Legal experts say Trump’s pardons include major ‘gaps’ that may expose recipients to further prosecution

Chris Riotta
·3-min read
Donald Trump hace un gesto mientras él y la primera dama Melania Trump salen de la Casa Blanca para abordar el Marine One (REUTERS)
Donald Trump hace un gesto mientras él y la primera dama Melania Trump salen de la Casa Blanca para abordar el Marine One (REUTERS)

Donald Trump’s last-minute pardons issued just as he left the White House last week may include major "gaps" that could allow President Joe Biden's Justice Department to continue seeking prosecutions against recipients, according to legal experts.

The former president granted a flurry of clemencies to several of his loyalists and advisers, as well as celebrities like rapper Lil Wayne, before he skipped the Inauguration Day ceremonies and headed to Florida.

Watch: Is Trump's impeachment trial worth the trouble if it's likely to renew rancour and division?

Mr Trump seemingly ignored legal protocols and processes while issuing those final pardons, just as he had done when granting clemency to former aides over the last four years, according to Andrew Weissman, a top Justice Department official under Barack Obama and a senior fellow at New York University School of Law.

Mr Weissman, who also served on the special counsel team led by Robert Mueller that investigated Russian interference in the 2016 election, said in a blog post on a national security forum last week: “In issuing his pardons, Trump, true to form, followed no process”.

“If the Biden administration’s Department of Justice wants to rectify some of Trump’s abuse of the pardon power, there are now options at its disposal,” Mr Weissman wrote in his post published on Just Security.

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He went on to note how some of the former president’s pardons were “oddly” written in “narrowly drawn” ways that would easily allow prosecutors to file additional charges against someone like Paul Manafort.

The former president’s former campaign chair was granted a pardon in December of last year that granted him clemency “for his conviction” of the 10 total charges he faced at the time in courts in both Virginia and the District of Columbia.

However, as Mr Weissman noted, that wording would allow him to face trial for additional charges that could come about in pending or future investigations – as well as the 10 hung counts for charges he was ultimately not convicted on in 2020.

“Many may wonder what the reason is for the striking difference between the sweeping Flynn pardon in November and the narrow pardons issued on December 22-23, 2020. Was it by design or an oversight? Is this an example of what some noted about the Trump administration: malevolence, fortunately matched by incompetence?” Mr Weissman wrote. “Or did lawyers in the White House Counsel’s office seek to advance only the narrowest pardons possible, so as not to exacerbate Trump’s abuse of his office?”

He concluded: “Regardless of the answer, which may never be known, the narrow pardons leave the Biden administration ample room to stand for the rule of law.”

Ryan Goodman, a former special counsel at the Department of Defence, said Mr Manafort and others were “not out of the woods” in a tweet while suggesting it could be “simple” for the Justice Department “to pursue charges in the days ahead”.

Mr Biden has reportedly sought to avoid making investigations into his predecessor a key priority for his administration, while simultaneously indicating his Justice Department may hold former officials accountable if found guilty of crimes under the previous White House.

In a November interview with NBC News, Mr Biden said about Mr Trump: “I will not do what this president does and use the Justice Department as my vehicle to insist that something happened.”

He added: “What I'm focused on is getting the American public back at a place where they have some certainty, some surety, some knowledge that they can make it.”

Watch: What does a Joe Biden presidency in the US mean for the global economy?

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