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Trump Pardons Were Mixed Bag of Accidental Good, Intentional Bad and Absolute Absurdity

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By Ian Firstenberg

During his term, former President Donald Trump pardoned 89 people and commuted 117 sentences. The volume and late-stage flurry is thoroughly average compared to past presidents. Some of Trump’s pardons are distinctly more political, like the four Blackwater guards convicted for murdering Iraqi citizens, while some are more relevant to pop culture, like rappers Lil Wayne and Kodak Black, but others were strangely personal.

What makes the list of Tump’s pardons so odd, more so than any other list of presidential pardons, is naturally the nature of the man doing the pardoning. The variety of people pardoned on Trump’s last day is noteworthy, if for no other reason than to acknowledge that awful power can do good things by accident. 

Surprisingly, a majority of people on the final commutation list had served long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Way Quoe Long, 58, and Luis Gonzalez, 78, both spent decades incarcerated for nonviolent drug charges before Trump commuted their sentences. Jawad A. Musa’s sentence was also commuted on Trump’s last day in office. Musa was arrested in 1990, also for nonviolent drug offenses, and had served nearly 30 years in jail. 

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration arrest. (Photo courtesy of DEA)

Musa’s case is particularly noteworthy because of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s involvement in his initial arrest and evidence that Musa was not the agency’s intended sting target. 

According to court records, in November 1990 a confidential informant (CI) working for the DEA offered to sell a kilo of heroin to one David Wray. Wray agreed to give the CI $20,000 as a down payment for the drugs, but did not have the money himself. Wray asked Musa to provide the down payment. On Nov. 27 1990, Musa drove from Baltimore to Manhattan with a group of people and gave the CI the $20,000. After the exchange, Musa and others were arrested. 

Despite a number of appeals and motions to vacate since then, the now 56-year-old Musa remained incarcerated until Trump issued his pardon on Jan. 20. 

The Baltimore Sun reported that upon his release, Musa intends to return to Baltimore and live with his family. 

“I haven’t seen my son in 30 years. I just wanted to see my son before I leave this world,” his mother told The Sun. “My prayer was answered.”

While Musa’s case is an example of good that even awful power can accomplish, the Blackwater pardons are the counterpoint, proving that power in corrupt hands can and will often lead to awful results. 

The four Blackwater employees Trump saw fit to pardon participated in the horrific Nisour Square Massacre in the fall of 2007. They had been convicted for opening fire in a crowded square, killing 17 civilians, including multiple children. Blackwater claimed its people were fired on first. However, an FBI investigation later determined that claim to be a lie and clearly indicated that contractors first opened fire. In America, the joy of freedom is not without the horrors of murder.

Nisour Square Massacre scene after Blackwater contractors killed 17 Iraqi civilians and injured several others. (Photo courtesy of Teller Report)

Between the joy of pardons like Musa’s and the horror of those given to the murderous contractors sits a host of commutations and pardons that is, without doubt, the epitome of the absurd humor of the Trump administration. 

On his last day in office, Trump pardoned a New Jersey man who, after being represented at trial by Alan Dershowitz, was serving 24 years for a $200 million real estate investment scheme and a multimillion dollar IPO scheme. It was later revealed that the IPO had been offered for an entirely fictional company.

Also pardoned was a New York real estate developer who served 44 months for laundering Colombian cartel money and who was a close personal friend of the late Stanley Chera. 

Elliot Broidy, former deputy finance chair for the Republican National Committee, and former Breitbart editor and Trump strategist, Steven Bannon also received pardons. Notably, Bannon was facing charges for his role in a fraud scheme that largely targeted Trump’s base under the guise of border wall fundraising.    

The lengthy list of last-day commutations and pardons, and the four years of the Trump presidency in general, were not without absurdist comedy. The following three cases exemplify, almost satirically, the ridiculous phenomena that was the Trump presidency. 

Adriana Shayota was convicted of conspiracy to traffic in counterfeit goods in 2016 and sentenced to 24 months for manufacturing and selling fake 5-Hour Energy drinks with her husband. Their scheme reportedly began in 2009 when they were contracted to sell the legitimate drink product in Mexico. They began altering the Spanish-language packaging and reselling it in the U.S. The couple then graduated to manufacturing their own bootleg energy drink and selling it under the name “running man.” Shayota and her husband even attempted to trademark a logo for the drink. Trump commuted Shayota’s sentence. 

The Serpentarium in Florida was at the center of a wildlife trafficking case in 1993, for which Robert Bowker was sentenced but later pardoned by Donald Trump. (Photo by Leonard J. DeFrancisci)

Robert Bowker was convicted of wildlife trafficking in 1993 and sentenced to two years probation. Bowker, who is from New York, arranged for 22 snakes to be exchanged for the same number of alligators and delivered to the Serpentarium, a west Florida lab named after the zoo that hosted venom-milking shows before its closure in the 1980s. Bowker was shipping the snakes to Bill Haast, the founder of the original Serpantarium, who started the lab to continue his venom studies mission. Trump rewarded Bowker with a full pardon.

Tommaso Buti was convicted of a series of financial crimes related to his former restaurant Fashion Cafe, which featured famous models and was fronted by Naomi Campbell Christy Turlington and others. Before moving into the restaurant industry, in 1989 Buti started a gourmet food delivery business called Focaccia, which catered to Wall Street executives. 

Buti once told the AP:

“I came here with a big wish and I wanted to achieve something in my life. If you have your own money on the line, then it’s more important.” 

Focaccia became a success and eventually led Buti and his brother Francesco into a restaurant business with locations in five different countries. Buti and former wife Daniela Pestova, Czech Sports Illustrated cover model, lived in a lavish New York penthouse and once spent $20,000 on a birthday party, which is easier to do when you don’t pay taxes and pillage business funds to support your lifestyle. In 1998, the brothers were arrested and charged in Italy, where they were citizens, for fraud, bankruptcy and money laundering. Similar U.S. federal charges were brought against the pair in 2000. They each faced 35 charges spread between New York and Milan. Trump granted Tommao Butti a full pardon, helping him avoid a U.S. trial.

Aside from executive orders, pardons are the most unilaterally powerful action presidents can take while in office. Presidential pardon power throughout the 20th century has been commonly used to assuage guilty consciences, garner political or personal favors and cover asses — that’s unlikely to change. Trump mostly followed this same pattern. 

After four years of daily warnings about the threat he posed to our democracy, Trump governed as most Republican presidents would have, which only indicates that systems that dominate our life consume everyone who touches them, no matter how whiny, self-centered or cruel they may be.     

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