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Editorials of The Times

Posted May 31, 2018 11:14 p.m. EDT

When Pardons Are Weapons

The handful of pardons that President Donald Trump has granted may appear to be scattershot, but they’re beginning to show a distinct pattern — not just of who he believes is worthy of mercy, but of how he thinks about the justice system as a whole and about his power to bend it to his will.

On Thursday, Trump pardoned Dinesh D’Souza, the right-wing troll known for, among other things, posting racist tweets about President Barack Obama, spreading the lie that George Soros was a Nazi collaborator and writing that “the American slave was treated like property, which is to say, pretty well.”

In 2014, D’Souza pleaded guilty to making illegal campaign contributions, although he claimed he had been targeted for political reasons. Last year, Trump fired Preet Bharara, the federal prosecutor who handled D’Souza’s case. “KARMA IS A BITCH,” D’Souza exulted on Twitter on Thursday, with his trademark graciousness. Bharara, he added, “wanted to destroy a fellow Indian American to advance his career. Then he got fired & I got pardoned.”

Trump, who told reporters that D’Souza “was very unfairly treated,” has the authority to pardon anyone he likes, for almost any reason. But pardons send a message. What message can we take from Trump’s executive clemency?

Maybe the president is sending a signal of loyalty and reassurance to friends and family members who may soon find themselves facing similar criminal charges in connection with the special counsel’s Russia inquiry. That could help explain Trump’s interest in D’Souza (campaign-finance violations), as well as two other big names he hinted on Thursday he might grant clemency to — lifestyle maven Martha Stewart (lying to federal authorities) and former Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois (corruption and bribery) — and a previous Trump pardon, Scooter Libby, former Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff (perjury and obstruction of justice).

Or maybe Trump is wielding his pardon power against his perceived enemies in federal law enforcement. Besides Bharara, there’s James Comey, who prosecuted Stewart, and Patrick Fitzgerald, who prosecuted both Blagojevich and Libby, and is a friend of Comey’s.

And let’s not forget Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff and hunter of unauthorized immigrants, whom Trump pardoned last summer for contempt of a federal court order — Trump clearly was thumbing his nose at the federal court that found Arpaio guilty.

Or perhaps Trump simply is dealing another hammer blow to the legacy of Obama, who focused his own clemency efforts on reducing the lengthy sentences of thousands of low-level drug offenders with no personal connection to the White House.

The tendency of presidents of both parties to reward cronies with clemency — from Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton’s of financier Marc Rich — is one Washington tradition that we’d welcome Trump smashing. Alas, it’s one that he shows every sign not only of continuing but of embracing: D’Souza told The Daily Caller that Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, engineered his pardon with a personal plea to the president, even though Trump told reporters, “Nobody asked me to do it.”

One thing is becoming clear: Donald Trump uses whatever power he has to attack the people he feels have wronged him, and he will do what he feels he must to protect himself. For him, pardons are a means of vengeance. Those he’s issued to date are only a small hint of what could be coming as the Russia investigation heats up. Last year, John Dowd, Trump’s lawyer at the time, discussed the prospect of pardons for two of the president’s former top advisers, Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort, with their lawyers.

As Vox’s David Roberts wrote on Twitter, “Pardoning is basically the one presidential power that works the way Trump thought ALL of being president worked. He’s gonna use the [expletive] out of it.”

That is the real message of these pardons — and that, more than Trump clearing the record of some noxious clown, is what should really worry us.

Trump’s War on American Allies

To hear the Trump administration tell the tale, it must hit the European Union, Canada and Mexico with steel and aluminum tariffs to stop Chinese manufacturers from flooding markets with these metals and, in turn, protect American workers. That’s a fantasy. Chinese steel mills and aluminum smelters will keep chugging away, and more likely, American farmers and products like Kentucky bourbon, Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Iowa beef will bear the brunt of these new tariffs — even as the tariffs invite a trade war.

President Donald Trump had initially exempted these allies from the 25 percent tariff on steel and 10 percent tariff on aluminum he announced in March. But Thursday, after several weeks of negotiations, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the administration decided to go ahead with the tariffs starting on Friday because the talks were taking too long. It’s hard to credit impatience as the cause. More likely, the administration is trying to burnish its tough-on-trade image after criticism of several trade concessions to China.

These tariffs aren’t aimed directly at Beijing, but the idea is that they would limit overall competition. The administration says the new tariffs will keep China from avoiding existing tariffs by shipping its products through other countries. Yet, it has provided little evidence that China does that. Some Chinese steel is sent to the United States after it has been reprocessed in third countries, but that is a legal practice.

Not only will this do nothing to reduce steel and aluminum capacity in China, it will more than likely prompt the European Union, Canada and Mexico to retaliate by imposing new tariffs on American products, hurting businesses and workers across the country. The president is also effectively isolating the United States from its closest allies — the very countries it needs to work with to put pressure on China to change its economic policies.

Even the Aluminum Association, which represents most U.S.-based producers of the metal, said it was “disappointed” by Trump’s decision. “Today’s action does little to address the China challenge while potentially alienating allies” and disrupting supplies of aluminum and raw materials that American producers need, the group’s president and chief executive, Heidi Brock, said in a statement.

Indeed, why would Europe, Canada and Mexico, which also suffer from Chinese overproduction of steel and aluminum, have any incentive to work with an administration that seems to care so little about the consequences of its actions on their economies and workers?

Trump’s bullying appears to be pushing voters in at least one country toward more extremist leaders. In Mexico, Trump’s combative attitude appears to be helping the leftist presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador ahead of a July 1 election. Many experts fear that López Obrador has authoritarian tendencies and could undermine democracy in Mexico if he becomes president.

The tariffs may be Trump’s way to demonstrate that he will still punish countries for cheating the United States. They arrive on the heels of lawmakers’ criticism that the president has gone easy on the Chinese telecommunications company ZTE. Even after the company flagrantly violated American sanctions against the export of advanced technology to Iran and North Korea and was identified as a security risk by American intelligence agencies, the Trump administration said last week that it would let ZTE continue buying American semiconductors and other components. That agreement, which the president said was meant to protect Chinese jobs, appears even more suspicious in light of the fact that it came shortly after China awarded trademarks to Trump’s daughter Ivanka. It also came after a Chinese state-owned company struck a deal to build a theme park with an Indonesian business next to a hotel and golf course that the Indonesian company is building with the Trump Organization.

If the president’s intent is to establish a reputation as a champion of industry and workers, he is making a hash of it. His decision to impose tariffs on American allies will only weaken American leadership while doing nothing to address the underlying problems in the steel and aluminum industries.

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