As has been well documented by now, former President Donald Trump always treated the presidential pardon power like it was a personal gift rather than a constitutional power afforded to the office he held.

Thus we saw Trump ignore the regular pardon process and its requirements and standards, with many of his last-minute pardons going to people who know him personally, who were supported by a celebrity he likes or who supported him politically. Throughout his presidency, we saw Trump and his lawyers successfully “dangle” pardons before people who otherwise might have cooperated with law enforcement and disclosed Trump’s misconduct, in order to keep them quiet, and then reward them later with pardons when they did so.

It’s an exercise in futility to sift through the dozens upon dozens of Trump’s abusive pardons to try to determine the most outrageous, although those given to four war criminals who were convicted in the killings of Iraqi civilians, including children, certainly make a compelling case for that distinction.

Still, one category of Trump pardons stands out to me as both egregious and worthy of particular attention because of how it threatens our system of checks and balances, and what it reveals about the man behind the power: the pardoning of people found guilty of public corruption offenses. These are people who themselves abused the public trust, and whose wrongdoing was exposed by our carefully constructed, overlapping systems of oversight and enforcement that are designed to identify and punish corrupt government officials.

The list includes people like former Congressmen Duncan Hunter (using campaign donations to support a lavish personal lifestyle, including trips with his mistress), former New York Rep Chris Collins (insider trading while standing on the White House lawn) and Steve Stockman (misusing charitable funds to pay for hot air balloon rides and a new dishwasher, among other things). It includes Rod Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor who tried to sell a newly-vacated senate seat.

And in his last hours in office, Trump pardoned two more crooked Republican former congressmen — Rick Renzi and Randall “Duke” Cunningham — and commuted the sentence of former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who had served just seven years of a 28-year sentence he received for racketeering, bribery, and extortion in connection with a massive corruption scheme that some argue contributed to bankrupting his city.

As if all of this weren’t bad enough, Trump found another way to use the pardon power to demonstrate his contempt for our government’s system of checks and balances against corruption. The appointment of a special counsel from outside of government — which occurred during Trump’s tenure in the form of Special Counsel Robert Mueller — is a hallmark of executive branch oversight when the Department of Justice is conflicted from investigating other executive branch officials. Trump not only relentlessly attacked Mueller, his team and their work throughout the entirety of the investigation and its resulting prosecutions, but ultimately pardoned every single person prosecuted as a result of the Mueller investigation, except the one, Rick Gates, who cooperated with authorities.

Some of those pardoned by Trump could still be subject to charges by state law enforcement officials, and in some cases I believe they absolutely will be. So in the end, the pardons may not be the get-out-of-jail-free card that Trump intended.

But the pardons themselves and Trump’s wholesale abuse of the pardon power remain important for two reasons. First, they expose weaknesses in our system of checks and balances, which already has led to serious calls for reforms, like increasing transparency measures, strengthening whistleblower and watchdog agency protections, and reinforcing the ability of Congress to obtain information such as documents and witnesses from the executive branch during the course of investigations. And second, these pardons showed us, yet again, the measure of the man behind the power, as if we needed more evidence of Trump’s lack of ethical character.

Trump may be gone, but a concern for many good government advocates is that his unethical and norm-busting abuse of the pardon power may embolden future officeholders to follow suit. Reforming the pardon power to ensure its ethical and merit-based use should be a top priority of those who care about integrity in our government.

Jennifer Rodgers is a former federal prosecutor, Adjunct Professor of Clinical Law at NYU School of Law, Lecturer-in-Law at Columbia Law School, and a CNN legal analyst. The opinions expressed here are her own. 

Former President Donald Trump and Melania Trump wave as they disembark from their final flight on Air Force One at Palm Beach International Airport in West Palm Beach, Fla., Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

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