He was broadcasting a message to his network

Sarah Chayes points out that Trump’s corruption is very public for a reason.

In Kabul, Western officials scratched their heads as to why Karzai would want to confess, in an interview with ABC’s Christiane Amanpour, to meddling in judicial affairs. The U.S. and other donor nations on which he depended for his very survival would certainly be displeased. So he must have a very good reason, I thought at the time. And then I realized that he was broadcasting a message to his network: Don’t worry. I stand by the deal.

Even a cursory look at the list of Trump’s February 19 beneficiaries suggests that his aim was not to right the wrong of prosecutorial overreach, but to send a similar message to his network—to reinforce and perhaps expand it. More than 2 million people are incarcerated across the United States. By a very rough estimate extrapolated from federal numbers (statistics of any kind on this topic are hard to find), well less than 7 percent of them were convicted of corruption or significant white-collar crimes. Yet no fewer than eight of Trump’s 11 boons went to perpetrators of this stripe: committers of tax fraud, of orchestrating a giant scheme to cheat Medicare, of multiple violations of securities law while creating a speculative bubble in junk bonds (which crashed in 1989 to widespread devastation), or of extorting a children’s hospital and trying to sell the Senate seat Barack Obama left vacant when he was elected president.

Another tell is that Trump’s clemency came not at the end of his time in office, as is sometimes the case with such favors bestowed on cronies and swindlers, but well before that—indeed, ahead of an election in which he is running. The gesture was not a guilty half-secret, but a promise. It was meant to show that the guarantee of impunity for choice members of America’s corrupt networks is an ongoing principle.

I’m guessing that there’s also a less pragmatic reason for doing it openly, which is the joy of rubbing our noses in it. “Haha you can’t touch me, Mitch won’t let you, haha, I can do anything I want to, I can smear poo on my face and you can’t stop me.” But that’s just a parenthesis. The pragmatic reason is far more important.

For this message to be delivered with the utmost clarity, the pardons and commutations had to be seen as the work of Trump himself. They could not result or even appear to result from a formal process carried out by the Department of Justice and the White House, as is normally the case. Pay attention is the point being driven home: The network and its chief are what counts, not the government as an impartial institution.

As egregious as Trump’s moves to bolster impunity for a certain type of criminality are, however, the phenomenon predates him, though in subtler guises. Prior presidential pardons have also disproportionately favored white-collar criminals. Thanks to a concerted campaign that lasted decades and several Supreme Court decisions (most unanimous), the definition of public corruption and bribery has been narrowed to the point that an official would almost have to make an effort to commit the infractions. Prosecutions of white-collar crime have been plummeting for decades.

I didn’t know that about the campaign and the Supreme Court rulings.

What a colossal mess.

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