The position of President of the United States is one of the most difficult and powerful jobs in the world. Although the United States government is built on a system of checks and balances, there are still a few decisions that presidents can make on their own. One of these is the ability to pardon convicts of their crimes entirely or shorten their sentencing, an act known as commuting. Throughout the history of the United States, presidents have used this power of the presidential pardon to help those they believe are deserving of forgiveness. However, sometimes these decisions go against popular opinion and cause controversy. From presidents pardoning their siblings to receiving suspicious donations, these are the most questionable pardons made by United States presidents.
Gerald Ford Pardoned Nixon After The Watergate Scandal
After the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon stepped down from his position of President of the United States although he was still guilty of various federal crimes. His successor, Gerald Ford, who had only been in office for a month at the time, pardoned him for his crimes.
He did so to prevent a massive and lengthy political trial. After announcing the pardon, the White House switchboard operators were slammed with angry calls from citizens who found President Ford’s decision to be reprehensible. Ford then later admitted that he wasn’t expecting such a backlash from his decision.
President H. W. Bush Went Against Congress’ Request
Caspar Weinberger is the former most senior member of Ronald Reagan’s cabinet. In 1992, he was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice for his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair. He claimed not to know that there was any illegal selling of guns to Iran and other anti-government fighters in Nicaragua.
However, it was later discovered in his personal writings that indeed was involved in the selling of weapons. Congress then demanded that Weinberger answer for his crimes. President George H.W. Bush then went against their request and granted him an executive pardon just days before his trial.
Bill Clinton Pardoned A Friend’s Ex-Husband
In 1983, commodities trader Marc Rich escaped to Switzerland after evading over $48 million in taxes as well as becoming involved with illegal oil trading with Iran. These were severe crimes. Luckily for Rich, his wife was in the inner-circle as a significant fundraiser for the democratic party.
On his last day in office, President Bill Clinton pardoned Rich. It was not well-received by the public who called it an abuse of presidential power. It was also an example of why so many people were in support of George W Bush after claiming he was going to restore integrity into the position of president.
Trump Begins Using His Power
Former Sheriff Joe Arpaio was convicted of contempt of court after he defied a judge’s orders to stop racially profiling Latinos. During his 24 years as sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, he established a Tent City jail, where he detained hundreds of undocumented immigrants.
Here, they were chained together, wore black and white pinstripe uniforms, and were forced to wear pink underwear. It wasn’t long after that he became a poster boy for Trump’s views on immigration. Then, just seven months after taking office, Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio which was a shock to many because of his horrendous position on immigration and law enforcement.
George Washington Makes A Statement With The First Ever Presidential Pardon
In 1791, a rebellion occurred when farmers in western Philadelphia were forced to pay a new tax after they started using their excess wheat and corn to make whiskey. Volent attacks on tax inspectors were carried out and the disturbance known as the Whiskey Rebellion began. George Washington then sent a militia and peace commissioners though the uprising had faded by the time the militia arrived.
Around 20 people were arrested, and two men named John Michell and Philip Vogel were found guilty of treason and were to be hanged. However, Washington issued the first-ever presidential pardon because he could not prove either man directly started Whiskey Rebellion. To some, it showed good leadership and fairness, for others, it showed weakness.
Two Presidents Helped Lewis Scooter Libby
The former chief of staff to Vice-President Dick Cheney was convicted for perjury and obstruction of justice. Lewis Scooter Libby was accused of lying to reporters about the conversations he had with ex-CIA operative Valerie Plame.
His 30-month prison term was commuted by George W Bush, yet he was still sentenced to pay a $250,000 fine. Then, in 2018, Donald Trump gave him a full pardon after saying “I don’t know Mr. Libby but for years I have heard that he has been treated unfairly.”
Chelsea Manning Only Served Seven Years of a 35 Year Prison Sentence
Chelsea Manning was a former United States soldier that was court-marshaled after she was convicted in 2013 of violations of the Espionage Act. She had been passing secrets (around 750,000 classified documents) to the website WikiLeaks about United States plans and operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
She was charged with 22 offenses as well as aiding the enemy, which could have led to the death penalty. In the end, she was then sentenced to 35 years in military prison. While she served time between 2010 and 2013, she was eventually pardoned by President Obama in his final days in office. While many thought she was brave by divulging information, others saw her as a traitor to the country.
Jimmy Carter Commuted the Prison Time of a Principal Watergate Thief
Another person that was let off easy from the Watergate scandal was G. Gordon Liddy. He was convicted of being one of the principal burglars in the ordeal and the man who actually led the group that broke into the DNC at the Watergate Complex.
Much like how Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon, his predecessor President Jimmy Carter commuted G. Gordon Libby’s prison sentence. Libby had initially been sentenced to 20 years in prison, however, only ended up serving four after Jimmy Carter’s decision to cut his sentence short. As you can imagine, this was baffling to anyone that was affected by Watergate or was currently being punished.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Pardoned A Major Bootlegger
Roy Olmstead was a known alcohol bootlegger that was caught after the authorities used wiretaps to prove that he was illegally distributing alcohol during prohibition. However, the case went all the way to the supreme court because Olmstead claimed that the use of wiretapping was a violation of his civil rights.
The Supreme Court upheld his 1926 conviction and Olmstead ended up serving four years in prison. Then, in 1935, Roosevelt pardoned him, restored his civil rights, and made it so he didn’t have to pay the $10,000 in fines and court fees. This was extremely questionable because a lot of people had served worse sentences for similar reasons without any pardons.
Bill Clinton Pardoned His Half-Brother
On January 20, 2001, Bill Clinton’s last day as president, he signed off on many different pardons. However, one that especially caught the public’s attention was the pardon of Bill’s half-brother Roger Clinton. In the 1980s, Roger had been arrested for selling cocaine to an undercover police officer and spent a year in prison.
Roger was arrested again early in 2001 was drunk driving and disorderly conduct in Southern California. For the most part, the public didn’t agree with Bill’s pardoning of his brother, claiming that it was blatant favoritism and found it to be an abuse of the presidential pardon.
George H. W. Bush Pardons Man After A Large Campaign Donation
In 1989, President George H. W. Bush signed a pardon for the oil tycoon Armand Hammer, who was initially convicted of making illegal campaign contributions to President Richard Nixon’s 1972 campaign. Hammer had been seeking a presidential pardon for years and stated that “I deeply appreciate President Bush’s action in clearing my name.”
However, what was suspicious about his pardon were the events leading up to it. Apparently, in 1989, the same year he was pardoned, Hamer donated a considerable sum of money to Bush’s cause. He gave $100,000 to the Republican Party and another $100,000 to the Bush-Quayle Inaugural Committee not long before being pardoned for his crime. These donations and his pardon not long after raised some eyebrows from both politicians and the public.
James K. Polk Pardons A Future Presidential Candidate
After the Mexican-American War, Frémont was appointed as governor and commander-in-chief of the territory of California “until the president of the United States shall say otherwise.” General Stephen Watts Kearny believed he had superiority and therefore claim to California and began giving orders to Frémont, who ignored them.
Frémont was then court-marshaled and found guilty of mutiny, disobedience of orders, insubordination, and other charges. Despite being urged to uphold the court’s ruling, James K. Polk recognized the role that Frémont played in gaining California and pardoned him and his crimes. Frémont went on to run as the first Republican presidential candidate in 1856 but lost to Buchannan.
Harry S. Truman Pardoned The Man Who Intended To Assassinate Him
On November 1, 1950, Puerto Rico nationalists Oscar Collazo and Griserio Torresola made an armed attack on President Harry S. Truman’s temporary home in Washington. President Truman was unharmed although Torresola and a White House guard were both killed.
Collazo was given the death sentence, yet Truman commuted the sentence in life. Then, in 1979, President Jimmy Carter freed him and allowed him to go back to Puerto Rico after having served 29 years in Federal prison. Truman’s decision to let him live and Carter’s decision to set him free was controversial considering that he had attempted to kill the president.
George Wilson Refused Andrew Jackson’s Pardon
Andrew Jackson had a pardon that set the bar for the rest of the nation’s future presidents. However, it wasn’t because it was unfair, but because the recipient refused to accept it. A man named George Wilson had been charged with robbery of the mail in 1829.
When Jackson eventually announced a pardon for his crimes, Wilson refused. He never gave a reason why, even though his punishment was death. The Supreme Court confirmed that Wilson had a right to refuse a pardon and he was executed by hanging.
Nixon’s Commute of Jimmy Hoffa’s Sentence May Have Led To His Death
Jimmy Hoffa was an American labor leader who was the President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The work he did during his presidency made the Teamsters the most significant labor union in the United States. It was later discovered that he was working with organized crime groups. In 1967 was sentenced to prison for jury tampering, fraud, and conspiracy.
His 13-year sentence was later commuted by Richard Nixon in 1971 under the terms that he did not become involved in any union activity until 1980. Then in 1975, he disappeared from a restaurant in Detroit with still no apparent explanation. Supposedly he was meeting with Teamster officials and mob figures. He was presumed dead in 1982.
Donald Trump Posthumanously Pardons Jack Johnson After More Than 100 Years
On May 24, 2018, President Trump issued a full posthumous pardon for the first African American heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson. Having a Caucasian wife in 1913, Jackson was convicted of violating the Mann Act which was established to make consensual interracial relationships illegal. While serving his year-long sentence at Leavenworth prison in 1921, he wrote to President Woodrow Wilson asking for a presidential pardon.
His plea for a pardon took 97 years to finally be answered. Unfortunately, it was after his death. Each president had their reasons for avoiding his request until Donald Trump was finally convinced to do so. However, when Johnson wrote to Wilson in 1921, it wasn’t to clear his name, all he wanted was his freedom. So, although President Trump may think he’s doing the right thing, he’s missing the point like every president before him.
Andrew Johnson Pardoned a Conspirator of Lincoln’s Assassination
On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. After breaking his leg during his escape, Wilkes stopped at the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd who tended to his leg and let him stay for a few hours. Days later, Mudd was arrested on the charge of conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.
Although he argued against the accusations, he was sentenced and imprisoned to hard labor for life. While serving his sentence, he helped treat fellow prisoners of Yellow Fever during an epidemic. For his actions, President Andrew Johnson gave him a full pardon in 1869. This was not a widely accepted decision because many believed that Mudd was fully involved in the assassination.
Calvin Coolidge Pardoned A German Spy
During World War I, the United States created the Corps of Intelligence Police (CIP) to protect US Soldiers from sabotage and espionage. In 1918, the CIP arrested a German spy named Lothar Witzke traveling from Mexico into the United States. The Military Commission found him guilty of espionage and sentenced him to death, making him the only one to be convicted in the United States during WWI.
After the war, his sentence was commuted by Woodrow Wilson to life in prison and was later pardoned and released by Calvin Coolidge in 1923. However, a decade later, it was discovered that Witzke was one of the three conspirators in the sabotage on the Black Tom Island munitions depot in New York on July 20, 1916. There, the men caused an explosion that left seven Americans dead.
Andrew Johnson Pardons Members Of The Confederacy
At the end of the Civil War, Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson offered a full pardon to the former president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis and other officials. While others demanded that they are tried and convicted of treason, Johnson felt it better to grant pardons for those who asked for it as a gesture of good faith.
Eventually, laws were passed that allowed former Confederates to run for office and also restored their citizenship. However, Jefferson Davis never accepted a pardon because to be entitled to receive one he must repent, which he refused to do. He spent some years in prison and upon release lived a hard life without citizenship until his death in 1880.
President Taft Helps Out Captain William Van Schaick
Upon its completion, the General Slocum steamer was considered to be the “largest and most splendid excursion steamer in New York.” On June 15, 1904, the steamer caught on fire, leaving only 321 of its 1,358 passengers alive. Many of the passengers died attempting to escape the flames by jumping overboard although they couldn’t swim.
Captain William Van Schaick was found guilty of criminal negligence and served four years in prison. He was denied a pardon by Theodore Roosevelt even though he had a petition of over 200,000 signatures. Eventually, he was pardoned by William Taft, although some survivors or those who had lost someone on the ship still believe he was at fault.