Baron Black of Crossharbour is not my favourite person, as you may imagine, and it was a dark day in May 2019 when Donald Trump granted him a full pardon, citing Black’s “broad support from many high-profile individuals who have vigorously vouched for his exceptional character”. (Exceptionally good or exceptionally bad, you might well ask.) We should have guessed that this was only the start of Trump’s rehabilitation of white collar criminals.
On 18 February 2020 Trump announced seven pardons and four commutations of sentence for criminals convicted of federal crimes. But rather that concentrating on ordinary people languishing behind bars or applying any deliberation to the process, his fickle favour fell on people he liked and whom he felt had (like him…) been victimised by a legal justice system that dared to question their entrepreneurial spirit, such as former junk bond king Michael Milken, former New York police commissioner (and tax fraudster) Bernie Kerik and former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who was caught on tape trying to sell a seat in the US Senate. He also pardoned Paul Pogue (convicted of evading half a million dollars in taxes and sentenced to three years’ probation) after Mr Pogue gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Trump Victory Committee. (Yes, that’s really a thing.)
The message these pardons send is clear: white collar crime isn’t really that serious (Trump’s own life is certainly testament to that belief), and if you’re caught, sharing your takings with the man who can pardon you is probably a good idea. It reminds me of Cardinal Wolsey seeking to stave off disaster by handing over Hampton Court Palace to Henry VIII – another capricious and moody despot. And it does show some forward-planning. After all, Trump’s first national security advisor Michael Flynn is currently awaiting sentencing for making false statements to the FBI. Trump campaigner Roger Stone has been convicted of witness tampering and perjury. Michael Cohen, Trump’s long-time lawyer, is in prison for tax fraud and bank fraud. The president is doubtless laying the groundwork for their eventual pardons. And the most cynical among us might say that his concerns are even more personal: he is downgrading white collar crime in the public mind so that if (surely, oh surely: when) he is himself found guilty of financial misdoings, he will be treated with leniency.