Many Democrats, along with some in the press and a few Republicans, have expressed outrage at President Trump’s commutation of political operative Roger Stone’s jail sentence for lying to Congress and witness tampering. GOP Sen. Mitt Romney, the only senator ever to vote to remove a president of his own party, was particularly outraged.
“Unprecedented, historic corruption,” Romney tweeted. “An American president commutes the sentence of a person convicted by a jury of lying to shield that very president.”
But Romney’s claims aside, the commutation is simply not unprecedented. To look at one example, in 2007, President George W. Bush commuted the sentence of top White House aide Lewis Libby, convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in the CIA leak affair. Back in those days, Romney defended the commutation as “reasonable.”
But perhaps Romney wasn’t counting that. So is the Stone commutation unprecedented because Stone was, in Romney’s words, “lying to shield” the president? Perhaps Romney has forgotten the way-back time of 2001, when President Bill Clinton, on his last day in office, pardoned his old Arkansas business partner Susan McDougal.
In 1996, McDougal was convicted of fraud and other felonies in connection with the Whitewater business enterprise that she and her husband entered into with Bill and Hillary Clinton. President Clinton testified in the trial.
The Whitewater independent counsel, Kenneth Starr, raised the possibility of a reduced sentence for McDougal if she testified against the Clintons. Specifically, Starr’s prosecutors asked McDougal, “To your knowledge, did William Jefferson Clinton testify truthfully during the course of your trial?”
McDougal refused to answer. She demanded that Starr resign. And then she lapsed into total, determined silence. A federal judge jailed her for 18 months for contempt of court. Starr later charged her with criminal contempt, a case which ended with a hung jury. Through it all, McDougal steadfastly refused to say whether Clinton had testified truthfully at her trial.
Then, on Jan. 20, 2001, the day he left the White House, Clinton pardoned McDougal. By the next year, she had written a memoir, “The Woman Who Wouldn’t Talk: Why I Refused to Testify Against the Clintons and What I Learned in Jail.” And then, in 2004, Hollywood made her a star of the documentary film “The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill Clinton.”
The former president attended the film’s premiere in New York, where he told the audience of his deep admiration for the woman who refused to testify about him.
“He [Clinton] said, there’s an American hero in the audience, and I’d like to recognize them,” McDougal recalled of the evening. “And then he said, ‘Susan McDougal.’ And I ... I couldn’t believe it.” Bill Clinton did a lot to recognize and reward the woman who refused to tell a grand jury whether he, Clinton, testified truthfully.
Of course, Clinton pardoned others, too. As the former prosecutor Andrew McCarthy has noted, Clinton “pardoned his own brother for felony distribution of cocaine. ... And three others convicted in independent counsel Ken Starr’s probe. And Marc Rich, in what was a straight-up political payoff. And his CIA director. And his HUD secretary. And eight people convicted in an investigation of his Agriculture Department.”
Clinton acted in large part because he believed the investigations into his administration and White House had been unfair. Does that sound familiar? Rather than being “unprecedented,” President Trump’s commutation of the Stone sentence fits into a pattern of presidents granting clemency to those caught up in investigations targeting their administrations.
And it wasn’t just Clinton. His predecessor, George H.W. Bush, did it too. In late 1992, Bush pardoned six figures who had been convicted or pleaded guilty in the Iran-Contra affair.
None of that makes what Trump did right or wrong. Voters can judge that for themselves. But people around Washington should stop acting like it’s something they’ve never seen before.