Life Politics

The Most Controversial Presidential Pardons in US History

The Most Controversial Presidential Pardons in US History August 26, 2019Leave a comment

Modern presidents aren't the only ones to issue pardons that stirred controversy. As early as Washington, United States presidents have been issuing pardons. And not all of them were met with widespread approval...

Richard Nixon

Public Domain

Who pardoned him: Gerald Ford
What he was pardoned for: Involvement in the Watergate scandal
Why it was controversial: The Watergate scandal revealed that Nixon and his aides had not only participated in illegal activities during his re-election campaign, but they had attempted to cover it up. When Gerald Ford took office, he gave Nixon a full, unconditional pardon before he could even be indicted. The pardon was extremely controversial at the time, and widely condemned.

George Steinbrenner

Public Domain

Who pardoned him: Ronald Reagan
What he was pardoned for: Making illegal campaign contributions to Nixon, obstruction of justice
Why it was controversial: Steinbrenner had asked President Jimmy Carter for a pardon, but was refused. His attorneys claimed the conviction was a source of humiliation in both his business and personal life. When Reagan granted it, it was seen as the rich and famous using their power and influence to maintain their status and, according to an L.A. Times opinion piece, "corrupt the public process".

Philip Vigol and John Mitchell

Public Domain

Who pardoned them: George Washington
What they were pardoned for: Treason
Why it was controversial: Philip Vigol (also written as Wigle) and John Mitchell participated in the Whiskey Rebellion, a protest against taxes on whiskey. The two were convicted of high treason for their participation, and sentenced to death. Alexander Hamilton had introduced the tax, and thought the men responsible for the rebellion should be punished to the full extent of the law. Washington's pardon went directly against his wishes.

John Fries


Who pardoned him: John Adams
What he was pardoned for: Treason
Why it was controversial: John Fries led the Fries Rebellion, another armed protest against taxes. This is another case where the president's conduct went against what Alexander Hamilton wanted. Hamilton wrote to others expressing his displeasure about the pardon as well as his general disdain for Adams' conduct. When the letter was published, it created a breakdown within Adams' political party, and this breakdown helped his opponent, Thomas Jefferson, win the next election.


Charles Bird King

Who pardoned him: John Quincy Adams
What he was pardoned for: Murder
Why it was controversial: A family had been killed by members of the Winnebago Tribe as a response to Americans encroaching on their land. Though Wekau was convicted of murder along with a fellow member of his tribe, it wasn't clear if they were the ones actually responsible. Adams feared that executing them would spark retaliation and pardoned them. However, no one was found responsible for the murder, and in a time where there was a lot of hatred for Native Americans, this wouldn't have been a popular decision.

George Wilson

Peter Newark American Pictures/Bridgeman Images

Who pardoned him: Andrew Jackson (pictured above)
What he was pardoned for: Robbing the United States mails
Why it was controversial: George Wilson subsequently refused the pardon. His refusal ended up going all the way to the Supreme Court, who ruled that Wilson had the right to do so. Ultimately, Wilson was hanged for his offenses.

Samuel Arnold


Who pardoned him: Andrew Johnson
What he was pardoned for: Conspiracy to commit murder
Why it was controversial: The person he was guilty of trying to murder was Abraham Lincoln.

Charles W. Morse


Who pardoned him: William Taft
What he was pardoned for: Violating federal banking laws
Why it was controversial: While in prison, Morse fell seriously ill. Doctors reported that he would die if he stayed in prison. Taft pardoned him as a result. As it turns out, Morse wasn't ill at all - he faked his illness by drinking soap.

Everyone Convicted Under the Narcotics Control Act

The Independent

Who pardoned them: John F. Kennedy
What they were pardoned for: Any first-time offense under the Narcotics Control Act of 1965
Why it was controversial: This was a case in which a president used his powers of pardon to point out what he felt was a flaw in the system. This pardon essentially overturned much of the law that had been passed by Congress, which imposed mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.

Jimmy Hoffa


Who pardoned him: Richard Nixon
What he was pardoned for: Jury tampering and fraud
Why it was controversial: Jimmy Hoffa was president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT). After Hoffa's pardon, the IBT endorsed Nixon for President. Though they had supported Nixon in his prior campaign, Nixon was Republican and previously, the IBT had endorsed Democratic candidates. Speculation arose that Hoffa was pardoned in exchange for the IBT's endorsement, with rumors that there was a $1 million payout to Nixon.

Robert E. Lee


Who pardoned him: Gerald Ford
What he was pardoned for: Participating in the Civil War
Why it was controversial: President Andrew Johnson had issued a general pardon that applied to anyone who had participated in the rebellion against the United States during the Civil War. This proclamation, however, had certain exclusions, which prohibited Robert E. Lee from being pardoned. Lee wrote to Johnson, applying for amnesty, but the application was lost. Ford ultimately granted the pardon, but his decision to do so wasn't unanimously supported. The resolution for his pardon only passed 94-67. While some view Lee as a military hero, others see him as an enduring symbol of America's racism towards African Americans.

Vietnam Draft Dodgers


Who pardoned them: Gerald Ford, then Jimmy Carter
What they were pardoned for: Dodging the draft
Why it was controversial: Many citizens dodged the draft either by fleeing the country or by not registering with their Selective Service boards. Many people disapproved of the pardon, seeing the people who dodged the draft as unpatriotic lawbreakers who deserved punishment.

Participants in the Iran-Contra Affair

Wall Street Journal

Who pardoned them: George H.W. Bush
What they were pardoned for: Illegal arms dealing
Why it was controversial: Under President Reagan, officials secretly facilitated the sale of arms to Iran while Iran was under an arms embargo. The pardon was granted to six officials for their participation, most shockingly to Secretary Caspar Weinberger, whose trial hadn't even begun, an unprecedented move at the time. It was seen as an administration knowingly breaking the law, then maneuvering to avoid any consequences.

Roger Clinton Jr.


Who pardoned him: Bill Clinton
What he was pardoned for: Cocaine possession
Why it was controversial: Because he was Bill Clinton's brother. Many saw this as Bill Clinton abusing his office to get favors for his family. Within a year of his pardon, Roger Clinton Jr. was charged with drunk driving and disorderly conduct.

Henry Cisneros


Who pardoned him: Bill Clinton
What he was pardoned for: Misdemeanor for lying to the FBI
Why it was controversial: Cisneros had been making payments to a former mistress, and lied to the FBI about the amounts. Ciseneros, who was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, offered to submit his resignation, but Clinton refused it, because he said Cisneros was a "good man". The pardon was seeing as another example of Clinton helping out his friends and those close to him.

Mark Felt, aka Deep Throat


Who pardoned him: Ronald Reagan
What he was pardoned for: His role in the Watergate scandal, namely conspiring to violate election laws
Why it was controversial: Much like the Iran-Contra scandal, the pardons around Watergate were seen as the government knowingly breaking the law, then letting themselves off the hook for it. Though Mark Felt was also Deep Throat, the secret informant who ultimately broke the scandal, this wasn't known at the time of his pardon.

Armand Hammer


Who pardoned him: George H.W. Bush
What he was pardoned for: Illegal campaign contributions
Why it was controversial: 
Right before he was pardoned, he contributed $110,000 to the Republican National Committee. This was seen as someone with money and influence buying his pardon.

Members of a Puerto Rican Terrorist Group

NY Daily News

Who pardoned them: Bill Clinton
What they were pardoned for: Conspiracy to commit robbery and bomb-making, and sedition
Why it was controversial: The Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN) carried out over 130 bomb attacks in the United States between 1974 and 1983. In 1999, Clinton pardoned 16 members. None of the members who were pardoned had been convicted in a bombing that injured or killed anyone, and at the time of the pardon, has served nineteen years or more, which was a longer sentence than one typically received for similar convictions. Clinton granted the pardons at the urging of 10 Nobel Peace Prize Laureates; however, many condemned the pardons, including the FBI and victims of FALN terrorist activities.

Patty Hearst

Getty images

Who pardoned her: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton
What she was pardoned for: Bank robbery, using a firearm during the commission of a felony
Why it was controversial: Patty Hearst was kidnapped by left-wing terrorist group the Symbionese Liberation Army. Her defense at trial was that she had been held captive and brainwashed into committing robbery. It didn't work, and many debated whether it was true. Hearst is the daughter of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, and her pardon was seen as consequence of her privilege. Author Jeffrey Toobin said, "The fact that she got these two presidential gestures of forgiveness is the purest example of privilege on display that frankly I have ever seen in the criminal justice system today."

Susan McDougal


Who she was pardoned by: Bill Clinton
What she was pardoned for: Fraud and conspiracy
Why it was controversial: Susan McDougal and her husband were involved with the Clintons in a real estate deal. There were allegations that when Bill Clinton was governor, he had used his position to pressure a businessman into making an illegal, federally-backed loan to support the deal. Though the Clintons were never convicted of any wrongdoing with regards to the deal, McDougal and her husband were, and McDougal refused to testify to any wrongdoing on the part of the Clintons. Some saw her pardon as either payback for her silence; others saw it as a favor given to a close friend of the Clintons.

José Alonso Compeán and Ignacio Ramos


Who pardoned them: George W. Bush
What they were pardoned for: Various charges related to shooting someone
Why it was controversial: José Alonso Compeán and Ignacio Ramos were United States Border Patrol Agents who stopped a drug smuggler at the border with over 800 lbs of drugs, and shot at him when he fled. This probably would have been fine, except they failed to report it to their supervisors, gathered up the shell casings to cover up the shooting, and filed a false report. When Bush granted them a pardon, some felt it was a tacit approval on behalf of the government of a kind of frontier justice, where men who broke the law were given clemency simply because the victim of their crime was a convict and illegal alien.

Lewis "Scooter" Libby


Who pardoned him: George W. Bush, Donald Trump
What he was pardoned for: Perjury and obstruction
Why it was controversial: 
A CIA operative, Valerie Plame, had her identity revealed. Though Libby was not accused of being the leak, he was accused of perjuring himself during the investigation of the leak, and obstructing the investigation. Many felt that in pardoning Libby, Bush was abusing his power to protect the government from oversight into a grave incident that threatened lives and national security.

Chelsea Manning

Dennis Van Tine/Abaca Press/TNS

Who pardoned her: Barack Obama
What she was pardoned for: Leaking classified documents
Why it was controversial: Manning was part of the infamous Wikileaks scandal, in which 750,000 classified and sensitive documents were leaked. Though it wasn't a full pardon, merely a commuted sentence that lessened her punishment, many felt it was a miscarriage of justice. Paul Ryan said it set a "dangerous precedent that those who compromise our national security won’t be held accountable for their crimes."

Joe Arpaio


Who pardoned him: Donald Trump
What he was pardoned for: Contempt
Why it was controversial: 
Sheriff Joe Arpaio was found to be racially profiling those in the Latinx community. He was ordered to stop by a federal judge, and when he didn't, was convicted of contempt. Trump's pardon came swiftly - even before Arpaio was handed a sentence. Many felt this pardon openly undermined the rule of law, not to mention supported racism and xenophobia.

Dinesh D'Souza


Who pardoned him: Donald Trump
What he was pardoned for: Campaign finance violations
Why it was controversial: 
Dinesh D'Souza is a conservative author and filmmaker. Campaign finance laws prohibit individuals from donating more than $5,000 to a single candidate, and D'Souza directed two associates to each make $10,000 contributions, for which he reimbursed them. Though he had never met Trump personally prior to his pardon, many felt the pardon came as a result of urgings from D'Souza's conservative friends.