On Donald Trump’s last day in office, he released a list pardoning 73 individuals.
Many had suspected that Trump would pardon himself or his family members; however, Charles Kushner—Ivanka Trump’s father-in-law—is the only family member to be pardoned.
While in office, Trump has previously mentioned being legally untouchable with respect to the multiple investigations he and those close to him underwent during his presidency. Ultimately, however, he did not pardon himself or any immediate family members.
Trump’s pardons were consistent with the standards that precede them. Trump excuses wealthy, white men in positions of power—often with patterns of corruption and abuse—while also preventing offenders from receiving adequate punishment. There is often shock when Trump commits acts of this kind, but his parting legacy is one that matches the precedents he has set throughout his entire presidency in addition to mirroring tendencies of the justice system.
Whiteness and Wealth was a Constant in Trump’s Pardons
The list of pardons included mostly wealthy, white men. Many of them had been involved in white collar crimes that involved tax evasion, embezzlement, and/or a misuse of funds. It comes as no surprise that Trump—who has been suspected of several of these crimes, most notably tax evasion—would want to pardon these individuals.
Wealthy, white businessmen, and politicians don’t consider these offenses as“real” crimes. Furthermore, white-collar crimes are often given lighter punishment than the crime entails. As with most crimes, the justice system is kind to those who are white and affluent.
Trump Pardoned War Criminals
The list also contains the names of several war criminals. Coming from a war criminal, these pardons are no surprise. Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, and Dustin Heard were sentenced for killing 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007. All of them received full pardons despite causing a massacre in which two children (aged 8 and 11) were murdered. For once, the justice system did their part by sentencing Slatten to life and giving the others 30-year terms.
However, in one instance, Trump undid all of that. It’s not as if these men were soldiers—though shooting 31 unarmed civilians and killing 17 wouldn’t be justified if they were soldiers—,these men were security guards who ignored orders. They were men in a foreign country acting on their volition.
Trump’s pardon sends the problematic message that men who murder civilians in a foreign country are allowed to walk free without punishment or justice for the victims.
Trump Pardons Rappers: A Rare Exception
Several rappers received pardons or had their sentences commuted, including Lil Wayne (born Dwayne Michael Carter Jr.) and Kodak Black (legal name Bill Kapri, born Dieuson Octave). Both Lil Wayne and Kodak Black are highly controversial. Lil Wayne received backlash following his dismissal of the Black Lives Matter Movement and his public endorsement of Trump’s re-election — which is suspected to be one of the reasons he was pardoned. Kodak Black has a long history of controversy with allegations of sexual assault, colorist comments, lesbiphobic comments, and insensitive comments to Lauren London regarding the death of her husband Nipsey Hussle.
The White House justified Lil Wayne’s pardon by referencing his donations to charity and justified Kodak Black’s pardon by referencing his support of underprivileged children. It is likely that Trump used these famous Black figures to gain support from the Black community. From an image standpoint, conservatives will be able to use the rappers’ pardons as “evidence” against claims of Trump being racist. However, one must question why two highly controversial rappers who have been known to make anti-Black statements receiving support from an racist ex-president is the epitome of anti-racism.
Trump’s Pardons Evoke Disappointment on the Left and Right
Those on the left were not the only ones dissatisfied with Trump’s pardons. Many conservatives were also perturbed with the lack of pardons. Following the insurrection on January 6th, many expected pardons for conservatives who were arrested. However, when these pardons were never given, many felt tricked as Trump’s instructions incited the capitol raid.
Christian Walker, a TikTok famous conservative, posted a rant in response to the lack of pardons on his Instagram story. The story was then reposted by Yashar Ali on Twitter. Walker complained about several people that Trump had pardoned at the last minute citing them as “drug dealing rappers” and “democrat mega-doner[s].”
The Ethics of Capital Punishment
Several death row inmates also received pardons or—at minimum—be taken off death row and given different sentences.
Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics outlines the defense for the death penalty as follows:
“Capital punishment is often defended on the grounds that society has a moral obligation to protect the safety and welfare of its citizens. Murderers threaten this safety and welfare. Only by putting murderers to death can society ensure that convicted killers do not kill again.”
While this may seem like a clear and inarguable defense of the death penalty, there are many contradictions. The United States has committed many indefensible crimes resulting in the death of millions, from unjustified wars waged in the Global South to government employees killing innocent civilians within our borders. The question is this: what gives a country with such a dark history of murder—so little of which has actually been acknowledged—the right to kill anyone under the guise of justice?
In addition, many believe that the United States’ own Constitution does not condone the death penalty. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) believes that the death penalty “inherently violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment and the guarantees of due process of law and of equal protection under the law.”
Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice System
As it stands, the death penalty is currently being implemented in a way that disproportionally punishes people of color especially if the victim is white. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since 1976, there have only been 21 white defendants who were executed for the murder of a Black victim. By comparison, there were 297 Black defendants who were executed for the murder of a white victim.
In 2018, the FBI published information on murders for that year which shows that murders are proportional by race. This is consistent with the Bureau of Justice’s findings that, between the years of 1980 and 2008, “most murders were interracial” meaning people were more likely to kill those of their own race. 84% of white victims were killed by a white person and 93% of Black victims were killed by a Black person.
Data has continuously showed that Black people are not more likely to murder than white people, yet Black people are more likely to be executed for it especially if the victim is white. Trump’s pardons are a continuation of the precedent that absolves white people of murder and punishes Black people for murder.
Trump’s pardons, in many ways, were a continuation of what the justice system was already doing. He continued to prove that wealth and powerful connections are enough to prevent punishment. He continued to show that America will never fully punish war criminals. Most importantly, he showed that whiteness protects one in every way possible.