Dec 23, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Trump's chaos ploy

Trump at debate
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Advisers to President Trump tell Axios three forces drove last night's twin bombshells — a slew of pardons for his allies and a last-hour attack on the $900 billion stimulus bill as a "disgrace."

1. Because he can: As Jonathan Swan has explained, Trump loves pardons for the same reason he relishes executive orders — pure power and instant gratification. A longtime Trump official says that pardons are uniquely satisfying to Trump because he can overturn the work of another branch of government, the judiciary.

2. He wants attention: As the nation moves on from the election and President-elect Biden names a Cabinet and addresses the nation, Trump — mostly out of sight for the past seven weeks — "sees Biden being relevant every day," one presidential adviser said. That helps explain the video Trump tweeted 14 minutes after announcing the pardons, calling on Congress to increase "ridiculously low" stimulus checks from $600 for an individual to $2,000.

3. It splits the party: Trump wants the Republican Party to remain beholden to him, and is desperate to retain his GOP power past Jan. 20. Top Republicans are increasingly queasy about the two runoffs in Georgia on Jan. 5 that will determine which party controls the Senate. Last night's White House actions undermine the GOP Senate candidates by fomenting turmoil and distraction, and robbing the senators of a clear win on the stimulus.

Many of the pardons appear to have been granted on whim.

  • The N.Y. Times' Michael Schmidt told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow: "[I]t's clear that many of them don't even meet the basic criteria to receive a typical Justice Department recommendation for a pardon. So that means that they operated essentially outside the system," with people lobbying Trump and his confidants.

The pardons included former Reps. Duncan Hunter of California and Chris Collins of New York, two of the earliest GOP lawmakers to back Trump’s 2016 campaign.

  • The two voluntarily pleaded guilty to well-documented insider-trading and campaign-spending violations.
  • Other pardons went to George Papadopoulos, the former Trump campaign adviser, who pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI about Russian contacts, and four military contractors convicted of killing Iraqi civilians in the 2007 Nisour Square massacre.

On the stimulus, Trump just talked to a camera, with no press present — political theater and posturing.

  • The president made a populist case against a bill his own Treasury secretary helped negotiate — and which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who antagonized Trump by finally recognizing Biden as president-elect, helped send to the Oval Office with a veto-proof majority.

Go deeper: Snapshots for 20 of the pardons and commutations.

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