Not Quite MAGA?

President Trump on Wednesday night announced a new slate of pardons. Included among them were Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, and Charles Kushner, Jared Kushner’s father. The younger Kushner, of course, is married to Ivanka Trump and is one of the president’s closest advisors. 

In the early 2000s, Chris Christie, then-U.S. attorney for New Jersey, prosecuted Kushner’s father for witness tampering and illegal campaign contributions. Charles Kushner ultimately pleaded guilty to 16 counts of tax evasion, one count of retaliating against a federal witness—his brother-in-law, William Schulder—and another count of lying to the Federal Election Commission. 

The plot Kushner peré hatched against Schulder involved hiring a prostitute to lure Schulder into having sex in a Bridgewater, New Jersey, motel room while a hidden camera rolled. Charles Kushner delivered a tape of the ordeal to his sister, Schulder’s wife, Esther.

Christie, who was ousted as chairman of Donald Trump’s White House transition team in 2016, has said he believes Jared Kushner had him sacked for prosecuting his father. With Christie long gone, the elder Kushner’s pardon is the coup de grace. 

The Trump Administration is marked by a habit of contradicting itself in word and deed. This especially bears out in its pardons. There have been a few crowd-pleasers for Trump supporters, like the pardoning of immigration hardliner Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. 

Still, on balance, the pardons have tended to go to the powerful and to the privileged proponents of “criminal justice reform.” 

On August 28, at the behest of Kim Kardashian West, Trump granted Alice Marie Johnson a full pardon. Johnson was arrested in 1993 and convicted in 1996 for her involvement in a multimillion-dollar cocaine trafficking ring connected to Colombian drug dealers in Texas. The indictment described Johnson as the operation’s leader. She was convicted of money laundering and other federal financial crimes. A federal judge sentenced Johnson to life in federal prison without parole in 1997. 

Trump floated, more than once, the idea of capital punishment for drug dealers. During a 2018 speech in New Hampshire, he said America needs to get tough on drugs, and “that toughness includes the death penalty.” Johnson’s pardon seems conspicuously at odds with Trump’s tough talk on this issue.

Then there is Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, former CEO of the now-bankrupt Agriprocessors, a Postville, Iowa, kosher meatpacking plant. 

Postville is a quintessential small town, a place where “nothing ever happens.” Or, it was until May 2008, when the sounds of sirens broke the silence one morning as federal agents tore through Agriprocessors.

The raid was the culmination of an investigation opened the year before by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) service and the FBI. Allegations against Rubashkin ran the gamut from child labor law violations and employing illegal aliens to animal abuse. 

“A federal search warrant says immigration officials filed 697 complaints about immigration violations and criminal activity by workers at the plant spanning two years,” the Des Moines Register reported. “Of the 389 detained, 306 were criminally charged.”

Jurors acquitted Rubashkin of 67 counts of child labor violations. But he was convicted on 86 counts of financial fraud and related offenses.

According to the U.S. attorney’s office, evidence at trial showed Rubashkin inflated Agriprocessors’ sales fraudulently to obtain millions of dollars in loans that were not backed by any collateral. 

“Rubashkin also diverted millions of dollars in customer payments that were supposed to go to Agriprocessors’ primary lender.” Rubashkin “committed money laundering by running tens of millions of dollars through bank accounts at a Postville grocery store and a religious school.” Evidence also showed he “was personally involved in harboring hundreds of undocumented workers at Agriprocessors and illegally delaying payments to Agriprocessors’ cattle suppliers.” 

The fabricated IDs for illegal aliens at his factory were purchased and inspected by Rubashkin personally. “Evidence showed Rubashkin’s fraud resulted in over $26 million in actual loss to Agriprocessors’ lenders.” 

For all this, he received 27 years in federal prison on June 22, 2010. But on December 9, Rubashkin attended the White House Hanukkah Party. He was free to do so because President Trump pardoned him in 2017. Rubashkin’s case is another example of a pardon at odds with Trump’s campaign promises—in this case, the promise to crackdown on companies that employ illegal immigrants.

Bureaucracy and Pardons

Though the president’s pardon power is absolute, the decision making process behind a pardon—like much else in the modern federal government—is the product of bureaucracy. Trump’s hand only enters in the final act. 

Traditionally, that bureaucracy resides in the Justice Department’s Office of Pardon Attorney, where applications for pardons are referred for review and nonbinding recommendation. In most cases, an applicant must satisfy a minimum waiting period of five years before he becomes eligible to apply for a presidential pardon of his federal conviction. Over that five-year period, an applicant is supposed to demonstrate the ability to lead a responsible, productive, and law-abiding life after conviction or release from confinement.

For good and for ill, the Trump Administration has disrupted that process. In the waning weeks of President Trump’s tenure, Jared Kushner appears to be at the center of the administration’s pardoning process. Since at least 2019, Kushner has assumed direct control over pardons and commutations with the help of a handpicked team. 

“Kushner has personally reviewed applications with White House lawyers before presenting them to Trump for final approval, according to two senior administration officials,” the Washington Post reported.

The new process reportedly involves the direct submission of applicants to the Office of American Innovation. Kusher established the OAI as a policymaking vehicle capable of bypassing traditional channels. In this case, the OAI has been performing functions traditionally in the purview of the Justice Department. 

“Paul Larkin, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation who has worked with the White House on criminal-justice issues, said Kushner and others in the administration have held discussions about changing the clemency process since 2018,” according to the Post. “Larkin said the discussions he participated in, including one led by Kushner in 2018, included proposals for reducing or eliminating the role of the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney in the clemency process.” 

The latest slate of pardons fits the pattern: a few to please Trump supporters with red meat, so to speak, and the lion’s share for friends, political allies, and interests of Kushner. 

When Donald Trump leaves the White House, and people begin to inquire why this administration so frequently said one thing and did another, a good place to start looking for answers is the Office of American Innovation. As Trump’s tenure appears to be winding down, the OAI has become something like a principality within the White House and the real power behind the man.

One of Kushner’s most controversial pardons may be yet in the works. 

The Doctor and the Senator

Once the nation’s highest-paid Medicare doctor and something of a playboy, Dr. Salomon Melgen currently luxuriates in prison. Soon, he may have a “get out of jail” card coming his way from the White House.

Melgen’s South Florida clinics, Vitreo-Retinal Consultants, facilitated as many as 100 patients a day, many of whom were Medicare beneficiaries. The former high roller specialized in retina diseases while also having an eye for life’s finer things. Melgen bought a private jet, ferrying friends to and fro, from luxurious beachfront villas in the Dominican Republic, where Melgen was born, to the scenes of pheasant hunts. He became a prominent figure on the Sunshine State scene, showering powerful friends in spectacular opulence. Among them was Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat.

Melgen would give approximately $1 million to Menendez and the political action committees that supported his campaigns. That included $700,000 to a super PAC that contributed more than $500,000 to Menendez’s campaign. 

Around 2009, Melgen ran into trouble with his practice. “That’s when the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) discovered that Melgen had overbilled Medicare for $8.9 million for a drug called Lucentis,” journalist Sarah Jorgensen reported, “which is used to treat macular degeneration and other retina problems, according to court documents.” Prosecutors claimed Melgen asked Menendez to intervene on his behalf with CMS. 

After a failed appeal and an $11 million lien from the IRS on his business, Melgen was formally charged in 2015 with 76 counts of healthcare fraud and making false statements, according to the Justice Department. Forensic accountant Nestor Mascarell found Melgan raked in $102 million from Medicare and $10 million from Medicaid from 2008 through 2013, along with another $62 million from private insurers. Millions more came from unspecified settlements and wires that Melgen received from outside the country. 

Menendez, too, was indicted on 18 counts of corruption.

At the time, the Washington Post reported, prosecutors alleged: “Menendez repeatedly pulled strings to help Melgen in a variety of areas: in getting his girlfriends U.S. visas, in trying to resolve the doctor’s $8.9 million billing dispute with Medicare, and in an effort to help Melgen’s efforts to make money from a port security contract in the Dominican Republic.” 

Jeffrey Epsteinesque allegations of underage prostitution floated around the two—which Melgen and Menedez vehemently denied as absurd. Nevertheless, a court filing by federal prosecutors stated these allegations “were not ‘easily disprovable,’ as the defendants suggest. Some eyewitnesses described a party attended by defendant Melgen in Casa de Campo—where defendant Melgen has a home and where defendant Menendez often visited—involving prostitutes.” 

The filing gives examples of Melgen traveling on his private jet paying young women thousands of dollars, and that some of these women paid by Melgen “were in the same place as defendant Menendez at the same time.” The Justice Department did not comment apart from the filing.

Melgen’s attorney called these allegations a smear, one intended to make his lifestyle seem extravagant. “We didn’t say the money went to Mother Teresa,” he said. No kidding. 

In the end, Melgen received a 17-year sentence, convicted of 67 crimes from healthcare fraud to falsifying records in patients’ files. In July, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Melgen’s 17-year prison sentence.

After being indicted, Menendez briefly stepped down as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee but resumed his post after those charges were dropped when his case ended in a mistrial in 2017. 

Now Melgen might receive aid from the Trump Administration. A source with knowledge of the discussions reports that the White House is considering a pardon for the doctor. 

And Melgen may have a receptive audience in Kushner. Melgen and Kushner have a mutual friend in Menendez. 

Peter Flaherty, chairman of the anti-corruption watchdog National Legal and Policy Center, questioned why the Trump Justice Department declined to retry the Menedez case, noting Kushner and Menendez share the same attorney.

“Why did Justice let Menendez escape after pouring so many resources into the investigation, prosecution, and trial?” Flaherty wondered. “One explanation would be that political influence was exercised on Menendez’s behalf. Menendez’s lawyer is Abbe Lowell, who also represented Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law.” Kushner brought Lowell aboard his legal team in response to the Russian probe.

“Kushner and his family are longtime donors to Democratic politicians in New Jersey, including Menendez,” Flaherty added. “Someone made the decision to save Menendez’s career and possibly keep him out of prison.”

Interestingly, the Justice Department recently revealed its investigation into a different, suspected bribe-for-pardon scheme. Lowell and Kushner’s names came up.

Heavily redacted court documents allege Sanford Diller, a real estate developer, asked GOP fundraiser Elliott Broidy and Lowell for help with a pardon for Hugh L. Baras, a Berkeley psychologist. Baras received a 30-month prison sentence for tax evasion and improperly claiming Social Security benefits. According to the filing, Diller promised “a substantial political contribution” to an unnamed recipient for Baras’ pardon. But Diller died in 2018. The Justice Department says the scheme ended with his death. 

Lowell’s lawyers told reporters that the Justice Department “investigated and concluded that nothing was amiss. In addition, prosecutors did not have the slightest issue with Abbe.” Moreover, they said Kushner was never approached by Lowell to assist with this or any other pardon. 

Why would Kushner even consider a pardon for Melgen? One possibility relates to  Ivanka Trump’s political aspirations.

Kushner and Ivanka recently acquired a multimillion-dollar lot on Indian Creek Island, a private, guarded and gated redoubt in Florida with a 13-man police force for just 29 residences. An island fortress is a good place from which to launch Ivanka’s political career. 

Ivanka reportedly dreams of the White House. Trump himself has hinted at and is reportedly supportive of his daughter’s aspirations. 

The Trump family’s popularity in Florida, coupled with Marco Rubio’s senate seat coming up for re-election in 2022, means the state offers the most fertile political soil for her nascient platform. Pardoning Melgen would put a politically powerful Floridian in Javanka’s quiver. 

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About Pedro Gonzalez

Pedro Gonzalez is associate editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture and an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He publishes the weekly Contra newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @emeriticus.

Photo: Getty Images

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