A Review of President Barack Obama’s Clemency Record

by Jeffrey Crouch – American University & UPK Author

President Donald Trump made no secret of his opinion of Army Private Chelsea Manning’s critique of former President Barack Obama when he tweeted: “Ungrateful TRAITOR.” Yet before considering what President Trump might do with the clemency power, let’s take a last look at President Obama’s record.

Perhaps the most controversial clemency decision of the Obama years came on January 17, 2017, when he commuted Manning’s 35-year prison sentence. Manning has served about seven years, and will be able to walk out of prison on May 17. As someone who turned over classified documents to WikiLeaks, she is one of the more recognizable recipients of Obama’s presidential mercy.

fullsizerenderGiven Obama’s long-standing preference for avoiding high profile clemency cases, it was somewhat surprising that he saw fit to grant clemency to Manning at all. Still, the president had hinted a few days earlier that clemency might be in the cards. His press secretary took pains to distinguish between Manning and Edward Snowden, another infamous leaker of classified materials. Snowden has been living in Russia since 2013. Unlike Manning, he did not receive presidential mercy.

The Numbers

For the first three-quarters of his presidency, Obama was not much different from George W. Bush. In eight years, Bush had pardoned 189 offenders and commuted 11 sentences out of roughly 11,000 applications for clemency. By December 17, 2014, President Obama’s clemency record was sparse — he had pardoned only 64 and had commuted just 21 sentences. However, by the time Obama left office, he had made a remarkable turnaround, pardoning 212 and commuting a whopping 1,715 sentences. Of course, one must consider Obama’s totals alongside the huge number of applications he received: 3,395 petitions for pardon and 33,149 requests for commutation. He received many, many more applications for clemency than any of his recent predecessors.

Why the influx of applications? Obama launched a new clemency initiative in April 2014. The administration wanted to prioritize for clemency review those offenders who met a number of specific criteria. These criteria include the fact that “[t]hey are currently serving a federal sentence in prison and, by operation of law, likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense(s) today,” and that they are otherwise low risk, minor offenders.

crouchIn response to Obama’s announcement, five interested groups pooled resources and formed a new organization, Clemency Project 2014, to help locate and direct good candidates for clemency to the Department of Justice. Many applicants – and later, many commutation recipients – were low-level drug offenders who were serving disproportionate sentences. With all of this activity brewing, Obama slowly picked up the pace of pardoning. At the same time, he offered an enormous number of sentence commutations, starting with a rather modest 22 on March 31, 2015 and, after several other batches, ending with his last group of 330 on January 19, 2017.

Obama’s final total of 212 pardons is a bit low for a recent two-term president: alongside George W. Bush’s totals mentioned above, consider that Bill Clinton pardoned 396, George H.W. Bush pardoned 74 (in one term as president), and Ronald Reagan pardoned 393. However, Obama’s 1,715 commutations put Obama in a class by himself: Clinton commuted 61 sentences, while George H.W. Bush (again, in a single term) commuted only three and Ronald Reagan commuted 13 sentences.

The People

Aside from the Manning commutation, Obama made a few other higher profile clemency decisions on his way out the door. He pardoned General James E. Cartwright, formerly a trusted advisor on foreign affairs issues, for making false statements to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Cartwright received Obama’s good news before he was sentenced for his offense. Obama also commuted the 55-year prison sentence of Oscar Lopez Rivera. Lopez was a leader of the pro-Puerto Rican independence group, “FALN,” and had been in prison for 35 years. Interestingly, Lopez and other members of his organization had received the option to accept conditional clemency from President Bill Clinton in 1999, but Lopez declined. Other famous figures that received clemency from Obama in his final days include a pair of tax offenders: Ian Schrager, credited with establishing Studio 54 and luxury hotels, and Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Willie McCovey.

Despite considerable press attention, Obama declined to offer clemency to several notable offenders. Perhaps most prominently, he passed on pardoning Edward Snowden (as noted earlier) and Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist who is in prison after being convicted in 1977 of shooting and killing two FBI agents. Unlike Clinton and George W. Bush, who each granted one posthumous pardon, Obama decided against doing so, although he had heard from supporters of the late boxer Jack Johnson and late “Back to Africa” proponent Marcus Garvey.

Which brings us back to President Trump. When might he decide to exercise his clemency power? If he follows the example of his two most recent predecessors, it will be a while – both George W. Bush and Barack Obama waited nearly two years before offering pardons or commutations. Trump may not pay attention to clemency for a while either, considering his ambitious legislative agenda that includes building a border wall, implementing tax reform, and other large-scale projects. That would be a shame, because the presidential pardon power has for hundreds of years been an important tool for presidents to use to show mercy. It will be ready for Trump when (or if) he decides to call upon it.

 

Dr. Jeffrey Crouch is an assistant professor of American politics at American University. He is the Reviews and Book Editor for AU’s Congress & the Presidency journal. His first book, The Presidential Pardon Power, was published by the University Press of Kansas in 2009.

Who’s Intolerant? Hamilton, Trump, and a Klan Essay Contest

By Kelly J. Baker

On Friday, November 18th, vice-president elect Mike Pence attended Hamilton, the immensely popular and award-winning Broadway play, which might have been unremarkable if not for the fact that the Hamilton cast took the opportunity to speak directly to Pence at the end of the show. The New York Times reports that Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays vice-president Aaron Burr, read a “statement emphasizing the need for the new administration of President-elect Donald J. Trump, a Republican, to work on behalf of all Americans.”

Dixon said: “We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.” Pence remained to listen to the whole statement and made no comment.

Perhaps, unsurprisingly, president-elect Trump took to Twitter to complain that Pence “was harassed last night…by the cast of Hamilton.” It’s a hard task to make the cast’s respectful statement to Pence appear as harassment, but Trump attempted to while further demanding an apology from the cast. According to Trump, the cast of Hamilton is “rude” and protesters  of the election are “unfair.” And yet, his Twitter stream shows no mention of the sharp increase of hate crimes since the presidential election, which constitutes real harassment and endangerment. The president-elect would like to claim that he, and white America, are under siege. That white Americans are under threat from multicultural America. That white Americans are the real victims, not those so most recently victimized by hate.

Trump’s rhetoric, and his attempt to shift blame, has reminded me of the 1920s Klan, which I study, since I learned there was a chance he would run for president. His campaign slogan of “Make America Great Again” was remarkably similar to the 1920s Klan’s appeals to white Protestants.

9780700624478When most people imagine the Klan, they imagine obvious and heavy-handed racism like the Klan of the 1950s and 1960s, but the 1920s order was more mainstream in their white supremacy. Their attempts to win the hearts and minds of white men and women were bolstered by the commonness of racist thought and action. And their rhetoric, emphasizing white Protestant nationalism, transformed them into victims of the changing demographics of the nation. The Klan claimed that Catholics, Jews, immigrants, and African Americans proved dangerous to a nation that the order believed was created by white Protestants for white Protestants. The Klan attempted to demonstrate they were threatened and harassed by non-white and non-Protestant people rather than being themselves threatening harassers.

One way that the Klan tried to accomplish this was relying on the language of tolerance to promote racism and religious hatred.

In 1929, the Ku Klux Klan’s national newspaper, The Kourier Magazine, hosted an essay contest, “What is Intolerance?” The editor explained, “We have always been accused of INTOLERANCE. We know we are not guilty, and this contest should make clear our position and justify it.” The Kourier offered a $50 reward to the best essay, though the newspaper never announced the winner.

For a contest explicitly about intolerance, the guidelines focused, instead, on defining tolerance. The editor urged contributors to write about whether they should tolerate people who disagree with them and when tolerance is no longer a feasible option. The essays interrogated the concept of tolerance as a method to defend the Klan’s intolerance.

In total, the Kourier published eleven essays, including “No Tolerance for Intolerance,” “The Intolerance of Christ,” and “Toleration of Cess-Pools.” The essay writers, both white men and women, attempted to define tolerance and intolerance as separate terms, but the terms emerged more often as synonyms rather than opposites.

For most of the writers, one thing was abundantly clear: Tolerance had limits. Threats to personal identity, religious faith, and nation were unbearable, and the enemies of the Klan were cast as the truly intolerant. The essayists emphasized the long history of Catholic intolerance towards Protestants while another Kourier article in the issue declared that President Lincoln was against racial equality for African Americans. One writer even argued that God was intolerant, so Klan members could be too.

The essays demonstrated that Klan members found tolerance to be an unbearable compromise that proved dangerous to their vision of white Protestant America. Tolerance allowed all kinds of social degradation. A Klanswoman argued that prejudice could be just if it was used to protect the nation’s interests, so intolerance was often righteous choice. For the Klan, particular people, Catholics and African Americans, were never tolerable because they threatened social stability. Tolerance might lead to radical changes in American society in politics, religion, and cultural norms that would displace white Christian dominance. If the 1920s Klan tolerated Catholics or granted equality to African Americans, then Klan members feared that America would decay under the assault of “foreign” peoples, ideas, and religions.

By defining tolerance as problematic compromise, intolerance became the Klan’s preferred method of engaging the world. In “The Tolerance of Protestants,” the essayist noted: “Tolerance ceases to become a virtue when it is used too extremely; when we place too much faith in our fellowmen such tolerance cannot be accepted.”

The danger the Klan feared was too much faith in fellow human beings. Suspicion of others is easier than trust. Intolerance is easier than tolerance. The Klan could claim the mantle of tolerance as long as its members did not have to practice it. Essay by essay, intolerance became a virtue and tolerance was a threat too great to chance.

To put it more starkly, the Klan could be tolerant until some idea, religion, or person questioned the order’s vaunted vision of the white, Protestant nation. When one’s values were threatened, one could no longer be tolerant.

The Klan’s rhetoric of tolerance and intolerance is much more complicated than simple admonitions of prejudice and easy labelings of victims and victimizers. In Regulating Aversion, political theorist Wendy Brown reminds us that tolerance is never an innocent virtue but rather it is a discourse of both power and de-politicization. Tolerance functions often as a supplement to equality rather than as the method to achieve civil rights for the tolerated. Thus, it should not be surprising that the “intolerant” would employ this language to secure political power, media attention, or legitimacy.

And so it is neither surprising that the president-elect, who ran a campaign emphasizing intolerance for people of color, women, immigrants, Muslims, and other groups of people, would fill spots in his administration with those who profess intolerance and actively work against the civil rights of particular groups of American citizens. Like the Klan, the president-elect wants to claim that he and the vice-president-elect and their supporters are the targets of harassment from “diverse America.” Those of us who understand our diverse America and imagine a more inclusive nation, know who is actually intolerant and where the threat lies.

Kelly J. Baker is the author of Gospel According to the Klan. She is currently the editor of Women in Higher Education and a freelance writer.

2016 Elections: A Guide for the Perplexed

9780700622764By Dick Simpson and Betty O’Shaughnessy, Authors of Winning Elections in the 21st Century

Trump triumphed. Since he will become President of the United States, his victory matters. If he carries out his platform promises, he will create major changes in tax policy, immigration, foreign policy, Supreme Court appointments and, therefore, in social policies like abortion and gay rights. There will be broad resistance to those Trump policies but by executive orders and the momentum of the first hundred days of his presidency in Congress, he will get his way in changing the country’s direction in the beginning.

In Trump’s victory charisma and anger won over a less charismatic candidate following a careful game plan.

After this election, the Republicans will have a narrower margin in the Senate of probably 52-48 with Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth’s win in Illinois and a Democrat leading in New Hampshire. But to block any measures President Trump proposes, like destroying Obamacare, would require some moderate Republicans to join with the Democrats.

In the House of Representatives Democrats will probably hold 195 seats to Republican’s 240, too few to block Trump proposals. As a result, the Republicans will be firmly in control under Speaker Paul Ryan, but he may not be lock-step with Trump on all issues.

There were other lessons. Every election seems to be more expensive than the last. 2016 was one the most expensive elections in American. At least $1.3 billion was spent by Presidential candidates, $1 billion by candidates for the House of Representative, and $700 million on the U.S. Senate contests. Contested congressional election candidates spent at least from $2 million each and many spent much more. U.S. Senate races often cost $20-$40 million or more depending on outside PAC spending. In states like Illinois, a half-dozen state legislative districts spent more than $2 million on each of the opposing candidates which is a new record in Illinois. In the most expensive race for Illinois State Legislature, the candidates spent from $106 – $133 for each of the 20,000 votes they each received.   We desperately need real public funding of campaigns or “Small D Democracy” as advocates call it.

After 2014 there were 20 women in the U.S. Senate and 84 in the House of Representatives. Having Hillary Clinton as a major party Presidential nominee was a breakthrough for women this year, but women still have a hard time gaining parity with men at all levels of government. These 2016 elections only slightly improved situation as women hold only 20% of all elected offices. This needs to change, just as more Latino and Asian-Americans need to be able to run strong campaigns and get elected if our government is to look more like the U.S. population.

There were several reform experiments in the 2014 and 2016 election cycles. In many states, voters can register or change their registration online. Early voting has been extended brought to some college campuses. More people voted early than ever before. Absentee voting can now happen without giving any reasons in most states. And voters were still allowed to register in many precinct polling places even on Election Day. However, Automatic Voter Registration has not yet been widely adopted even though it would allow more people to participate and vote without artificial barriers.

Much of this year’s elections happened behind the scenes at both the national and local elections. Our book Winning Elections in the 21st Century decodes how voter analytics, social media, and old-fashioned door-to-door campaign work proceeded out of the spotlight. It also provides a handbook for those who are dissatisfied with candidates who were elected from local school board member to the President to win with popular participation in the elections of 2018 and beyond.

So what is next? Those who support President Trump will work to help him to have a successful first 100 days in office. Those who oppose President Trump and his policies will work to build resistance as many did when they opposed Reagan’s economic policies back in the 1980s. But the opposition must present a clear alternative and sell it to American voters if they are to win future elections.

In the end, this was an election in which the majority of American voted no against the elites and the status quo. There have been more than 4.4 million home foreclosures since the Great Recession began in 2008. There have been no real salary increases for the working and middle class. Unemployment, especially in ghetto areas and among young adults, remains too high. Americans were mad as hell and by their vote they signaled they aren’t going to take it anymore.

Intellectual Conservatism Cannot Save the Mainstream American Right

Dr. George Hawley, author of Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, has been busy. Of course, when you start this election year publishing a book about the troubles plaguing the American Conservative movement, it’s hard to stay silent. Dr. Hawley has been closely monitoring the presidential campaign and possible fallout from the Republican’s internal bickering…

By Dr. George Hawley

9780700621934As Donald Trump rampaged through the already fragile infrastructure of the American conservative movement, we saw justified panic on the mainstream right and Schadenfreude on the left. Superficially, at least, the Trump campaign seemed to undermine what little intellectual respectability the right possessed, returning us the days when Lionel Trilling could reasonably state that conservatives do not “express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” It makes sense that those laboring to foster and maintain a high-brow, literate conservatism would distance themselves from Trump’s brash, populist nationalism. Unfortunately for the #NeverTrump conservatives, the intellectual wing of the American conservative movement is simply not a plausible alternative to Trumpism.

donald-trump-supporter-yells-sieg-heil-nazi-salute-at-las-vegas-rallyConservatives are always quick to declare that “ideas have consequences” – a rallying cry taken from the title of Richard Weaver’s most important book. They argue that, although the left is a collection of interest groups expressing a litany of grievances, conservatism is based on principles. Conservatism officially rejects identity politics; as Ramesh Ponnuru once wrote in National Review, conservatives “hoist their ideas on flagpoles and see who salutes.”  Trump, in contrast, is a pure identity politics candidate, and one with little interest in abstract principles.

Progressives may roll their eyes at the suggestion that conservatives are deeply invested in political theory or that the conservative movement has a long history of rejecting identity politics. But intellectually serious conservatives do view political and economic theory as important, and they try to frame their arguments using universal principles rather than the language of interest-groups.

More so than liberals, conservatives are deeply concerned about their own movement’s intellectual pedigree. This has been true since Russell Kirk wrote The Conservative Mind. Scouring the internet, it is easy to find lists of sites explaining which books all conservatives should read. Conservatives believe reading books by the founding conservatives is more than important; it is indispensable. As conservatives shudder at Trump’s position at the top of the GOP ticket, they regularly declare that the conservative movement has lost its way, that is must return to its roots, to the conservatism of William F. Buckley and Frank Meyer and the other icons of the right. Just re-read back issues of National Review, the thinking goes; they will tell you what you need to know. Columnist Matt Lewis made an argument like this in his new book, Too Dumb to Fail.

When looking for a usable model for the American right, conservatives point to their own movement’s canon – those books written between the mid-1940s and the early 1960s. From The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek to The Conscience of a Conservative by Barry Goldwater, a small number of books forged the heart of America’s post-war conservative political philosophy. For a discussion of the importance of these books and their authors, I recommend Michael Lee’s excellent work, Creating Conservatism. Among these books written by the founding fathers of conservatism, we can find flashes of genuine brilliance. Today’s conservatives are right to admire what was produced by Weaver, Kirk, Meyer, Hayek, Friedman, Burnham and the other journalists and scholars that created the intellectual foundation for the conservative movement.

Unfortunately for conservatives, the intellectual wing of the conservative movement is not actually an alternative to the populist nationalism represented by Donald Trump. Aside from a few stale talking points, these conservatives have little to offer 21st century America. The arguments made in the conservative classics are completely disconnected from contemporary problems and can provide little guidance for today’s policymakers. For all their virtues (and they had many), Russell Kirk, Whitaker Chambers, and Richard Weaver are now largely irrelevant. A policymaker formulating solutions to growing economic inequality, terrorism, a broken immigration system, and all the other salient issues of 2016 will find little guidance from the conservative canon.

Many of the most important works from the early conservative movement were focused almost single-mindedly on the Cold War or on the folly of planned economies. Yet those battles are over. On these issues, the conservatives won, and won decisively. The Soviet Union is not coming back, and the mainstream left has lost interest in state-directed economics. Conservatives can justifiably boast about this victory, but the conversation has since moved on. Contemporary conservatives that insist their future leaders understand the problems with central planning would be equivalent to 1887 Republicans demanding their leaders study the case against slavery. They are building up an arsenal for a battle that is already won.

The left is no longer fighting to nationalize industries; for the most part, the left is fighting to strengthen the social safety net and increase economic equity within a capitalist framework. The mainstream left made peace with free enterprise long ago. When the debate is framed in these terms, a strong knowledge of the errors of socialism is not particularly helpful. If the debate has transitioned from being about ownership of the means of production to questions about the role of government in guaranteeing some minimal level of economic welfare for all, certain aspects of the canon may actually be harmful to the conservative cause. In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek actually expresses positive sentiments toward welfare policies, stating, for example, that “there is no reason why in a society which has reached the general level of wealth which ours has attained the first kind of security should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom.”

Although conservatives could justifiably crow about the end of the Cold War, on other issues, the conservatives lost – and lost badly. Unfortunately, the conservative canon does not show a way forward after the left triumphs. Much of the conservative canon was written by authors that viewed the United States as a conservative country, arguing that diligent effort could keep it a conservative country. National Review promised in its first issue to “stand athwart history, yelling stop.” Yet history did not stop in 1955. On multiple issues, especially cultural issues, the left was victorious. If history came to a halt right now, it would simply calcify societal developments that conservatives opposed.

Conservatives love to point to Edmund Burke as their inspiration, especially Russell Kirk’s interpretation of Burke. Yet this brand of Burkeanism is similarly futile for conservatives in 2016 America. Many of the left’s most resounding victories on issues of culture and economics occurred a generation or more in the past. To an important degree, progressive egalitarianism, supported and promoted by a large central state, is now an American tradition. Reversing these liberal victories in any substantive way would require revolutionary changes at this point. Where does that leave the traditionalist working from a Burkean framework? According to Russell Kirk, “Conservatism is never more admirable than when it accepts changes that it disapproves, with good grace, for the sake of a general conciliation; and the impetuous Burke, of all men, did most to establish this principle.” This brand of conservatism can only lead to a society that moves like a ratchet in a more liberal direction. At most, it can slow the rate of change. Perhaps this is the ideal role for conservatism. But this kind of conservatism surely does not offering an inspiring vision. Who would sign up for such a movement?

It is true that the founding fathers of the post-war American conservative movement were deeper thinkers than the most prominent conservative voices of today. But even the most brilliant conservatives of the 1950s have few valuable insights for current activists and policymakers. This is not a criticism of their work; they were dealing with ephemeral issues of their day, and often discussed them cogently and persuasively. But the world is now very different.

Besides the end of the Cold War, 2016 differs from the 1950s in other important ways that undermine basic conservative assumptions. There may have been a time when big business and cultural traditionalists were natural allies; mainstream conservatism is largely dependent on such an alliance. Is there such alliance today, or even shared interests? Are there any cultural issues where traditionalists can count on support from major industries? The answer is clearly no.

For the most part, big business is not concerned with issues like gay marriage, affirmative action, and abortion. In fact, major corporations frequently align with liberals on these issues. Even corporations that are widely despised by progressives often align themselves with progressive social causes. Walmart, for example, played an important role in killing or weakening religious freedom laws that would have protected businesses that discriminated against the LGBT community. The recent examples of major corporations that fought for more traditional values on questions such as homosexuality and contraception – such as Chick-fil-A and Hobby Lobby – are notable precisely because they are so rare. If conservatism is based on a presumed alliance between cultural traditionalists and corporate America, and corporate America actively opposes the traditionalists, what does that say about conservatism?

Conservatives who think Buckley-style conservatism is a legitimate substitute for Trumpism are mistaken. Conservative intellectuals, those who know who Peter Viereck was and subscribe to Modern Age, have failed to generate real, practical solutions to today’s social and economic problems. Keeping the memory of the founding generation of conservatives alive may be a noble undertaking, but it will do nothing to create or sustain a contemporary political movement that both addresses important issues and has a chance at winning.

A few exceptions aside, conservatives stopped generating new ideas long ago, instead focusing on marketing old ones. Unfortunately, the movement is now showing its age. The claim that Trump is killing mainstream American conservatism is mistaken. Mainstream conservatism was already dying.