ANDREA BERNSTEIN: I want to tell you about just one day of Trump’s Washington: April 30, 2018.
[AMBIENT NOISE FROM THE TRUMP HOTEL IN DC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: Nine top executives from T-Mobile check into the Trump International Hotel in Washington D.C., with their names on a list of VIP arrivals.
They arrive in Washington at a critical moment: just the day before, the company had shared some big news.
MSNBC NEWS ANCHOR 1: T-Mobile and Sprint announcing yesterday that they sealed a blockbuster merger agreement.
MSNBC NEWS ANCHOR 2: Pretty big deal!
MSNBC NEWS ANCHOR 1: T-Mobile is set to buy Sprint for a whopping $26 billion.
BERNSTEIN: To complete the deal, the company needs approval from the Justice Department [PAUSE] one block away from the Trump hotel. Hanging out in the lobby in his trademark hot pink-and-black T-Mobile hoodie, CEO John Legere is instantly recognizable to hotel guests. He and the other execs are’t just patronizing the President’s hotel — they are advertising that they’re doing so.
[AMBIENT NOISE FROM THE AMERICA FIRST ACTION DINNER PLAYS. CUTLERY CAN BE HEARD RINGING LIKE BELLS ON THE CHINA. TRUMP CAN BE HEARD TALKING]
BERNSTEIN: The same evening Legere checked in, in a closed-door suite just off the hotel lobby, more lobbying is going on.
[LAUGHTER AND CLAPPING]
BERNSTEIN: A small group of political donors is dining with the President of the United States.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: So they have a — a method that you shut down a truck?
STEEL MAGNATE: So every truck now is on an e-log … [FADES UNDER]
BERNSTEIN: The guests include a steel magnate who complains to the President about rules limiting the number of hours truckers can be on the road.
STEEL MAGNATE: No, everything’s e-log.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: I never knew that. That’s terrible.
STEEL MAGNATE: It has to be e-logged.
BERNSTEIN: A property developer who suggests holding the next summit with Kim Jong-Un at a site he had built near Seoul.
JACK NICKLAUS: … but if you would consider Songdo. Songdo’s the city that … [FADES UNDER]
BERNSTEIN: Also in the mix: two then-obscure businessmen, Igor Fruman —
IGOR FRUMAN: … need support from you.
BERNSTEIN:— and Lev Parnas.
LEV PARNAS: Exactly. A lot of the European countries … [FADES UNDER]
BERNSTEIN: They’d secured an invite to the dinner after promising a $325,000 donation to America First Action, a Trump-aligned super PAC. They also have something they want from the President.
PARNAS: We’re in the process of purchasing an energy company in Ukraine right now. That should help.
BERNSTEIN: They think the US Ambassador in Kyiv, Marie Yovanovitch, stands in their way.
PARNAS: We’ve got to get rid of the ambassador. She’s still left over from the Clinton administration.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Where? The ambassador where? Ukraine?
PARNAS: Yeah. And she’s basically walking around telling everybody, “Wait, he’s going to get impeached. Just wait.”
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Really?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: She’ll be gone tomorrow!
BERNSTEIN: This is a fabrication. Trump’s reaction is strong.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Get rid of her. Get her out tomorrow. I don’t care, get her out tomorrow. Take her out, okay? Do it.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Excellent.
[PLUCKY STRINGS MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: It took a year, but Trump did get rid of her.
The other person staying in the hotel that night — T-Mobile’s John Legere? After all T-Mobile’s spending at the Trump Hotel was ferreted out by The Washington Post, Legere Tweeted that he trusted regulators to make their decision “based on the benefits it will bring to the U.S., not based on hotel choices.”
When the regulators did make their decision, Legere got what he wanted, too.
NEWS TAPE FROM CNBC: It is now official, a federal judge approving the merger between T-Mobile and Sprint. It rejects an argument from a group of states that says it violates antitrust laws and raises prices. You’re looking at, uh, Sprint stock, up now about 64% on that news.
[TRUMP, INC. THEME MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: This is Trump, Inc. I’m Andrea Bernstein.
MARRITZ: I’m Ilya Marritz. It’s our last episode before the final day of voting.
For four years, Andrea and I have been reporting on how Donald Trump is profiting from the presidency. The way his family profits. The way people in his administration might profit. The way a whole, specifically Trumpian industry of access has grown up around the President. The snapshot Andrea gave is not unusual. It shows what’s happened to our government. Because — as T-Mobile gets its merger, as two businessmen sideline an ambassador — the government itself is increasingly a tool of private interests, not the public interest.
[THEME MUSIC OUT AND INVESTIGATION-TYPE MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: This past summer, our friends at New York Magazine came to us, and they asked us if we wanted to help create a list of people — sort of who’s who of individuals who’ve profited in some way from Trump being in the White House. It’s a stunning list, and you can find it in the current issue of New York Magazine. Any one of the entries from that list might have derailed a previous administration.
As we were putting together the list, something really came into focus for us. The story of corruption in the Trump administration isn’t just about individual people, or their actions. It's how Trump's way of doing business has pervaded our entire democracy. That’s the story we’re telling today.
MARRITZ: It’s like a four-year experiment in what happens when you don’t refrigerate your leftovers. In these conditions, a lot of mold can bloom.
So today on the show, a triptych:
The cabinet secretary who was business partners with China while negotiating a trade deal with the Chinese.
The lawyer who’s done more than any single person to keep the President’s business records — the key to understanding his conflicts — out of view.
The third story is about the President himself, and the way he has wielded his constitutional prerogative to pardon and commute criminal sentences. It’s his most monarchical power: to make problems disappear, and tell allies, “I can protect you.”
Trump, Inc. reporter Meg Cramer starts us off.
MEG CRAMER: Act 1 — Tone at the Top.
[MUSIC FADES OUT]
CRAMER: There was a moment, right before Trump became president —
SHERI DILLON: Good morning. [CONTINUES UNDER NARRATION]
CRAMER: — that we at Trump, Inc. talk about all the time.
DILLON: … It’s my honor and privilege to be here today at President Trump’s request. [CONTINUES UNDER NARRATION]
CRAMER: It was when Sheri Dillon, one of Trump’s lawyers, walked out in front of a group of journalists and Trump supporters to announce that President-elect Trump had a plan to separate himself from his business.
DILLON: … He directed me and my colleagues at the law firm, Morgan Lewis and Bockius to design a structure for his business empire that would completely isolate him from the management of the company. [CONTINUES UNDER NARRATION]
CRAMER: Trump was not going to sell his assets or put them in a blind trust, like past presidents. Dillon made it clear — he didn’t have to.
DILLON: He's voluntarily taking this on. The conflicts-of-interest laws simply do not apply to the president or the vice president, and they are not required to separate themselves from their financial assets. [CONTINUES UNDER NARRATION]
CRAMER: Instead, she said Trump would hand over management of the business to his eldest sons, which meant Trump would still have a financial stake in what happened to his company.
Divesting, Sheri Dillon said, would be unfair to Trump.
DILLON: President-elect Trump should not be expected to destroy the company he built. This plan offers a suitable alternative to address the concerns of the American people.
[FUTURISTIC, ETHEREAL MOMENT PLAYS]
CRAMER: This plan is one that allows the president to funnel taxpayer money directly into his business whenever he visits his properties.
Over the last four years, we have seen so many consequences flow from this moment, when Trump said he would not disentangle himself from his financial interests. Inside Trump, Inc., we sometimes refer to it as the “original sin” of the Trump presidency.
DAN ALEXANDER: [MUFFLED] I’m just gonna get my — you want me to hold up the recorder now?
CRAMER: Yeah, that would be great.
ALEXANDER: [UNMUFFLED] Okay, we’re good.
CRAMER: This is Dan Alexander. He’s a reporter at Forbes.
I called him up because I have been thinking about one consequence of Trump’s decision not to divest. And that is: The message it sends to the people who work in his administration.
Dan has been reporting on one cabinet official in particular who has a lot of power, and a lot of complicated financial interests, who failed to separate those interests from his work for the government.
CRAMER: Can you start by telling me, who was Wilbur Ross before he joined the Trump administration? Or, what was his reputation?
ALEXANDER: So —
SECRETARY WILBUR ROSS: [FROM A RECORDING] Well, the industrial part of the economy … [FADES UNDER]
ALEXANDER: — Wilbur Ross was known as a private equity billionaire who wasn't afraid to go into complicated situations, and into kind of rough-and-tumble industries … [ROSS FADES UP FOR A MOMENT] Uh, you know, coal, steel, stuff that, uh — that's got, you know, dirt under the fingernails.
SECRETARY ROSS: [FADES UP] … the Millenials are not spending at the same rate. [FADES OUT]
CRAMER: Dan says that one of Ross’s specialties was negotiating complex bankruptcies. This brought him into contact with Trump in the early ‘90s. When investors wanted to take over Trump’s struggling Atlantic City casinos, Ross helped convince them to keep Trump involved.
ALEXANDER: And when Trump, then, says that he's gonna run for president, he starts making some declarations about why he believes that Trump's trade policy is really, really smart.
He also hosts fundraisers for Trump and sort of, you know, is a big backer. And then after, uh, you know, Trump wins, you know, he receives one of the first appointments to be Secretary of Commerce.
CRAMER: The Commerce Secretary oversees everything from trade to the National Weather Service to the census. It is not a flashy position. It is a powerful one.
[LONG, LOW CHIMES PLAY, RHYTHMICALLY]
CRAMER: You know, like Trump, Ross had all of these business entanglements when he stepped into the role. What's supposed to happen in that process, when someone goes from working in private industry to being a cabinet official, what are the rules for separating yourself from your business?
ALEXANDER: Yeah. So, the first thing was you have to tell everyone what you own, and that sort of gives people a sense of what it is that you have and where there might be potential conflicts.
And then the next thing that you're supposed to do is you're supposed to divest everything. So Trump does not legally have to do this because the criminal conflicts-of-interest statute doesn't apply to the president, but it does apply to the Secretary of Commerce. So Wilbur Ross then has to sell off everything in his portfolio that could overlap with his responsibilities as Secretary of Commerce.
And he doesn't have to do it right away. Uh, you've got, you know, a little bit of a grace period, so you can do it, you know, over several months. And you're making the promise that is, you know, “Hey, I'm going to stay away from anything that could be related to my own financial interests in that intervening period.”
CRAMER: Did he stick to that promise?
ALEXANDER: No, he did not.
ALEXANDER: Just to give you one example [LAUGHS], he didn't disclose one of his holdings in a rail car company called Greenbrier. But then, not only did he not disclose it, but then he held a meeting with the CEO of Greenbrier in the basement of the White House when the Greenbrier CEO was in town to talk about government matters.
And there's some ethics officials who think that even if you just take the meeting, that's already a crime. But certainly if you act upon any business things that you learned in the meeting, that's a crime.
[HEAVY MUSIC PLAYS]
ALEXANDER: Wilbur Ross said they didn't talk about business — that that was a purely social meeting. But that wasn't the only meeting. You know, he met with a CEO of Chevron when his wife still had a large interest in Chevron, and for the purposes of the law, if his wife holds an interest in a company, it's the same thing as if he owns an interest in a company. He's just as vulnerable from a legal perspective.
And there are other meetings, you know? He meets with the CEO of Boeing. And at that time, you know, again, his wife holds what looks like a multimillion dollar stake in Boeing. We can see the calendars, we can see that they're talking business.
CRAMER: I've been thinking a lot about this idea of the appearance of a conflict of interest. And I think what some of your reporting on Wilbur Ross shows is that it is almost impossible to know — based on publicly-available records — whether or not he is truly conflicted, because it involves knowing what his intent is. I mean, in many ways the appearance of a conflict of interest is the best indicator that we have.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, well, you can't get inside somebody's head, you know? I mean, unless Wilbur Ross says, “Yeah, I changed this policy because I own millions of dollars’ worth of Chevron stock …” But that's not gonna happen, you know? And, uh, the reason that the laws are set up so that then you have to divest at the start is so that then nobody has to wonder.
CRAMER: It seems like another issue here is the limits of disclosures.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, that's right. So, I mean, I'll give you a perfect example of that. So, you know, Wilbur Ross, on his filings, discloses that he has an interest in something — and I'm not going to remember the exact name of it — but it's something like DSSAIV4. Okay? [LAUGHS] Now, that entity holds a company called Diamond S Shipping.
What the disclosures don't say is that another one of the big investors in Diamond S Shipping is the government of China. So you have the Secretary of Commerce, who comes in to negotiate trade deals on behalf of the United States, and he is business partners with the government of China while he's in that position. And he doesn't have to disclose that on his federal ethics filings. You know, by contrast, if somebody does pay you $202, you do have to disclose that, if they pay it to you directly.
[MUSIC PLAYS SPORADICALLY]
CRAMER: What does Wilbur Ross have to say about all of this?
ALEXANDER: Not much about the, uh, meetings that he held. They've taken the general position that, you know, he hasn't violated any laws. You know, he failed to disclose not just Greenbrier holding, but several other things that he owned as well. I mean, and some of this wasn't minor stuff, you know, like he, um, said that he had divested all of his stake in his former employer, which is called Invesco.
And he later ended up admitting that he actually still held on to more than $10 million of Invesco stock. That’s not a — that's not a small amount of money.
Their position on those issues are that he just didn't realize that he owned them.
CRAMER: Democratic lawmakers wrote to the inspector general of the Commerce Department, asking for an investigation into Ross’s conflicts of interest. A spokesperson there told us that the matter is still under review.
Ross has divested his stake in Invesco, and entities that held Diamond S Shipping.
CRAMER: Do you think the rules around divestment are different under Trump than in past administrations?
ALEXANDER: Well, the rules aren't different. [LAUGHS] Um, you know, the rules are pretty clear. If you are in the executive branch and you're not the president, or you're not the vice president, then you have to get rid of stuff that could pose a conflict.
Now, in previous administrations, the president and vice president have acted like those rules applied to them anyways, even though they don't. And that sets an example, you know what I mean? If you look at, like, any corporate structure, you know, people talk about “tone at the top,” you know, “What's the example that the CEO is setting?,” and people will then follow that example.
And, you know, I mean, you talk to people who've worked in an Office of Government Ethics and they point to the fact that, you know, they always knew that they could count on — if some, person in the administration who wasn't doing exactly what they wanted, they could place one call to the Oval Office. And that person, somewhere in some department, would be whipped into shape in about 15 minutes. And they can't place that call anymore
CRAMER: In Trump’s administration, taking meetings that you have a personal stake in, “forgetting” to divest $10 million in stock, failing to disclose your holdings: none of these things disqualify you from holding one of the most powerful positions in government.
[A BEAT OF MUSIC PLAYS UP FOR A MOMENT, MORE FULL AND ATMOSPHERIC NOW]
CRAMER: Dan Alexander is a reporter at Forbes and author of the book White House, Inc.: How Donald Trump Turned the Presidency into a Business.
BERNSTEIN: Act 2 — The Fifth Avenue Example.
BERNSTEIN: The middle panel of this triptych is a portrait of someone you probably don’t know, but who is very, very important to the President: attorney William Consovoy.
[LOW AND HEAVY PERCUSSIVE MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: As the Wilbur Ross story shows us: so many conflicts sprung from Trump’s decision not to separate himself from his company. Understanding the full extent of those conflicts — that’s been nearly impossible, because we haven’t seen Trump’s tax returns and other business records. Keeping them away from scrutiny is Consovoy’s job. [A MOMENT] If you have heard of William Consovoy, it’s likely because of an exchange that took place in a Manhattan courtroom in October of 2019.
[THE SOUND OF A GAVEL, AND SOMEONE ANNOUNCING “HEAR YE”]
BERNSTEIN: There’s at a hearing called at the white-columned Thurgood Marshall Courthouse in Manhattan. It’s before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.
COURTROOM ANNOUNCER: Give your attention and ye shall be heard.
JUDGE DENNY CHIN: Good morning. You may be seated.
BERNSTEIN: The Manhattan District Attorney, Cyrus Vance, Jr., suspecting criminal fraud, has been trying to get Trump’s tax returns. Trump sued to block the subpoena. He lost, and his lawyer appealed.
JUDGE CHIN: But your — your position, as you said a moment ago, is that the immunity is absolute?
BERNSTEIN: In court, lawyer William Consovoy argues for a novel concept: temporary absolute immunity.
JUDGE CHIN: Absolute.
BERNSTEIN: Judge Denny Chin asks Consovoy if the president would still have temporary absolute immunity, if, say, he shot someone on Fifth Avenue.
JUDGE CHIN: What's your view on the Fifth Avenue example — local authorities couldn't investigate? They couldn't do anything about it?
WILLIAM CONSOVOY: I think once a president is removed from office, any local authority — this is not a permanent immunity.
JUDGE CHIN: Well, I'm talking about while in office.
JUDGE CHIN: That's the hypo. Nothing could be done. That's your position?
CONSOVOY: That is correct.
[HEAVIER ROCK MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: Consovoy lost. Each time he lost, he appealed, and the case kept going up and up and the whole time Trump didn’t have to turn over his tax returns. In the very first court hearing, back in the fall of last year, Vance’s lawyers argued that for Trump, a delay was a win. They were arguing that still when the case got to the U.S. Supreme Court in the late spring. Trump lost there, too. Consovoy delayed the reckoning some more. He went back to court with a new case, and lost again, and appealed again.
JUDGE RAYMOND LOHIER: We will hear, in Trump v. Vance … [FADES UNDER]
BERNSTEIN: By now, the hearings are by phone, because of the virus.
CONSOVOY: [CLEARS THROAT] Thank you, your Honor, and good morning.
BERNSTEIN: Judge Raymond Lohier asks if there’s any request for documents he wouldn’t consider overbroad.
JUDGE RAYMOND LOHIER: Is there a request for documents in this case that would not, in your view, be overbroad?
CONSOVOY: Well, I have to know … I think the answer would probably be no, your honor, and here’s why —
JUDGE LOHIER: That’s a problem.
CONSOVOY: Well, I —
JUDGE LOHIER: Don’t you see — you see the problem. [LAUGHS]
CONSOVOY: I see why you’re concerned…
[MUSIC BACK UP]
BERNSTEIN: You guessed it. Consovoy lost and appealed.
And this Trump v. Vance investigation? It’s just one of the cases over Trump business records that Consovoy’s firm has worked on. There was an emoluments suit brought by the governments of Virginia and Washington, D.C., alleging the President is unconstitutionally accepting money or benefits from foreign or domestic governments. Consovoy lost in the 4th Circuit, and is appealing.
Then there were two cases involving congressional subpoenas, one to Trump’s bankers — Deutsche Bank — and one to his accountants — Mazars USA. Consovoy also lost those cases at the District and Appeals levels, and also appealed to the Supreme Court. The court said the House could subpoena the president, but the requests had to meet a heightened standard. The legal wrangling is virtually certain to last past January, when these subpoenas expire, along with the 116th Congress.
BERNSTEIN: As much work as Consovoy has done in this area of Trump finances, it’s actually a relatively new line for him and his firm. Before he was known for his Trump work, he was known for his work on voting.
[REPETITIVE MUSIC PLAYS]
CHRISTOPHER WERTH: So, William Consovoy was one of the key lawyers in developing the strategy around a Supreme Court case called Shelby County v. Holder, uh, in 2013.
BERNSTEIN: This is Christopher Werth of the WNYC podcast The United States of Anxiety. The Shelby case was a big test of a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
WERTH: And so they — they struck it down. And that made it impossible, then, to enforce this law — Section Five — which is still on the books, but there's no way to implement it now.
GWEN IFILL: [FROM A NEWS BROADCAST] It’s considered one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation ever passed, but by 5-to-4, the U.S. Supreme Court today took the teeth out of a law enacted nearly 50 years ago.
BERNSTEIN: The decision, which said the U.S. Justice Department no longer had to pre-approve voting changes that might suppress Black votes, was a body blow to the Voting Rights Act.
WERTH: And a lot of people in the, you know, pro-voting rights community really, really felt that body blow.
BERNSTEIN: This election cycle, Consovoy is doing even more work on voting.
WERTH: So I spoke with Mark Elias —
BERNSTEIN: He’s the lawyer on the Democratic side working on voter suppression issues.
WERTH: — and the way that he described him is, you know, Consovoy — even though he's not in all of these cases — he is acting, you know, in his words, as the field general in this battle.
MARC ELIAS: And his law firm is their army. It doesn't mean that they're in every case, but it appears that they are the cases that matter the most to the President and the RNC.
[WANDERING MUSIC PLAYS, ALSO LOW AND SLOW]
BERNSTEIN: Consovoy was the lawyer back in the spring of 2020, in Wisconsin, where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against changes that made it easier to record votes during the pandemic.
WERTH: Wisconsin isn't the only state here. Consovoy was involved in a lawsuit in California, for example, where the state decided to mail ballots to every registered voter. He was arguing against that. Um, in Nevada, the Secretary of State there had decided to only open, uh, one in-person polling site, uh, in each county. The Democrats had filed a lawsuit to open more polling sites, and Consovoy was arguing against that. He was involved in a case in Montana. He was involved in another case in Rhode Island. He's been involved in a number of cases over the past seven months.
BERNSTEIN: Consovoy has certainly gained prestige in conservative circles for all this work, and federal records show his firm has made over $2.5 million and counting from the campaign and RNC for his legal work — just in the past year. [A BEAT] We don’t know how much his firm has billed for the simultaneous work he’s done on the President’s private behalf, in Trump v. Vance, Trump v. Mazars, Trump v. Deutsche Bank, Trump v. The District of Columbia, Trump v. The Committee on Ways and Means, and so on.
BERNSTEIN: Neither the White House, nor the Trump Organization, nor Consovoy or his law firm — Consovoy McCarthy — answered our inquiries.
[PULSING MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: So we are left with this. When Donald Trump sued his accountants to prevent them from releasing his tax returns to Congress, Consovoy McCarthy argued that the House was improperly engaged in, quote, “law enforcement.” When a law enforcement officer — the Manhattan D.A. — tried to investigate, Consovoy had a different argument. Here’s Judge Chin of the Second Circuit.
JUDGE CHIN: And so if — if — if the president were to commit a crime, no matter how heinous, whether he did it before he took office, or whether he did it — he took it after he took office, he could not be the subject of any — even investigation? That’s the position.
CONSOVOY: Yes. Until — and, of course, Congress retains the impeachment power.
BERNSTEIN: But when impeachment came around, Trump’s legal team, led there by Jay Sekulow, argued something else — that the articles of impeachment were “a dangerous attack on the right of American people to freely choose their president.”
And the practical effect of Consovoy’s legal claims on voting issues is to constrict the number of Americans who get to freely choose their president.
[MUSIC CHANGES TONE, BECOMES LIGHTER, BUT DISSONANT]
BERNSTEIN: Even when he loses, Consovoy has mastered what might be called “Trump’s Art of Litigation,” which is to keep making legal arguments, no matter how far outside the mainstream — to use the judicial system against itself.
As of this recording, the U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t ruled about whether it will hear Trump v. Vance a second time. But for purposes of understanding the President’s business records in time for this election, it doesn’t matter. Consovoy has succeeded. He’s run out the clock.
We’ll be right back.
BERNSTEIN: We’re back. You’re listening to Trump, Inc., and today, we’re looking at how the Trump way of business has embedded itself into American democracy.
MARRITZ: Act Three — Pardon Me.
In May, something new showed up in the podcast carousel.
ROD BLAGOJEVICH: [OVER ROCK MUSIC] Hi, this is Rod Blagojevich, and welcome to the Lightning Rod podcast. This is my first podcast. Please bear with me. I've never done this before … [FADES UNDER]
MARRITZ: Lightning Rod with Rod Blagojevich. The only podcast hosted by a former governor convicted of bribery and attempted extortion whose sentence was commuted by President Trump. (That’s … not the official show description.)
Blagojevich walked out of prison in February. By May, he was sharing his story.
BLAGOJEVICH: I was sittin’ in prison watching the news and following his campaign in 2016.
MARRITZ: Once he was a Democrat. Now Blagojevich calls himself a Trumpocrat.
BLAGOJEVICH: And I think he's a Trumpocrat to a lot of Democrats around the country, working people who the Democratic party — today’s Democratic party — have, uh, abandoned and had forgotten. [FADES OUT]
Blagojevich has history with Trump. Between his arrest and his trial, he was a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice.
[DRAMATIC MUSIC PLAYS]
DONALD TRUMP: Your Harry Potter facts were not accurate. Who did the research?
BLAGOJEVICH: There was not a, uh, specific direction to do the research on Harry Potter. But the, uh, inability to learn the product …
MARRITZ: After he went to prison for a fourteen-year sentence, and after Trump was sworn in as president, Rod’s wife Patti [PATTI BLAGOJEVICH CAN BE HEARD UNDER MARRITZ] campaigned on TV to get Trump to free her husband. She was on Fox a lot. She linked Special Counsel Robert Mueller to her husband’s prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald. She accused the authorities of spying on her husband in much the same way, she claimed, they spied on Trump's allies.
PATTI BLAGOJEVICH: … the latest revelations about the FISA court, and how — that they used slander, was essentially opposition research slander against the President, to — you know, to spy on him, just like the investigation that they used against my husband to get six wiretaps on all of our phone lines … [FADES UNDER]
[HEAVY MUSIC PLAYS]
MARRITZ: The ability to make pardons and commutations is one of the few presidential powers with almost no constraints. It’s king-like.
Trump likes unconstrained power. And every year he’s been in office, he’s found more and more cases he thinks are worthy of clemency: Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who defied a court order to stop the use of racial profiling; military officers convicted of war crimes; ranchers who committed arson on public land.
JACK GOLDSMITH: He sees this as a tool for, you know, expanding his authority, expanding his influence, winning political points, making his enemies’ heads explode, and the like.
MARRITZ: Jack Goldsmith was Assistant Attorney General in the George W. Bush administration. He’s a professor now at Harvard. Prompted by the pardons for ideological allies and sycophants, Goldsmith assembled all of Trump’s pardons and commutations in a spreadsheet.
[TECHNOLOGICAL MUSIC, LIGHT AND AIRY, PLAYS]
GOLDSMITH: I just wanted to try to figure out in a — in an objective way as possible what was different about Trump.
MARRITZ: Not knowing what they would find, Goldsmith and his collaborator Matthew Gluck created one column for pardons that advance a political agenda. One for cases with personal connections to Trump. One for TV appearances, like Patti Blagojevich on Fox. And the fourth and last one, for cases brought to the attention of the President by celebrities.
MARRITZ: And so what — what — what was your overall finding then?
GOLDSMITH: Basically, Trump has issued 39 pardons, or commutations of sentences. And an astonishing 34 of those satisfied one of those criteria. And the general — in other words, 34 of the 39 pardons were self-serving in some way.
MARRITZ: Since my interview with Jack Goldsmith, Trump gave clemency to five additional people, mostly for drug offenses.
Typically, in the past, presidents have pardoned criminals who show real remorse, or were punished too harshly. It’s rare to pardon an ally.
GOLDSMITH: And that's really the remarkable finding here. I mean, as I say, some presidents, in the past — especially at the very end of their terms — have issued self-serving pardons. But those are exceptional. Trump has made a practice of it. And he did it before, uh, the end of his term.
[MUSIC CHANGES TONE AGAIN]
MARRITZ: So there was Paul Pogue, a Texas construction executive, who was pardoned for tax crimes after his family gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to Trump-aligned political groups.
Media baron Conrad Black was convicted of obstruction and fraud and extradited to Canada. After he wrote an adoring book about Trump, he got a pardon.
Kim Kardashian took up the cause of Alice Marie Johnson, who was convicted of nonviolent drug crimes. After Trump freed her, Johnson spoke at his convention.
ALICE JOHNSON: But by the grace of God, and the compassion of President Donald John Trump, I stand before you tonight. [FADES OUT]
GOLDSMITH: The pardon power is a costless act to him, personally. It literally involves signing a piece of paper. So, whatever he gets in return is, uh, in some kind of very reductive way, more than what it took him to do it — especially since he's so shameless and he doesn't care about that political outcry.
MARRITZ: In some cases, showing clemency may do a lot more for Trump. When the presidency issued a commutation to Roger Stone, he shielded a key ally in the 2016 campaign, and someone who became a target of special counsel Robert Mueller.
GOLDSMITH: Stone said things that led us to believe this, that Mueller was pressuring Stone to reveal instances in which Trump had lied to the special counsel that Stone kept quiet. And this was basically a pay offer as quietude. Now, we don't know that. There's some circumstantial evidence pointing to it. But it shows the extraordinary danger of the pardon, being able to use it — essentially to obstruct justice and protect the president.
MARRITZ: Even the suggestion of a pardon may have an effect. A top Mueller prosecutor, Andrew Weissmann, believes that Trump’s public dangle of a pardon for Paul Manafort influenced Manafort’s decision to stop sharing information with law enforcement.
The only real constraint on the use of pardons is public opinion. People still remember the stink around Bill Clinton’s pardon of tax evader and Democratic party donor Marc Rich.
Goldsmith, who just co-authored a book called After Trump: Reconstructing the Presidency, believes that if Trump loses in the November election, he won’t hesitate to pardon friends and family.
GOLDSMITH: Anyone who may be subject to an investigation by the next administration for federal crimes — members of his family, for example, and others — he could just issue a blanket pardon for all of that, and therefore take away the possibility of criminal prosecution for those federal crimes. And, most significantly, he could pardon himself. Uh, he could just do a so-called self pardon, which has never been done. And frankly, no president has hinted at it. Trump has claimed that he has the power to do this.
MARRITZ: He Tweeted in 2018, “As has been stated by numerous legal scholars, I have the absolute right to PARDON myself, but why would I do that when I have done nothing wrong?”
There is no case law on this. A president pardoning himself is so unthinkable, not one has ever tried.
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BERNSTEIN: This episode was reported and produced by Meg Cramer and Katherine Sullivan and edited by Nick Varchaver. Sound design and original scoring by Jared Paul. The theme music and additional music is by Hannis Brown. This is our last episode before the election, but we’ll be back in your feeds soon with all-new Trump, Inc. reporting. Get the latest by signing up for our newsletter at our website: TrumpIncPodcast.org.
MARRITZ: Special thanks this week to Genevieve Smith, James Walsh, Charlotte Klein, Maia Hibbett, and the whole team at New York Magazine. You can find a link to our massive list of Trump profiteers in the show notes, or at NYMag.com.
BERNSTEIN: For more on attorney William Consovoy, check out Christopher Werth’s reporting for a recent episode of the WNYC podcast, The United States of Anxiety.
MARRITZ: Thanks also to Dave McKinney, and former Acting Pardon Attorney Larry Kupers, and former Pardon Attorney Margaret Love.
BERNSTEIN: Matt Collette is the executive producer of Trump, Inc. Emily Botein is WNYC’s Vice President for Original Programming, and Steve Engelberg is Editor-in-Chief of ProPublica.
MARRITZ: I’m Ilya Marritz.
BERNSTEIN: I’m Andrea Bernstein. Thank you for listening.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.