Donald Trump

A Look at the President's Pardon Power and How It Works

President Donald Trump said Thursday that he was considering pardoning or commuting the sentence of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was impeached in 2009 and currently serving a 14-year prison sentence on corruption charges. 

Trump has used his pardon power three times: for Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, for chief of staff to former Vice President Dick Cheney Scooter Libby, and most recently for heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson. 

Here's a look at the president's unique power --


Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 of the Constitution says: "The President ... shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment." The president's power can only be used to pardon someone for a federal crime, not a state one.


Someone who has been convicted of a federal crime and wants to be pardoned makes a request for a pardon to the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney, which assists the president in exercising his pardon power. Department rules tell pardon seekers to wait at least five years after their conviction or their release from prison, whichever is later, before filing a pardon application.

It's then up to the pardon office to make a recommendation about whether a pardon is warranted. The office looks at such factors as how the person has acted following their conviction, the seriousness of the offense and the extent to which the person has accepted responsibility for their crime. Prosecutors in the office that handled the case are asked to weigh in. The pardon office's report and recommendation gets forwarded to the deputy attorney general, who adds his or her recommendation. That information is then forwarded to the White House for a decision.


A pardon and a commutation of sentence are two separate forms of executive clemency, the broad term for leniency toward those convicted of federal crimes. 

A commutation reduces a sentence, either totally or partially, but does not change the fact of conviction, imply innocence or remove civil disabilities (such as the right to vote, hold office or sit on a jury) that apply to the person convicted, according to the Department of Justice. A commutation can also include a release of financial obligations impposed as part of a sentence, like the payment of a fine - but only applicable to the portion that has not already been paid. 

A pardon is an "expression of the President's forgiveness," the DOJ says, typically granted to recognize that the person has accepted responsibility and established good conduct for a significant period of time. A pardon does not signify innocence either, but does remove civil disabilities in a way that commuting a sentence does not. 


For now, nothing happens until Trump takes any official action. He simply told reporters Thursday that he was considering some form of clemency for the disgraced ex-govenor - but suggested he was more interested in "curtailing his sentence" than a full pardon. 

Of note, a sentence can only be commuted if the person is not challenging his or her conviction in the court system. Last month, the United States Supreme Court announced they would not hear Blagojevich's final appeal - a devastating blow to Blagojevich, his family and his legal team. 


In addition to Blagojevich, hundreds of other people also want Trump's help. According to Justice Department statistics , as of Thursday Trump had received 570 requests for pardons and 2,306 requests for commutation, a reduction of a prison sentence a person is currently serving.

It's not unusual for presidents to ultimately use their power to help hundreds. During his time in office President Barack Obama granted 212 pardons and commuted the sentences of approximately 1,700 people, including about 300 drug offenders he pardoned on his last day in office and Chelsea Manning, the transgender Army intelligence officer convicted of leaking more than 700,000 U.S. documents. President George W. Bush pardoned 189 people and commuted 11 sentences.

Trump also said Thursday that he was considering a pardon for Martha Stewart, who was prosecuted by James Comey and convicted in 2004 of obstructing justice and lying to the government.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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