Early Wednesday evening, I began receiving a series of texts and emails alerting me to the fact that President Donald Trump had pardoned Conrad Black. Many of these messages concluded with the question, “Can you believe it?” My answer to each of these queries was the same: “yes.” Ultimately, I was saddened but not surprised that President Trump had decided to pardon Black for his theft of millions of dollars from public shareholders and obstruction of justice.
I am saddened by the message this sends about the current state of the rule of law
Many will believe that I was saddened because, as the former prosecutor on Black’s case, the pardon has undermined the conviction that myself and many of my colleagues in federal law enforcement worked so hard to obtain. This assumption is mistaken. Moreover, I bear no ill will towards Black despite his often-colourful descriptions of me and his other “accusers” in the media. Rather, I am saddened by the message this pardon sends about the current state of the rule of law and justice in the United States.
President Trump’s pardon of Black is not the first time a president has pardoned a friend or a business associate. Nor will it be the last. The president has a constitutionally vested power to pardon that requires no justification or explanation. When we elect a president and he or she vows to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, we expect them to honour this vow and make decisions that are in the best interests of the country. We also expect presidents to consult with the Department of Justice, which has been tasked with the responsibility of assisting the president in the constitutional exercise of his or her pardon power for over 150 years. This precedent and the constitutional protections built into the pardon process have been tossed to the wind under this administration. Even concerns over the political ramifications of an “unseemly” pardon that have shamed many presidents into waiting until their final days in office to issue such pardons have evaporated.
Nothing betrays the mockery that President Trump has made of our justice system more than the fact the Black’s co-defendants, Richard Boultbee and Peter Atkinson, Canadians who were convicted by the same jury, at the same trial, of the same fraud crimes as Black, did not receive any pardon consideration from President Trump. They remain convicted federal criminals with no pop singers or right-wing pundits to vouch for them. (Of course, Boultbee and Atkinson were not convicted of obstruction of justice like Black, a badge of honour to the current administration.)
President Trump, however, feels no embarrassment in his use of presidential power to benefit his wealthy friends and no need to wait for his final days in office to exercise it. Rather than rely on a recommendation from his Department of Justice, President Trump has offered a list of celebrities who have vouched for Black’s character, including Elton John, Rush Limbaugh, and Henry Kissinger. President Trump appears to revel in his unfettered use of power, and openly mock those who are stupid enough to play by the rules or embrace frivolous notions of procedure and justice.
I am saddened at the pardon of Conrad Black because it lays bare the fact that justice in Donald Trump’s America is unapologetically linked to who you know and how much money you have. Many could fairly say this has always been the case, and at least President Trump isn’t trying to pretend otherwise. A similar sentiment was frequently on display by Black, who believed he should be commended for openly embracing greed and shunning the laws that tried to control it.
The pardon of Conrad Black doesn’t simply represent the victory of greed, power and wealth over bedrock principles of justice, it is an open and unapologetic celebration of this victory. As a spectator to this colossal defeat of justice, I am saddened.
Eric Sussman was the lead prosecutor in the case against Conrad Black. He now practices at Reed Smith LLP in Chicago.
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