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Donald Trump’s pardoning spree tests boundaries of authority

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During the deliberations over whether to ratify the US constitution in 1788, George Mason, the Virginian politician and scholar, warned against one particular inclusion: the right of a president to pardon people. 

“He may frequently pardon crimes which were advised by himself,” Mason said. “It may happen, at some future day, that he will establish a monarchy, and destroy the republic.”

Donald Trump this week once more tested the boundaries of what voters will tolerate when it comes to presidential clemency, issuing pardons to 15 people.

They included two Republican politicians, four former private security contractors convicted of being involved in the deaths of Iraqi civilians, and two people convicted of crimes connected with the investigation into the president’s ties to Russia.

Mr Trump is hardly the first president to use his pardoning authority controversially, but historians say the outgoing president has acted unusually in how often he has used the power to benefit his own allies.

Alex Van Der Zwaan © Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Shutterstock
George Papadopoulos © Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty

“Presidents tend to use the power of pardon to help bring the country together, to correct a miscarriage of justice, or where there are extenuating circumstances such as subsequent good behaviour,” said Barbara Perry, a presidential historian at University of Virginia.

“The extenuating circumstance is not supposed to be for the president themselves, it is not just supposed to be that this person is on their side,” she added.

Among those whom Mr Trump pardoned on Tuesday night were George Papadopoulos, a former low-level campaign adviser, and Alex van der Zwaan, a former lawyer. Mr Papadopolous was convicted of making false statements to investigators, while Mr van der Zwaan lied to investigators about his contacts with Rick Gates, a former senior adviser to Mr Trump.

Last month, the president also issued a pardon to Michael Flynn — his former national security adviser who admitted to lying about contacts with a Russian diplomat — and commuted the sentence of his former aide Roger Stone.

Constitutional experts on Wednesday said Mr Trump was operating within his legal powers. The constitution gives the president the authority to grant reprieves for offences against the US, though not for state crimes or those for which the offender could be impeached by Congress.

Mr Trump has the sole power to issue a federal pardon, although guidelines say it is ordinarily granted if a person accepts responsibility for a crime and has shown good behaviour for a significant period after conviction.

Pardons have proved controversial throughout history. Gerald Ford granted an unconditional and pre-emptive pardon to his predecessor Richard Nixon in an attempt to heal a divided country, although the move imperilled his own political career. Andrew Johnson caused far deeper anger in much of America in 1865 by issuing a blanket pardon for former Confederates.

There is also historical precedent for presidents using such powers to help themselves or those close to them. Bill Clinton caused fury when he pardoned both Marc Rich, the fugitive financier, and his own brother on his final day as president. George HW Bush pardoned several officials prosecuted for their roles in the Iran-Contra scandal.

But historians say these remain anomalies, and that Mr Trump stands out as unusual for the frequency with which he has issued pardons that appear to be in his own interest.

“As with a lot of other controversies during Donald Trump’s time in office, what is unusual here is the sheer scale,” said Tim Naftali, an associate professor of history at New York University.

Gerald Ford, right, granted an unconditional and pre-emptive pardon to his predecessor Richard Nixon, left © Bettmann Archive/Getty

Many expect Mr Trump to go further in his final weeks in office. The outgoing president has reportedly discussed granting pre-emptive pardons to his three children, as well as Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, and Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer. He could also choose to pardon others caught up in the Russia probe such as Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman.

Some believe he may eventually feel constrained from doing so because of the legal view that a pardon automatically confers guilt. According to a Supreme Court ruling from 1915, a pardon “carries an imputation of guilt,” and acceptance of a pardon is “a confession of it”. Ford was said to have carried round a piece of paper in his wallet with those words written on it.

More important for Mr Trump’s own future, however, is that by accepting a pardon, his associates then remove their right not to testify at a future trial for fear of implicating themselves.

According to an 1895 ruling by the Supreme Court, “[I]f the witness has already received a pardon, he cannot longer set up his privilege, since he stands with respect to such offence as if it had never been committed”. This may make them more likely to appear as a witness in any trial against Mr Trump himself, legal experts say.

There is one final option should Mr Trump wish to make sure he is not prosecuted once he becomes a private citizen: he could try to issue a pardon to himself.

No president has attempted this before, and the constitution does not mention the possibility, except to say that no one can be a judge in their own trial. Nixon weighed the option of pardoning himself, but eventually decided not to following warnings from his own advisers.

If Mr Trump were to try this, there would almost certainly be a legal challenge, one likely to end up in the Supreme Court.

“Even Nixon never tried this, and that was Nixon. But Donald Trump is different,” said Thomas Balcerski, associate professor of history at Eastern Connecticut State University. “Anyone who cares about the constitution and the state of our democracy has cause to be concerned.”



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Analysis

Iranian TV action thriller delivers warning to Zarif

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It is hardly surprising that Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister and nuclear negotiator, is not a fan of Gando, a popular television drama that depicts an incompetent minister who scuppers nuclear talks with world powers by hiring dual nationals who turn out to be spies for MI6.

The series — made by an institute believed to be affiliated to the elite and hardline Revolutionary Guards — “is a lie from the beginning to the end” that “damages foreign policy more than me” by fuelling public mistrust, Zarif said.

By focusing on the nuclear talks, the Guards’ motive goes beyond creating compelling drama, reformist analysts say. Iran is in discussion with western powers about reviving the nuclear deal, a key reformist achievement, and hardliners want to deter the popular foreign minister from declaring his interest in the presidency in what is a crucial election year.

“I’ll be grateful to Gando-makers to let us continue our current job,” Zarif said this month, and commented that he would not run for the presidency.

The possibility of nuclear talks with the US and other powers has complicated an already fraught Iranian political scene ahead of the June election. Many reformists are pinning their hopes on Iran’s top diplomat to reinvigorate the nuclear deal and boost support at the ballot box. Hardliners might prefer to negotiate the deal themselves after the election. The polls are also seen as particularly crucial in case supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 81, dies during the next president’s term.

Pendar Akbari, left, and Ashkan Delavari, right, in a scene from ‘Gando’
Pendar Akbari, left, and Ashkan Delavari, right, in a scene from an episode of ‘Gando’. The series title refers to an Iranian crocodile able to distinguish its friends from its enemies © Bahar Asgari/Shahid Avini Cultural and Artistic Institute via AP

The purpose of Gando, which refers to an Iranian crocodile able to distinguish its friends from its enemies, “is to tell Zarif that should he dare to announce his candidacy, he will be destroyed immediately,” said one reformist analyst. “When the intelligence service of the Guards truly believes in the Gando plot lines, it means even if Zarif decides to defy such warnings, he will not be allowed to run.”

Centrist president Hassan Rouhani is due to step down this year after two terms and it is not yet clear who the presidential candidates will be. Politicians register as late as May and then have to be vetted by the Guardian Council, the hardline constitutional watchdog, which can disqualify nominees. Potential hardline candidates include Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the parliament speaker and a former guards commander; Ebrahim Raisi, the judiciary chief; and Ali Larijani, a former speaker of parliament. On the reformist side, speculation has centred on Es’haq Jahangiri, first vice-president, Hassan Khomeini, a grandson of the founder of the Islamic republic, and Zarif.

A US-educated career diplomat widely respected in the west for his pragmatism, Zarif was instrumental in the historic deal in 2015, under which Iran curbed its nuclear activity in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. But Donald Trump abandoned the accord in 2018, imposed sanctions, including on Zarif, and said he would pursue a new accord to contain Iran’s regional and military policies. The US move emboldened hardliners, confirming to them the untrustworthiness of the US.

Zarif’s background in the US both as a university student and as Iran’s head of mission at the UN — during which he met US politicians including then senator Joe Biden — has long made him a source of suspicion for hardliners.

This wariness of both Zarif and the west is evident to viewers of Gando, as is the heroism of the Revolutionary Guards. Mohammad, the action hero protagonist, warns that western negotiators may sabotage refineries as part of nuclear talks. Mohammad works out of elaborate facilities akin to those in a James Bond film. The fictional foreign minister is advised by a media adviser, the main culprit, “to enter into direct talks with the US and accept the conditions of the leader of the global village”.

Vahid Rahbani in a scene from an episode of ‘Gando’
Vahid Rahbani in a scene from an episode of ‘Gando’. State TV abruptly stopped broadcasting the series that was less than halfway through its 30-episode run © Hassan Hendi/Shahid Avini Cultural and Artistic Institute via AP

The dramatic scenes reflect, in part, the worldview of some of Zarif’s critics. “Reformists, Mr Zarif and his lobby group in Washington [Iranian dual nationals] should be wiped out from Iran’s politics,” said an aide to a senior hardline politician who is a potential presidential candidate. “We have to get rid of this cancerous tumour once for good.”

Gholamali Jafarzadeh, a former conservative member of parliament, said Zarif “is not a good statesman and should not run for president” while “reformists should know that their choices have no chance to be allowed to run”. 

This month, state TV abruptly stopped broadcasting the series that was less than halfway through its 30-episode run. Local media said broadcasts would resume when the presidential race was over. Iran’s centrist president Hassan Rouhani, whose signature achievement is the nuclear deal — alluded to the show on Wednesday and said “people’s money” should not be spent on “fabrication of the truth” and “distortion of facts”.

After three years of sanctions, many voters are disillusioned by the infighting and the prospect of real change, whatever the outcome of the election. “Whether Zarif or a figure more senior than him runs or not, I’m not going to vote,” said Hamid, a 40-year-old engineer. “Let the Guards win the election as they are the ones who are running the country anyway. Why shall I make a fool of myself?” 



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Analysis

Rising inflation complicates Brazil’s Covid-19 crisis

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After seven months in lockdown, Michele Marques received some unwelcome news when she returned to work: while she was away the prices of almost all the products she uses as a hairdresser had soared.

“A box of gloves rose 200 per cent. Colouring products increased at least 100 per cent,” said the 37-year-old from São Paulo, underlining how costs were rising while her revenue had collapsed. “I had to raise the price of my services, too.”

It is a dynamic that is playing out across Brazil, adding an extra layer of complexity to the country’s coronavirus crisis, which has already claimed the lives of almost 350,000 individuals and pushed hospital services to the brink.

With much of Latin America’s largest economy being shuttered, inflation is surging to its highest level in years, fuelling a silent scourge of hunger among poorer citizens that has run in parallel to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The high price of staple foods — rice and beans, for example — has led to the disappearance of these items from the table of millions of Brazilians,” said Ana Maria Segall, a researcher at the Brazilian Research Network on Food and Nutritional Sovereignty and Security. In the 12 months to the end of March, the price of rice increased 64 per cent and black beans 51 per cent.

“In Brazil currently food inflation has penalised the very poorest, preventing them from having adequate access to food and in many situations leading to hunger,” she said, adding that rising unemployment and the curtailment of social programmes were also contributing factors.

Volunteers hand out food in São Paulo © Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images

Less than half of Brazil’s population of 212m now has access to adequate food all the time, with 19m people, or 9 per cent of its inhabitants, facing hunger, according to a recent report by Segall’s group.

“I’m doing some odd jobs, but it’s not enough to keep us going,” said Jonathan, a 28-year-old who lost his job in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant in São Paulo when the pandemic began. He said he now struggles to provide enough food for his three young children and pregnant wife.

On a 12-month basis, inflation in June is expected to surpass 8 per cent, far above earlier estimates. In the 12 months to March, food prices jumped 18.5 per cent, while the price of agricultural commodities in local currency surged 55 per cent and the cost of fuel increased almost 92 per cent.

Line chart of Percentage increase over past 12 months showing The price of rice in Brazil is soaring

The developments pose a fresh challenge to President Jair Bolsonaro, who is already under fire for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Across Brazil’s biggest cities, graffiti has sprung up labelling the populist leader “Bolsocaro” — a portmanteau of his name and the Portuguese word for expensive.

The rising prices are also likely to provide useful ammunition to leftist former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who returned to the political fray last month and may challenge Bolsonaro in elections next year.

“Bolsonaro is to blame for the increase in food prices, he is to blame for everything. They have to remove this guy,” said Maria Izabel de Jesus, a retiree from São Paulo.

Armando Castelar, a researcher at the Brazilian Institute of Economics, said the government had underestimated inflation both in terms of the numbers and also “how much a concern it should be”.

He attributed the rising prices to the devaluation of the Brazilian currency, triggered in part by the stimulus packages passed by the US government — which helped to bolster the dollar and led to higher Treasury yields — and the brighter economic outlook outside Latin America.

“You have a situation where commodity prices are going up because the global economy is going to grow a lot this year. With the growth in the US, interest rates are going up and the dollar is strengthening. This puts a lot of pressure on the exchange rate in Brazil and emerging markets in general,” he said.

As the spectre of inflation loomed last month, the Brazilian central bank raised its key interest rate by 75 basis points, higher than the half-percentage point many economists had expected. A further rate rise is expected next month.

“The central bank acted correctly, but it cannot stop there. It is important not to be too lenient in dealing with this,” said Castelar.

Silvia Matos, a co-ordinator at the Brazilian Economy Institute, also pointed to Brazil’s weakening currency as a contributing factor to inflation. But she said the slide in the real was triggered by investor concerns over Brazil’s deteriorating public finances.

Following the creation of two separate stimulus packages to mitigate the impact of Covid-19, government debt has risen to about 90 per cent of gross domestic product, a high level for an emerging market economy.

The rollout of the second of these packages began this month, with 45m Brazilians set to receive $50 a month for four months.

Critics said, however, these stipends were not nearly enough to keep people both fed and at home in lockdown.

“It is essential that the emergency aid is of a greater value, so that people do not leave the house but no one also stays at home starving,” said Marcelo Freixo, a federal lawmaker with the leftwing PSOL party.

“We need to reduce the circulation of the disease. Brazil is already experiencing 4,000 deaths per day. We will reach 500,000 total deaths by the middle of the year.”

Matos says that inflation had hit poorer citizens much harder than middle-class and rich Brazilians because a larger portion of their income was dedicated to food, the price of which has increased substantially.

“The only thing that could help right now is to get out of this pandemic,” she said.

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Can CVC pull off a $20bn ‘deal of the century’ at Toshiba?

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Proposed management buyout looks like an improbable win for the Japanese conglomerate’s embattled CEO



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