by Tony Wyman
Last week, President Donald J. Trump issued a presidential pardon for Dinesh D’Souza, the polarizing maker of films promoting dubiously documented conspiracy theories, for the crime of using a “straw donor” to make a felonious political contribution to the failed 2012 campaign of Republican Senate candidate Wendy Long.
“I’ve always felt he was very unfairly treated,” the president said to reporters as he headed to Texas on Air Force One. “And a lot of people did, a lot of people did. What should have been a quick minor fine, like everybody else with the election stuff….what they did to him was horrible.”
Instead of “a quick minor fine,” Mr. D’Souza, who recently said Florida lawmakers failing to pass an assault rifle ban was, for survivors of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, the “…worst news since their parents told them to get summer jobs,” was sentenced to eight months in a halfway house, five years probation and a $30,000 fine.
Those penalties were hardly harsh, considering Mr. D’Souza knowingly and deliberately broke the law in an attempt to illegally influence a public election.
Despite that, they led to a flurry of complaints from Mr. D’Souza’s supporters that his prosecution was motivated more by Obama Administration opposition to his political affiliation than it was due to the nature of his crime.
“This is justice,” tweeted Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, praising the president’s pardon.
Was it? Or was it something else altogether?
“This is a use of the pardon power to send political messages to people involved in the Mueller investigation, Lawyer James Robenalt, who, along with former Nixon Special Counsel John Dean, teaches the Watergate Continuing Legal Education seminar,” said. “Mueller wants them to cooperate in return for a deal. Trump is sending a counter-message. ‘If I just hang tight, whatever happens, the president can pardon me, so I can just not cooperate.'”
So, if the real intent of the president’s pardon was to send a signal, who was the intended target? Who was the president signaling with his out-of-the-blue pardon?
Lots of Possible Targets
The media is abuzz with speculation about a number of possible targets for Mr. Trump’s signal promising pardons in exchange for silence in the Mueller probe. Former National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the president’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen, son-in-law Jared Kushner, adviser George Papadopoulos and former campaign manager Paul Manafort all top the list.
So does former Watergate figure and renowned political dirty tricks expert Roger Stone.
“It has to be a signal to Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort and even Robert S. Mueller III: Indict people for crimes that don’t pertain to Russian collusion and this is what could happen,” Mr. Stone said shortly after the pardon to the Washington Post. “The special counsel has awesome powers, as you know, but the president has even more awesome powers.”
Harvard Law Professor, Laurence Tribe, whose students include President Barack Obama, Senator Ted Cruz, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Elena Kagan, agrees. He tweeted:
Trump’s Dinesh D’Souza pardon today, on top of his pardons of Scooter Libby and Joe Arpaio, make sense only as an elephant-whistle to Michael Cohen & all who know damning things about Trump: protect me & I’ll have your back. Turn on me & your goose is cooked. More obstruction!
— Laurence Tribe (@tribelaw) May 31, 2018
And so does E.J. Montini, the hard-hitting opinion columnist for the Arizona Republic:
Why would President Donald Trump grant a pardon to a convicted felon who admitted to his crime, a man who has mocked the survivors of the Florida high school massacre, defended Hitler, promoted disproved conspiracy theories and ridiculed the former president and his wife with racist comments?
If self-preservation is Mr. Trump’s motivation, then signaling Mr. Stone certainly makes sense. He is, after all, likely the most dangerous of Mr. Trump’s associates when it comes to who might betray the president.
Roger Stone’s Six Telling Words
“I will never betray this president,” Mr. Stone declared May 31st, the day Mr. Trump pardoned Mr. D’Souza, during an interview with ABC News. “Under no circumstances will I bear false witness against President Trump.”
The comment was interesting for a number of reasons. First, Mr. Stone knows it is highly likely that he will soon be indicted on a felony charge related to his involvement in the 2016 presidential campaign. Second, his comment seems to signal back to the president that he got Mr. Trump’s message sent through the D’Souza pardon very clearly.
“John Dean, I am not,” said Mr. Stone, referring to the former White House counsel who turned on Mr. Nixon in 1973 when he read a shocking statement before the Senate investigating committee looking into Watergate. Mr. Dean pleaded guilty to charges he assisted in the Watergate cover-up in exchange for his testimony that, ultimately, ended the Nixon presidency.
If Mr. Stone believes Mr. Trump is innocent, why would he equate his position vis-a-vis the president with Mr. Dean’s relationship with President Nixon? While he said he is no John Dean, his words lead observers to speculate about the difference between the two men.
Is it that what separates the two men is they view their responsibility to the American people very differently, that where Mr. Dean believed, ultimately, that he had to come clean about his knowledge of the Watergate cover-up so as to not betray the trust the nation put in him as an officer of the White House administration, Mr. Stone feels no such responsibility to his country?
If Mr. Stone believes the president’s campaign is not guilty of covering up collusion with Russian agents of President Vladimir Putin’s, why would he deliberately draw attention to a parallel between himself and Mr. Dean? Perhaps it isn’t only Mr. Trump sending a signal.
Perhaps Mr. Stone is sending one back to the president, as well: Allow me to go to jail, Mr. President, and I will be the next John Dean.