Who will President Barack Obama pardon on his way out the door?
Presidential pardoning can become more interesting when a president in winding down his final term because there is less to lose politically by granting surprise or controversial clemency actions.
There are some high-profile people Obama could pardon, such as Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden. He also might use the pardon pen to correct perceived racial injustice, for people like black nationalist Marcus Garvey, boxer Jack Johnson, and American Indian activist Leonard Peltier. Some want Obama to pardon undocumented immigrants known as dreamers or even Hillary or Bill Clinton, to ward off a Trump administration prosecution.
President Obama has commuted many sentences of drug offenders during his time in office, but he has granted only 70 pardons, “the lowest mark for any full-term president since John Adams,” said The Washington Post. He’s denied 1,629 pardon petitions, the Post said.
On December 19, Obama granted clemency through pardons and commutations to 231 federal inmates, said The Hill.
Presidents can commute sentences or pardon people for crimes without giving a reason, and their decision is absolute. According to ABC News, “Pardon is an ‘executive forgiveness of crime’; commutation is an ‘executive lowering of the penalty.'” In a commutation, the conviction still stands; in a pardon, it’s forgiven. Sometimes commutations are called clemency. Obama has issued a historic number of commutations to federal drug offenders – more than 1,000, says History News Network. You can see all of Obama’s commutations here.
Presidential pardons have been controversial in the past. Consider Bill Clinton’s pardon of financier Marc Rich, George W. Bush pardoning Scooter Libby, Gerald Ford pardoning Richard Nixon, and George H.W. Bush pardoning those affiliated with Iran-Contra.
Who will Obama pardon or grant clemency to? It’s anyone’s guess. But here are some possibilities:
Undocumented Immigrant “Dreamers”
Might Obama use the pardon pen to allow some undocumented immigrants to stay in this country? Some believe it’s possible, since he’s expressed concern about some of President-Elect Donald Trump’s more hard-line immigration policies, such as his mass deportation scheme.
Some are hoping Obama grants clemency to the group of undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers” who were brought to the United States by their parents as young children and for whom America is often the only country they have ever known.
However, asked about this scenario, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said, “The issue of pardoning someone is an individual decision that’s made on a case-by-case basis, and so there’s no legal framework or regulatory framework that allows for a pardon of a group en masse.”
Thus, if Obama pardons dreamers, he will have to do so one-by-one. According to CNN, some House Democrats have pressured Obama to do just that.
The White House has said that a pardon would not grant dreamers legal status, but some argue it could clear the pathway for that in the future.
Hillary & Bill Clinton
Talk of the president pardoning Hillary Clinton has faded a bit as Trump has backed off calls to jail Clinton for her emails, despite the fact she has never been charged with a crime relating to them. Some think Obama could pardon Clinton (and/or her husband, Bill) though to ward off any potential prosecution under an unpredictable Trump administration. Some have cited a previous comment Obama made when referring to Edward Snowden – that he can’t pardon someone who hasn’t gone before a court – to argue he’s unlikely to pardon Clinton. However, other presidents have pardoned people who hadn’t gone before a court.
Obama has said he will make pardon decisions on the merits not politics; a Clinton pardon would be extremely controversial and could threaten to overshadow Obama’s legacy.
Some people think Obama could use the Russian hacker controversy as justification for a Clinton pardon. Some say Obama could cite Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon as precedent for a pardon to heal the nation. There is serious talk of this; Jesse Jackson is among those who have urged Obama to pardon Clinton. There’s not just the issue of her emails; there’s also the issue of the Clinton Foundation.
The problem with this scenario is that Obama would face criticism for it, and it would imply guilt to some.
Could Obama pardon Edward Snowden? This seems less likely with all of the talk of Russian hackers possibly influencing the presidential election. It would certainly be a dramatic way for the president to go out, and Snowden does have his supporters.
A petition seeking a pardon for Snowden says, “Edward Snowden is an American whistleblower whose brave actions exposed the global mass-surveillance system and set in motion the most important debate about government surveillance and civil liberties in decades.” Others believe Snowden imperiled national security.
Obama has previously said it was unlikely he would pardon the former NSA contractor because he hadn’t appeared before a court. Obama said of Snowden: “I think that Mr. Snowden raised some legitimate concerns. How he did it was something that did not follow the procedures and practices of our intelligence community. If everybody took the approach that I make my own decisions about these issues, then it would be very hard to have an organized government or any kind of national security system.”
History News Network notes that Obama has been pressured before – to no avail – to pardon some of the best known people on this list. Of course, that was while he still had a second term to fulfill.
Obama has been sympathetic to Native American causes. Could he pardon imprisoned Native American activist, Leonard Peltier?
Many people – including high-profile celebrities – believe that Peltier was railroaded. However, he was convicted of murdering two FBI agents, making this pardon more controversial. A petition seeking a pardon for Peltier says, “Leonard Peltier was convicted of murder on ‘cooked’ evidence after the Oglala uprising and has been in prison for over 40 years. He is suffering from cancer and should be pardoned, at the very least on humanitarian reasons.”
The case was featured in the Robert Redford film, Incident at Oglala. Peltier, an American Indian activist, has requested clemency. Peltier has insisted he was not the person who shot and killed FBI agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams in 1975 at the Pine Ridge reservation. His prosecution came amidst claims that the FBI was targeting and had infiltrated AIM.
Others have called on Obama to pardon Red Fawn Fallis, an American Indian woman who was accused of firing gunshots while scuffling with officers at the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.
The Hill says that some people believe it’s possible Obama will pardon Chelsea Manning, the transgender service member accused of espionage.
Manning was an Army intelligence analyst who is serving a 35-year prison term for leaking documents to WikiLeaks, said The New York Times.
There is a petition asking the president to commute Manning’s sentence to time served.
However, as with Snowden, it may hurt Manning’s chances that WikiLeaks is the target of presidential ire lately because of its leaks of Clinton campaign and DNC emails.
The boxer Jack Johnson, although deceased, has powerful backers. Both Republican John McCain and Democrat Harry Reid have asked Obama to pardon Johnson, “the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion,” said CNN.
Johnson was convicted “under the Mann Act in 1913 for transporting his white girlfriend across state lines,” CNN said.
A press release from McCain says, “Johnson’s career and reputation were ruined after he was unjustly charged with transporting a white woman across state lines in violation of the Mann Act. Both Houses of Congress have passed a resolution that calls on President Obama to posthumously pardon Johnson. It is now up to the president to issue the pardon.”
This is one of the more likely pardons that Obama could make.
According to a Change.org petition asking Obama to pardon Garvey, Garvey was “a Jamaican-born political and civil rights leader known for his legacy of fighting for equal treatment of persons of African descent, Garvey lead under the principles of unity and self-determination. Garvey was a business entrepreneur, international freedom fighter, and founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).”
It would be a posthumous pardon if granted. There is a hashtag: #PardonGarvey. According to the Washington Post, Garvey was convicted in 1923 of federal mail-fraud conviction, which his son believes was “bogus.”
Marcus Garvey, who died in 1940, “led a ‘back to Africa’ campaign that made him a seminal figure in the push for racial and economic justice for black people,” said the Post.
Federal Drug Inmates
If history is a guide, more federal drug inmates will be receiving their freedom in the president’s waning days. These would be commutations, not pardons, technically.
According to CNN, Attorney General Loretta Lynch was “asked about any plans for a blanket pardon of those who committed nonviolent drug offenses” at a news appearance. She called it a “very individualized decision. I think it would be hard to craft a system for a blanket commutation of a class of people.”
The president has reduced more than 1,000 federal inmates’ sentences since he took office, “the vast majority of whom were serving time for nonviolent drug crimes,” said CNN. Obama has used the commutation power to correct racial disparities in how crack and powder cocaine are treated.
Julian Assange & Bo Bergdahl
The name of WikiLeaks’ founder, Assange, makes many lists of possible pardons, but that makes little sense because Obama has criticized WikiLeaks’ Clinton emails dumps and raised the possibility of Russian hackers; Assange has denied that WikiLeaks’ source was the Russians. It would probably make more sense for Trump to pardon Assange, than for Obama to do it.
Bo Bergdahl is another name that makes lists. He disappeared from his military base in Afghanistan and faces a 2017 court martial. He faces charges of “desertion” and “misbehavior before the enemy,” said Fox News.
The former CIA director shared classified information with a woman with whom he was having an extramarital relationship. Some have called on Obama to pardon Petraeus, in part because Clinton was not prosecuted for her emails.
Jonathan Pollard was sentenced to a life sentence for passing classified information to Israel. Because he passed classified materials to an American ally, there is a movement to pardon Pollard.
In 2015, Pollard was paroled after serving 30 years in prison.