Donald Trump has granted clemency to Steve Bannon, his former White House strategist, as part of a sweeping set of pardons in one of his final acts ahead of Wednesday’s inauguration of Joe Biden as president.
Mr Bannon was charged last year with defrauding hundreds of thousands of Trump supporters who donated to a crowdfunding campaign to build a wall on the US-Mexico border touted by the president during his 2016 election campaign. Mr Bannon had pleaded guilty and was released on bail pending his trial.
While most constitutional scholars have argued that he could not pardon himself, the theory has never been tested in court. After losing the election, Mr Trump has floated the idea in conversations with White House staff.
But the move to pardon Mr Bannon, one of the most divisive individuals in Mr Trump’s circle who managed the final leg of the president’s 2016 campaign, will spark fierce criticism.
Mr Bannon’s Twitter account was suspended in November after he said Christopher Wray, the FBI director, and Anthony Fauci, a leading member of the White House coronavirus task force, should be beheaded. Mr Bannon said the heads of the men, who had contradicted Mr Trump, should be placed on pikes outside the White House to warn other members of the Trump administration not to cross the president.
Mr Trump also pardoned the rapper Lil Wayne.
Lil Wayne last month pleaded guilty to possessing a loaded, gold-plated handgun and faced up to 10 years in prison. The musician appeared to endorse Mr Trump during the 2020 election campaign when he tweeted a photograph of himself and the president, and said he backed his criminal justice reform efforts and economic programme for African-Americans.
The pardons came eight hours before Mr Trump was scheduled to depart the White House and fly to Florida, where he will take up his post-presidency residence at his Mar-a-Lago resort. They also came as the Senate prepares to try Mr Trump following his conviction by the House for inciting the storming of the US Capitol building on January 6.
The decisions came one month after he granted dozens of controversial pardons and commutations, including to Paul Manafort, his first campaign manager, and Roger Stone, the self-described political dirty trickster and a confidante of the president.
Other presidents have issued divisive pardons, including Bill Clinton, who gave clemency to Marc Rich, the founder of commodities trader Glencore who was a fugitive from charges including racketeering.
But Mr Trump stands out in terms of the number of controversial decisions. Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard Law School professor, analysed his pardons last year and concluded that the overwhelming majority were granted to people with whom he had a personal or political connection.
Mr Trump also pardoned four men last month who were convicted of killing Iraqi civilians in Baghdad when they worked for Blackwater, a private security company once owned by Erik Prince. Betsy DeVos, who served as Mr Trump’s education secretary, is Mr Prince’s sister.
Mr Trump pardoned Charles Kushner, the father of Jared Kushner, who is married to his daughter Ivanka, last month. He also granted clemency to three former Republican US representatives who had been convicted of crimes.
A year ago, Mr Trump commuted the sentence of Rod Blagojevich, a former Democratic Illinois governor who was sentenced to 14 years after being convicted of bribery and other charges. He also pardoned Michael Milken, the former “junk-bond king”, who in 1990 was convicted of securities fraud.
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