether to grant a presidential pardon to two ranchers from eastern Oregon, Dwight and Steven Hammond, whose 2016 imprisonment on arson charges inspired the 41 day-armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Ranching and farming groups, as well as some militia adherents, have pushed for clemency to send a signal that federal officials won’t engage in overreach out West.
The Hammonds’ supporters argue that the two men, originally convicted in 2012 on two counts of arson, shouldn’t have been forced to serve jail time on two separate occasions. While they would have normally served a mandatory minimum sentence of five years, U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan initially gave Dwight Hammond three months and his son Steven a year and-a-day behind bars. But the government won an appeal over the Hammonds’ sentence in 2015, so they were resentenced to serve out the remaining years of a five-year minimum.
Trump has begun asking friends who else he should pardon, according to an adviser who frequently speaks to the president, and some have offered suggestions. The president has asked McGahn to prepare a list of other pardons for him to consider for signature, administration officials said.
Intentionally or not, the uptick in pardons has also sent a signal to those in the crosshairs of Mueller’s investigation that Trump may be willing to pardon them, too – especially if they remain loyal.
The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.
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