Comparing Commutations: A Story of Real Numbers on Trump's Big Clemency Day

You'd get the impression that Donald Trump is a champion of "criminal justice" reform. Is that really the case?

Publisher’s Riff

for more analysis, listen to Reality Check on WURD, Mon-Wed 10am ET streamed live at, in Philly on 96.1 FM / 900 AM | #RealityCheck @ellisonreport

Image result for number of clemency by trump

Donald Trump is having another good week, at least politically and optically. A busy day of presidential clemency - a total of 7 pardons and 4 commutations - gives him the opportunity to fashion himself as a champion of criminal justice reform during a presidential election in which Democrats battling for his job will use that issue as a key measuring stick lined up against the records of multiple candidates. Announcing these many pardons and commutations in a day, and in dramatic fashion, also achieves two immediate tactical goals …

  1. It diverts attention from the president directly intervening in the affairs of a, supposedly, independent Justice Department on sensitive cases related to his corruption … and now claiming he is the nation’s “chief law enforcement officer”

  2. It serves to portray him as compassionate on “criminal justice” issues in a direct contrast to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as the Democratic presidential contender continues to take hits on how he oversaw widespread “stop and frisk” policing during his three terms.

The impression will also be given that Trump is not only concerned about major miscarriages of justice, but that he is as active - indeed, more active - than his predecessor President Barack Obama. But, perspective is needed. First: it’s important to look deeper into the biographies of those granted clemency - many either convicted for corrupt acts or in close proximity to Trump’s immediate political orbit.

Here’s where Democratic Party messaging strategists should be immediately hitting back with pre-packaged topline data points and fact to better manage a chaotic political environment that Republicans continue to dominate …

Clemency: Obama vs. Trump vs. Clinton

From the Justice Departments own public data sets

In three years, Trump has issues just granted 24 total clemency petitions compared to a total of 1,927 for Obama’s entire presidency; out of those, however, were 23 total clemencies during his first time (just one clemency shy of Trump’s first term clemency record).

Indeed even Clinton issued more combined pardons and commutations than either Trump or Obama in their first three years of office: a total of 56.

Obama Used Clemency More … Than Most Modern Presidents

Obama did reject a rather large number of clemency petitions: only 5 percent were granted. That’s the average of most presidents - but, relatively low compared to presidents like Harry Truman, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson who granted 41 percent, 39 percent and 38 percent of clemency requests.

The difference however is that Obama implemented an actual Clemency Initiative to closely examine these requests and to pick the right ones. This makes him the most methodical and deliberate president on this tool (perhaps deliberate in a subtle bid to not seem too soft on “criminals” as the nation’s first Black president), an effort designed to pick out and remediate the most egregious examples of criminal justice convictions.

Here’s Pew Research

featured sponsor