The most common read on President Trump's pardon of conservative provocateur Dinesh D'Souza is that he may be sending a signal to other allies — hello Michael Cohen! — that he will pardon them if they stay loyal.
The more fundamental and clearer takeaway is that presidential pardon powers are being perhaps irrevocably politicized for Trump's own purposes.
The common thread running through four of Trump's five high-profile pardons isn't so much that these are top allies as it is that they were all allegedly politically oppressed. D'Souza and former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio were certainly big Trump backers and allies who fit the Trump mold better than the vast majority of Republicans. But former Bush White House aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby wasn't a high-profile Trump backer, nor was Navy sailor Kristian Saucier, who was pardoned after being sentenced to a year in prison for illegally retaining pictures of a submarine.
Saucier might actually be the best example of Trump's pardon strategy. Trump used his case frequently on the 2016 campaign trail as a counterpoint to Hillary Clinton allegedly being let of easy by the feds. How did a guy get a year in jail just for having pictures of a submarine, while Clinton got off scot free?
Saucier, in the end, may have truly deserved the pardon — his plight wasn't inherently political and plenty agree the sentence was harsh — but Trump's pardon sure reinforced his message that justice wasn't being carried out appropriately and that the Democrats were getting off easier than the Republicans.
And that's been Trump's argument for the other three pardons, too. In his D'Souza tweet on Thursday morning, Trump said D'Souza “was treated very unfairly by our government!”
Of Arpaio, he said, “I thought he was treated unbelievably unfairly when they came down with their big decision to go get him, right before the election voting started. ... I thought that was very, very unfair thing to do.”
As for Libby? You guessed it: He was “treated unfairly.”
Trump would have you believe he's righting wrongs, and that's certainly something that's in the eye of the beholder. But he's also righting alleged wrongs that mirror his own legal predicament. The president who routinely complained about the “witch hunt” that is special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's investigation is using his pardon power to assert that there are myriad other witch hunts going on in politics. It's all self-serving on some level, regardless of how you feel about any individual pardon.
Pardons have certainly been used in cases of perceived unfair prosecutions, but much of the time they reflect on situations in which people have paid their debts to society and may have received extreme sentences. And when pardons have been given to political allies, it's generally been done in rare cases and in the twilight of a presidency, such as Bill Clinton's pardon of Marc Rich on his last day in office in 2001. Trump, who has demolished so many political norms, has increasingly laid waste to this one too. Political pardons are apparently no problem for him.
Trump may indeed be testing the waters for a Cohen pardon, a Paul Manafort pardon, or even — most controversially — a pardon of himself. But even if none of those come to pass, he's feeding his overriding narrative in the Mueller case. And that's controversial enough.