After a rough divorce, the loss of her job at FedEx in the throes of gambling addiction, and her house going into foreclosure, Alice Marie Johnson was in serious trouble. Then her youngest son was killed in a car accident. The grief was overwhelming, and on top of everything she needed more income to keep her family afloat paramount. So, like many desperate people, she dipped her toes into the world of crime.
In Johnson's case, she later recalled, that meant serving as a "telephone mule" on behalf of cocaine distributors dealing weight by the tons, passing messages between them and their contacts, holding cash, and using some of her new income to surreptitiously finance a new home. She seemed to achieve a measure of stability until 1993, when the cops caught up with her and her co-conspirators. That's she got a taste of what bottom really looked like: Johnson was convicted two years later of drug trafficking and money laundering crimes from her (alleged) perch atop a multimillion-dollar drug ring based out of Memphis. She was sentenced to life in prison even though her crimes were nonviolent, the sort of harsh punishment common at the time for so-called kingpins on the wrong side of America's war on drugs.
In reality, Johnson—now a 63-year-old grandmother—was just a pawn in a larger scheme, according to her account, one bolstered by the support of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). But even though she failed to make the cut of Barack Obama's pardon-happy final years in office, she finally caught a break on Wednesday, when—thanks to some small-talk with Kim Kardashian, who has taken an interest in the case—Donald Trump used his power of the pen to commute Johnson's sentence. That doesn't erase the conviction the way a pardon would have, but it fast-tracks her release and gives her a second lease on life.
Especially given Trump's law and order obsession and doubling-down on the war on drugs orchestrated by his retro Attorney General Jeff Sessions, this looked on its face like a sliver of good news. And it certainly is good news for Johnson, who doesn't deserve to spend the rest of her life in prison.
But Johnson's commutation was also the latest sign that Trump will use the most unchecked power he possesses as president to do the bidding of whatever rich and famous people have his ear at the moment—the kind of whim-based decision-making that has the potential to foment the worst kind of corruption.
It's not exactly breaking news that the president likes to converse—over the phone, usually—with lots of (mostly rich and white) people about what he should do with his awesome power. And while there's no rule or even norm against soliciting the outside counsel of your famous friends as president, Trump's moves often seem driven by whatever his buddies tell him about something, whether that something is who to pardon or how to approach national energy policy.
Specifically when it comes to pardons, Trump has already bailed out former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of savagely violating the civil rights of legions of Hispanic people in Arizona. He also showed some love to "Scooter" Libby, the former Dick Cheney chief of staff who lied and obstructed justice in the Valerie Plame CIA case back in the Bush era. Other pardon recipients have included Jack Johnson, the deceased black boxer convicted of taking a white woman across state lines, which in the Jim Crow era was in a crime; Kristian Saucier, a former Navy sailor Trump used as a campaign prop in 2016; and Dinesh D'Souza, the conservative faux intellectual who pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance fraud.
Some of these cases are worthy, but they all share a common thread: Trump appears to have gotten involved not because they represented unique miscarriages of justice, but because one of his elite friends told him to—or he just thought it would piss off Democrats.
Sure enough, Saucier is already moving to sue Barack Obama and James Comey, the former FBI director and Trump nemesis. And Arpaio promptly decided to run for office in Arizona after his own pardon and release. While the two (unrelated) Johnsons—Alice Marie and Jack—appear to be genuinely deserving recipients of mercy, it's becoming clearer by the day that the pardon power represents Trump's best weapon in waging cultural war not just on his liberal opposition, but on the very notion of the rule of law.
According to a Washington Post report Tuesday, Trump has "become fixated on his ability to issue pardons," and his allies are openly suggesting this burst of interest in the power is, among other things, a message to his friends who are facing scrutiny from Robert Mueller not to flip. "If you’re being squeezed by Mueller, [the president is] sending a signal that he’s in an all-out war with Mueller and people should know [he] is willing to issue pardons," former House speaker and Trump ally Newt Gingrich told the paper. This was after the president on Monday declared, without any support in law and to the consternation of many fellow Republicans, that he has the "absolute right" to pardon anyone, including himself.
So as Mueller's investigation bears down on Trump, his agenda stalls in Congress—where even Republicans appear to be getting sick of his corrupt ways—and the political outlook in the long term gets worse and worse, Trump seems content to make as much of a mess of the justice system as he can. On Wednesday, he did a good thing, but he did it for the wrong reason. Next time, maybe he'll be listening to someone with far worse motives than Kim Kardashian.
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