Trump's Fox News pardon pipeline: A comprehensive review
Fox's programming and personalities influenced at least 25 of Trump’s acts of clemency
This article, originally published November 18, 2019, was substantially revised and expanded as President Trump executed more acts of executive clemency and as Fox News personalities called on him to issue additional pardons.
President Donald Trump’s Fox News obsession was linked in some way to at least 25 of his grants of executive clemency.
Trump’s relentless consumption of Fox propaganda and his use of network personalities as outside advisers triggered an array of consequences, from racist tweets to a federal government shutdown to White House and Cabinet-level personnel changes to the abuse of power in Ukraine that led the House of Representatives to begin an impeachment inquiry into his conduct.
The U.S. Constitution and federal law limited Trump’s presidential powers through checks and balances by the legislative and judicial branches, while the extensive bureaucracy constrained his actions because he depended on other executive officials to carry out his orders. But the president’s ability to grant clemency in federal cases is virtually unrestricted, to the point where he could have conceivably issued a pardon to almost anyone with a single tweet.
Fox, which often provoked Trump to act on his worst impulses, thus had particular influence over his use of that power. Recognizing this, people accused of or convicted of federal crimes and their family members and lawyers descended on the network over the past few years, using the president’s favorite programs to plead their case to him directly.
These campaigns were quite successful. Trump granted clemency to individuals whose cases became causes celebres of Trump-loving hosts; heroes of Fox’s programming; and clients of pro-Trump lawyers who regularly defend him on the network. In some cases, the White House issued press releases which listed Fox personalities among the supporters of the clemency acts.
Trump was reportedly well aware of how would-be pardon seekers are trying to use Fox to reach him. The Daily Beast reported in February 2020, after Trump issued several acts of clemency apparently influenced by the network:
“[Trump] knows how people play this game,” said one source close to the president. “He’s even told me before something to the effect of, ‘All these people keep getting themselves on Fox News begging me for a pardon,’ so he’s self-conscious about this stuff. But it doesn’t matter, it still has an effect on him.”
Fox hosts also aggressively championed granting pardons to Trump aides and associates convicted in connection with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, providing Trump with cover when he chose to grant clemency to those who may have committed crimes in order to shield him from legal and political exposure.
Clemency recipients who were subjects of Fox pardon campaigns
Paul Manafort (updated 12/23/20)
In March 2019, Trump’s campaign chair was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison after being convicted in two separate trials of illegally lobbying in Ukraine and federal tax and bank fraud charges in cases generated by Mueller’s probe. He has also been charged with 16 additional charges in New York state court.
Fox personalities have repeatedly suggested a pardon for Manafort may be warranted because he is “facing a lot of time in jail simply because of the connection to Donald Trump.” In March 2018, The New York Times reported that Trump’s personal lawyer had broached the idea of a pardon with Manafort’s legal team in a possible effort to thwart the Mueller probe. Trump pardoned him for his federal crimes on December 23, 2020.
George Papadopoulos (updated 12/22/20)
A former Trump campaign aide, Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI that downplayed his connections to Russia during the early days of the probe. He served 12 days in prison in 2018. Papadopoulos has become a regular Fox guest and a hero to some on the right because of his promotion of the conspiracy theory that the Russia probe was the result of a plot by the FBI and foreign intelligence services to stop Trump’s election. He has drawn support from Fox hosts for his bid for a presidential pardon and appeared on the network to make his case directly to Trump. Trump pardoned him on December 22, 2020.
Michael Flynn (updated 12/1/20)
Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser and an aide on his campaign, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in December 2017 and began cooperating with Mueller’s investigation. In June, he replaced his legal team with Sidney Powell, a Fox regular who had argued that Flynn should withdraw his plea and since has, in an apparent pardon bid, aggressively claimed in court and on Fox that he was the victim of prosecutorial misconduct. Fox personalities have repeatedly urged the president to pardon Flynn. In March 2018, The New York Times reported that Trump’s personal lawyer had broached the idea of a pardon with Flynn’s legal team in a possible effort to thwart the Mueller probe. According to Mueller’s final report, before Flynn began cooperating with Mueller, Trump “sent private and public messages to [him] encouraging him to stay strong and conveying that the president still cared about him,” in a potential case of pardon-dangling.
On November 25, 2020, Trump announced on Twitter that he had granted Flynn a “Full Pardon.” Text of the pardon released by the Justice Department states that it covers “any and all possible offenses arising out of facts and circumstances known to, identified by, or in any manner related to the investigation of the Special Counsel.”
Roger Stone (updated 12/23/20)
Trump’s longtime political adviser and one of the worst people in modern American public life, Stone was convicted on November 15 of seven felonies in a case generated by Mueller’s investigation. The crimes were committed in a bid to protect Trump by concealing from investigators that he had, on Trump’s behalf, tried to obtain emails Russian hackers had stolen from Democrats and provided to WikiLeaks during the 2016 election.
Fox personalities, particularly host and Trump adviser Tucker Carlson, urged Trump to pardon Stone. The Daily Beast reported in February 2020 that Trump allies seeking leniency for Stone “have specifically sought to appear on” Carlson's show “in order to get the message to the president.” Stone, a notorious liar, said in January he never discussed a pardon with the president; as the jury deliberated, conspiracy theorist and Stone ally Alex Jones broadcast what he claimed to be a message from Stone asking the president to pardon him.
Trump commuted Stone’s sentence on July 10, 2020, just days before the scheduled start of the operative’s 40-month prison term. Carlson praised the decision later that evening, claiming that Stone’s arrest and trial were “nakedly political” and “a set-up.” Trump granted Stone a full pardon on December 23, 2020.
The former Democratic governor of Illinois, Blagojevich was found guilty on 17 federal corruption charges and sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2011. Trump commuted his sentence on February 18, 2020, telling reporters, “I watched his wife on television.” This was a reference to Patti Blagojevich’s frequent appearances on Fox -- at least seven -- which she used to plead her husband’s case. Network hosts including Tucker Carlson and Jeanine Pirro, who both sometimes serve as Trump advisers, gave her a sympathetic platform as she sought a presidential pardon.
A Navy SEAL special operations chief, Gallagher was acquitted on charges related to the murder of a teenage prisoner of war in Iraq after fellow SEALs who testified against him contradicted each other in military court. But he was convicted on a lesser charge of posing for photos with the corpse and demoted in July 2019. Trump cleared Gallagher and restored his rank on November 15, 2019, overruling top Pentagon leaders who had argued that the move would undermine the military code of justice.
Fox hosts provided Gallagher with months of favorable coverage, including interviews with Gallagher’s lawyer, brother, and wife as they sought direct presidential intervention. Notably, Pete Hegseth, a Fox & Friends Weekend Edition host who regularly advises the president, had aggressively lobbied for Gallagher’s pardon, both in private conversations with Trump and on-air; in March 2019, Trump live-tweeted one of those Fox segments about the case. A few weeks after Trump cleared Gallagher, U.S. Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer resigned following a clash over whether Gallagher would be stripped of membership in the Navy SEALs, a move publicly opposed by Hegseth.
The San Diego Union Tribune subsequently chronicled how “a team of people, including some of Gallagher’s family members, lawyers, politicians and TV pundits, worked to capture President Trump’s attention for the case,” particularly through Fox. The story also noted that one of Gallagher’s attorneys had previously done legal work for Hegseth.
An Army major, Golsteyn was charged with murder in December 2018 for killing an alleged Taliban bomb maker while serving in Afghanistan in 2010. Trump pardoned him on November 15, 2019, overruling top Pentagon leaders who had argued that the move would undermine the military code of justice. Fox hosts provided Golsteyn with months of favorable coverage, including interviews with Golsteyn’s father and wife as they sought direct presidential intervention. Notably, Hegseth had aggressively lobbied for a Golsteyn pardon, both on-air and in private conversations with Trump. In December 2018, Trump live-tweeted a Fox & Friends segment about the case featuring Golsteyn’s lawyer, saying he planned to review the case and tagging Hegseth, the program’s host.
A former Army first lieutenant, Lorance was found guilty in 2013 of second-degree murder of two civilians in Afghanistan after nine members of his platoon testified against him at his trial. Trump pardoned him on November 15, 2019, overruling top Pentagon leaders who had argued that the move would undermine the military code of justice. Fox hosts provided Lorance with favorable coverage, including an interview with his lawyer. Lorance’s lawyer asked Sean Hannity during an interview to inform the president about his client’s case. Hegseth had aggressively lobbied for a Lorance pardon on-air and on Twitter.
Four Blackwater contractors (added 12/23/20)
Nicholas A. Slatten, Paul A. Slough, Evan S. Liberty, and Dustin L. Heard were contractors for the infamous Blackwater mercenary company. They were convicted on charges related to the September 2007 massacre of unarmed Iraqi civilians -- including children -- in Nisour Square, Baghdad, with Slatten receiving a life sentence for first-degree murder last year. The contractors received positive coverage from Hegseth, who portrayed them as victims of a prosecution supposedly politicized by Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. Hegseth also reportedly spoke with Trump on their behalf. They received full pardons on December 22, 2020, with the White House’s statement highlighting Hegseth’s support.
A military court convicted Behenna, a former Army lieutenant, of murdering an Iraqi his unit had detained and interrogated during a deployment to Iraq in 2008. Behenna served five years of a 25-year sentence before being paroled in 2014. Trump granted Behenna a full pardon on May 6, 2019. Behenna had received favorable coverage from Fox. During a Fox & Friends appearance in March 2019, his parents promoted his bid for a presidential pardon. Hegseth praised Trump’s decision to pardon Behenna, arguing that Behenna should not have received prison time.
A former Navy sailor, Saucier pleaded guilty on a charge of unauthorized possession and retention of national defense information after he illegally kept photos he had taken inside a nuclear submarine and hampered the subsequent investigation. He was sentenced to a year in prison in August 2016. Trump pardoned him on March 9, 2018. Saucier’s case had received positive coverage on Fox, where his actions were favorably compared to Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server as secretary of state, and he made a March 2018 appearance on Fox & Friends to ask for a presidential pardon. Trump’s pardon was issued within a week of Saucier’s Fox interview, and his lawyer subsequently credited a Fox-centric PR strategy for capturing the president’s attention.
Clemency recipients who are longtime Fox fixtures
D’Souza, a bigoted right-wing troll and all-around fraud, pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations and lying to investigators and was sentenced to five years of probation in 2014. Trump pardoned him on May 31, 2018, saying he had been “treated very unfairly by our government.” D’Souza has been a fixture on Fox for years, using that platform to promote particularly virulent attacks on President Barack Obama. Following his indictment, the network’s hosts rushed to declare him the victim of a political persecution.
The former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, was convicted of criminal contempt on July 31, 2017. Trump pardoned Arpaio on August 25, 2017, and issued a statement praising Arpaio’s “life's work of protecting the public from the scourges of crime and illegal immigration.” Fox had celebrated Arpaio’s actions for years, bolstering his stature in dozens of laudatory interviews, while he otherwise earned national notoriety for his brutal, humiliating treatment of undocumented immigrants, his refusal to stop racially profiling Latinos in his jurisdiction, and his general contempt for the rule of law. Fox personalities Gregg Jarrett and Sean Hannity may have played roles in securing the pardon.
Clemency beneficiaries whose lawyers frequently defended Trump on Fox
I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. A former White House aide, Libby was convicted of four felonies in 2007, including perjury, lying to federal law enforcement, and obstruction of justice during the investigation into the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson’s identity, but then-President George W. Bush commuted his 30-month prison sentence. Trump pardoned Libby on April 13, 2018. The lawyer for Libby’s pardon bid was Victoria Toensing, a Republican attorney who used regular Fox appearances to attack the Mueller probe. Toensing “declined to say what conversations she had with the White House about Libby in recent days and weeks” in a subsequent interview.
Sholom Rubashkin. In 2010, a federal judge sentenced Rubashkin to 27 years in prison after he was convicted on more than 80 charges of financial fraud after immigration authorities arrested hundreds of undocumented immigrants during a raid on the meatpacking plant he managed and his family owned. Trump commuted his sentence on December 20, 2017. Rubashkin’s lawyer was Alan Dershowitz, who made regular appearances on Fox in the prior months arguing that the Mueller probe was a “criminalization of political differences.” He later said he had appealed for the commutation of Rubashkin’s sentence during a private meeting with the president.
Clemency beneficiaries backed by Fox personalities
Albert Pirro Jr. (added 1/21/21). Pirro, the ex-husband of Fox host Jeanine Pirro, was convicted on tax evasion and conspiracy charges in 2000 and served 11 months in prison. Trump pardoned him on the morning of January 20, 2021, in one of his final acts as president. Jeanine Pirro, one of the most sycophantic members of Trump’s Fox News Cabinet, was “angry” that her ex-husband was not on the previous night’s list of last-minute clemency beneficiaries, “and that message was conveyed to the White House and its former resident,” who then scrambled to enact the pardon before Trump’s term expired, CNN reported.
Randall “Duke” Cunningham (added 1/20/21). Cunningham, a former Republican congressman, used his public office to secure more than $2 million in bribes from defense contractors. He pleaded guilty, was sentenced to eight years and four months in prison in 2006, and was released in 2013. Trump gave him a conditional pardon as part of a slew of acts of clemency issued on January 19, 2021, the last full day of his presidency. Fox contributor Newt Gingrich “strongly supports this pardon,” according to a White House press release which lists no other advocates for Cunningham.
James Brian Cruz (added 1/20/21). Trump commuted the remaining half of the 20-year sentence Cruz was serving for a drug crime on January 19, 2021. According to the White House statement, Cruz’s “many supporters” included “Dr. Robert Jeffress, Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas,” a Fox contributor whose segments Trump repeatedly live-tweeted during his presidency.
William Walters (added 1/20/21). Trump commuted the remaining year of the five-year sentence Walters was serving for insider training on January 20, 2021. The White House press release cites Kerik and Fox contributor Lara Logan as two of Walters’ supporters.
Michael Milken. The notorious “junk bond king” pleaded guilty to financial crimes in 1990 and served two years in prison. Trump pardoned him on February 18, 2020. A White House press release on the act said his pardon had “widespread and longstanding support,” including from Maria Bartiromo, a pro-Trump Fox Business host and sometime presidential adviser; frequent Fox guest Rudy Giuliani; and Rupert Murdoch, the network’s founder and head of its parent company, who regularly speaks with Trump.
Bernard Kerik. Kerik, a former New York City Police Commissioner under Giuliani, pleaded guilty to eight felonies stemming from financial crimes and making false statements to the government and in 2010 was sentenced to four years in prison. Trump pardoned him on February 18, 2020. Kerik has been a regular on Fox News in recent years, making at least 39 appearances on the network’s weekday programming since the beginning of 2018. A White House press release on the act said the pardon’s supporters included Giuliani, Fox senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano, and Fox correspondent-at-large Geraldo Rivera.
Angela Stanton. Stanton, who in 2007 served six months in home confinement for her role in a stolen vehicle ring, was pardoned by Trump on February 18, 2020. The Daily Beast noted that Stanton “has appeared on Fox News as a pro-Trump commentator -- much like her godmother Alveda King,” whom a White House press release indicated supports the pardon.