The Right Honourable Lord Black of Crossharbour, better known in these parts as Conrad Black, is the latest recipient of a pardon from President Donald Trump. Black’s pardon is the ninth of ten pardons the president has granted during the first term of his presidency (he has also issued four commutations) and the latest to follow what’s become an inauspicious trend: If you want Trump to get you out of jail, the best move is to butter him up.
Black, a Canadian-born British citizen, is best known as the former head of the once mighty Hollinger International newspaper empire, which controlled such titles as the UK’s The Daily Telegraph, Canada’s The National Post, and the Chicago Sun-Times, among others.
In 2007, in a case that the Huffington Post’s Rachel Sklar characterized as “an issue of American curiosity and Canadian obsession,” Black was convicted of three counts of mail fraud and one count of obstruction of justice in U.S. court after he was determined to have participated in a plot to defraud Hollinger investors of millions of dollars. Two of the convictions were eventually overturned on appeal, leading to a reduced 27-month sentence.
But the facts of the case and its attendant legal wranglings are almost assuredly not as relevant to President Trump’s calculus in granting Black this pardon. Rather, it probably had more to do with Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other, the fawning book that Black penned about the Trump presidency last year.
Black has also written numerous op-eds full of fulsome praise for the president — the most recent of which appeared in the National Review just yesterday. That piece serves as the bookend to another National Review article Black offered up back in December 2015, as the race for the GOP presidential nomination was making its final turn toward the Iowa caucus. Titled “Trump Is the Good Guy,” his 2015 piece urges readers “to look more seriously at the Donald Trump presidential candidacy” and then dares those same readers to slog through several overwritten paragraphs before Black discloses that Trump is “an old friend, a fine and generous and loyal man, and a delightful companion.”
“What an honor to read your piece,” Trump tweeted in response to Black’s 2015 article. “As one of the truly great intellects [and] my friend, I won’t forget!”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 15, 2015
As with most presidential norms, Trump has used the pardon power in unorthodox ways.
Compared to other modern presidents, Trump has a much smaller sample size of pardons to analyze. Nevertheless, a pattern has emerged in the Trumpian version of the restorative justice that the pardon power is meant to provide — offer the president’s ego a fresh coat of polish or provide him with the means to troll his political opponents, and you just might end up one of the winners of the clemency sweepstakes.
In the case of Joe Arpaio, the corrupt sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, and Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative writer convicted of making illegal campaign contributions, Trump’s pardons were returning the favor of fealty. Arpaio, an early supporter of Trump, complimented the president for having “guts and courage” a month before his pardon was granted. D’Souza helped advance many of the debates Trump inflamed in conservative media, and by blaming former President Barack Obama for his legal entanglements, offered Trump an opportunity to thumb his nose at his predecessor.
Elsewhere, pardons have been granted to those who can help advance Trump politically. Trump’s pardon of Kristian Saucier, convicted of illegally possessing national defense information, was likely a sly dig at his 2016 opponent, as Saucier famously argued her sentence down to probation after citing Hillary Clinton’s email controversies. Trump’s pardon of Dwight and Steven Hammond, as ThinkProgress reported at the time, subsumed a narrower injustice dealt to the Hammonds into a larger culture war over the use and maintenance of public lands to distract from his administration’s dogged determination to sell them off to corporate mining interests.
And, of course, the president has used his pardon power to send sub rosa signals to those caught up alongside him in his own legal woes. Trump’s pardon of Lewis “Scooter” Libby in April of 2018, for example, was widely seen as a response to the Mueller investigation — a fact underscored by White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, who remarked, “Many people think that Scooter Libby was the victim of a special counsel gone amok.”
Even the most unimpeachable use of Trump’s clemency powers — his commutation of the life sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, a first-time and non-violent drug offender — might not have materialized had it not come with the opportunity for the president to bask in the celebrity glow of Kim Kardashian West, who vigorously pressed Johnson’s case.
The president’s power to pardon someone convicted of a federal crime is essentially absolute, and it’s hardly novel to see the process become some sort of racket. For instance, President Bill Clinton’s term was full of controversial pardons — perhaps most notably his pardon of Marc Rich, fugitive financier husband to Clinton family benefactor Denise Rich.
Nevertheless, Trump has broken with the typical process, in which those hopeful for a pardon pursue their case with the Office of the Pardon Attorney at the Department of Justice, which then vets prospective recipients and forwards their recommendations to the Deputy Attorney General, who subsequently makes a final recommendation to the White House.
That system, of course, isn’t prescribed by the law, nor does it unfailingly prevent the wrong people from earning pardons. It’s merely a legal tradition that has, over time, become the norm. But as the New York Times’ Campbell Robertson reported in July of last year, pardon seekers have noticed how the game has changed under Trump:
Pardon seekers have been watching all this. Having once put their hopes in an opaque bureaucratic process, they are now approaching their shot at absolution as if marketing a hot start-up: scanning their network of acquaintances for influence and gauging degrees of separation from celebrity. What’s the best way to get a letter to Sean Hannity, the Fox News host and close Trump ally? How hard would it be to pull aside Robert Jeffress, the prominent Trump-backing pastor, after a church service?
Furthermore, Robertson notes, there’s nothing illegal about the way Trump has run his own pardon process. “A celebrity game show approach to mercy, doling the favor out to those with political allegiance or access to fame, is fully within the law.”
If anything, what Conrad Black has proven is that in the Trump-era, it might be more advantageous to have a top-notch book agent on retainer, rather than an attorney.