The most controversial presidential pardons

Of all the cool powers the president of the Unites States has, the best might be his ability to issue a pardon to anyone for anything. It's the world's greatest get out of jail free card and presidents use it quite often. But every now and then, they pardon someone seen as undeserving, and that's when the freedom poop hits the controversy fan.

President Ford pardoned President Nixon for Watergate

Watergate was one of the biggest scandals ever to rock the presidency. Even after Nixon resigned, the country was still paying attention to the cover-up. President Gerald Ford's theory was that the U.S. needed to move on from Watergate in order to heal. The only way that could happen, he figured, was if he put an end to it all by pardoning Nixon for any and all crimes he may have committed (listing them probably would have taken too long). So one month into his presidency, Ford gave a 10-minute television address to the nation and pardoned his predecessor. But there was controversy. Some people thought Ford cut a deal with Nixon: if Nixon would resign and give Ford the top job, Nixon would get a blanket pardon. According to the Washington Post, Ford's approval numbers plummeted and there's a good chance the pardon contributed to his losing the election in 1976. (One reason many controversial pardons are delayed until after key elections.)

After the tough work of pardoning possibly the worst crime ever committed by a president, Ford obviously needed to let the wind blow off the stench of what he had done so he went to play a round of golf. But the New York Times said there was no rest for the poor White House switchboard operators, who had to deal with the "heavy and constant" angry calls that flooded in after the announcement.

President Bush Sr. pardoned six people for Iran-Contra

It can seem like you need a PhD to understand the Iran-Contra affair, but PBS helpfully explained it like this. When Ronald Reagan was president, Iran and Iraq were at war. Iran wanted to buy weapons from the U.S., even though there was an embargo against America selling arms to them. At the same time, Iranian terrorists were holding some American hostages in Lebanon. Reagan agreed to sell Iran the weapons if it released some of the hostages. The deal went ahead, but it was discovered that less than half of the $30 million Iran paid was accounted for. The rest was funneled to a right-wing rebel group in Nicaragua called the Contras because this whole thing wasn't complicated enough. Want to throw in a quest for the meaning of life, too?

When all this hit the press, it was a huge scandal. The LA Times reported that an investigation dragged on for six years and resulted in the indictment of six high-ranking Reagan officials. It would have kept going, possibly reaching up to the ex-president himself, when the new president, George H.W. Bush, put a stop to it by pardoning all six men. The move was immediately controversial, with the independent counsel prosecuting the case calling it a cover-up and accusing the president of misconduct. Maybe Bush was just sick of all the explanatory flowcharts.

President Johnson pardoned Confederate rebels

The end of the Civil War raised many questions. How would ex-slaves manage? What approach should Reconstruction take? How hard should we smack the bottoms of all the Southerners so they know that they'd been very naughty boys and girls?

It turned out the logistics of spanking every one of the Confederates were too complicated, but people still wanted to see them punished. After all, they had just rebelled against the United States. They'd tried to tear the Union in half. Surely they deserved a serious penalty.

President Andrew Johnson thought differently. He believed the best way to heal the country was to let bygones be bygones. So on Christmas Day 1868, he gave a blanket pardon to all of your average Southerners. According to Philadelphia's Independence Hall Association, anyone who had been a Confederate official or owned a large estate had to ask specifically for their own pardon, but Johnson gave these out like candy, approving 7,000 of them in less than a year. He even returned all their property (except the slaves, obviously).

This tactic was incredibly controversial. One political cartoonist pointed out that America was giving the rebels everything, allowing them to be full citizens again, while many black Civil War veterans were still treated like crap. But hey, at least we ended segregation in the military … in 1948.

President Carter pardoned Vietnam draft dodgers

You might think Trump didn't wait long into his term to give his first pardon, but President Jimmy Carter rolled out an even bigger one much faster.

In the 1960s and '70s, America was involved in a spot of bother in Vietnam (not a war, because America has never lost any wars, or have you been lying to us, all high school history teachers?) In attempting to stop the spread of Communism, we sent thousands of people to fight and die in Southeast Asia.

But back in the U.S., some men weren't having it. They didn't want to be drafted, so, as recounted by Politico, they fled. Either that or the draft just coincided with about 90,000 American guys suddenly deciding that they really needed to visit Canada, immediately. Not that that isn't a beautiful country, but it does seem like kind of a coincidence. Thousands more hid out in the U.S., some changing their identities to avoid getting a free trip halfway around the world.

Even though the fighting ended in 1973, the government kept charging people for dodging the draft. But Carter ran on a promise to pardon all of them, and when he won he did so on his first full day in office. The pardon affected hundreds of thousands of people but was very controversial, especially with veterans' groups.

President Clinton pardoned his own half-brother

Every family has a black sheep, even if one member of that family managed to elevate himself to the position of the most powerful man in the world. Jimmy Carter had his brother Billy, who cashed in on his infamy by making the eponymous Billy Beer. And Bill Clinton had Roger Clinton, his ne'er-do-well half-brother.

Roger was an embarrassment for many reasons, but according to the Washington Post it was mostly because in the mid-1980s he'd been stupid enough to try and sell cocaine to an undercover cop. Not only that, the whole thing was caught on videotape. He was arrested, pleaded guilty, and served a year in prison. It can't be good for your prospects to have that on your record, so on the last day of his presidency, Bill pardoned his younger brother. Maybe he was feeling a little guilty, since the New York Times reported that the sting that originally caught Roger was authorized by the then-governor of Arkansas, none other than Bill Clinton himself. Whatever the reason, the obvious nepotism of the pardon was very controversial.

You'd think that after having your slate wiped clean by the president himself, you'd stay on the right side of the law. But not so for Roger: he was arrested in 2016 for driving under the influence. Maybe he'd been drinking Billy Beer, the official tipple for black sheep everywhere.

President Washington pardoned those involved in the Whiskey Rebellion

The constitution gives the president the power to pardon almost anyone he likes, and the ink was barely dry before one used it. Washington whipped out his pardon stick in 1795, even though it was very controversial.

According to the Smithsonian, it all started with everyone's favorite thing: taxes. In 1791, Alexander Hamilton had backed a tax on whiskey, hoping that it would help pay back all the money the country had spent kicking British butt in the Revolutionary War. The problem was, like a lot of taxes, it hit poor farmers the hardest. They weren't happy about this and decided to let the government know in the craziest way possible. Soon after the tax was passed, a tax collector came to try and collect the money in Pennsylvania, but 16 guys dressed in women's clothing jumped him, stripped him naked, cut off his hair, and tarred and feathered him. He lived, and probably served as a warning to other tax collectors that no salary was worth being attacked by angry crossdressers.

Riots and protests continued for years until the government finally fought back, calling up militias to suppress the farmers. In the end, the farmers gave up, although 150 were arrested, 10 were tried, and two were sentenced to hang. Washington issued two stays of execution before finally pardoning them altogether. It was a controversial move, but he proved that sometimes the president can just do whatever he feels like.

President Buchanan pardoned the Mormons

Not many religions can say they once went to war with the entire United States. And you really wouldn't expect it from a group as nice as the Mormons. (You may not have agreed with Mitt Romney, but didn't he seem like the kind of guy you'd like to have an alcohol-free beer with?) However, there was a period in the 1800s where things went a bit crazy in Utah.

Creatively titled the Utah War, according the Salt Lake Tribune, it stemmed from the fact that the Mormons had basically taken over that territory. They threw out most federal officials and set fire to military wagon trains. President Buchanan wasn't happy about this and sent almost one-third of the entire army to fix things.

The whole situation was a political disaster, and soon Buchanan was looking for a way out. So in 1858, he drew up a blanket pardon of all 50,000 people in Utah Territory –- with the caveat that they settle down and start obeying federal law. Governor Brigham Young accepted, but both the pardon and the acceptance were not without controversy. Many were annoyed at the free pardon for what they saw as obvious treason, while those in Utah were angry they'd been pardoned at all when they didn't think they'd done anything wrong. It was a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation and one of many reasons Buchanan has gone down as such a bad president.

President Nixon pardoned Jimmy Hoffa

Throw the names Richard Nixon and Jimmy Hoffa together and you have controversy, no matter what the story is. In 1971, Hoffa was the former head of the Teamsters Union and was serving 13 years in prison for fraud and jury tampering (via CNN). But he still held a lot of power over that important voting bloc, and Nixon was almost up for reelection. Nixon being Nixon, he didn't care much about the ethics of what he needed to do in order to get more votes.

The Chicago Tribune reported that on Christmas Eve 1971, he pardoned Hoffa. But how do we know this was scandalous, instead of just being a run-of-the-mill pardon? Because Nixon, again being Nixon, taped it all. And the tapes leave no doubt that this was a tit for tat pardon; if he got Hoffa out of jail, Nixon would get all those sweet Teamster votes in the 1972 election. What is less clear, but heavily implied, is that the Teamsters were also funneling money to the campaign illegally. We can't know for sure, but it's Nixon we're talking about, so probably.

Because everything Nixon-related has to tie into Watergate eventually, the former attorney general John Mitchell would later lie to prosecutors that there had been any political reasons for Hoffa's pardon. We're supposed to believe it was just a kind action from the bottom of Nixon's black heart.

Bill Clinton pardoned his friend Marc Rich

If you thought the Monica Lewinsky affair was a scandal, it almost pales in comparison to when President Bill Clinton pardoned the financier Marc Rich.

So just who was this guy and why was it a big deal? According to CNN, Rich was indicted in 1983 for evading over $48 million in taxes. Not content with that, he was also charged with 51 counts of tax fraud. Oh, but it didn't stop there! He was also accused of making illegal oil deals with Iran while it was holding U.S. citizens hostage. Did he serve time for any of this? Nope, because he fled to Switzerland where he had been living as a fugitive for 17 years when the pardon came.

Then there was the fact that Rich's ex-wife Denise had given over $1 million to Democrats, including the Clinton campaign and presidential library fund. Suddenly it looked like Rich, through his ex-wife, had paid for his pardon.

The pardon was so last-minute, coming just hours before Clinton left office, that some people said he might not even have had enough time to fill out the correct paperwork. Both Democrats and Republicans were shocked by this turn of events, and investigations were immediately launched in both the House and the Senate. When Denise was called to testify before them, she took the Fifth, the universal sign of totally not doing anything wrong.

Obama commutes Chelsea Manning's sentence

Another recent controversial pardon was President Barack Obama's commuting of Private Chelsea Manning's 35-year jail sentence to seven years. This is a little different than the other actions here because Manning wasn't issued a full pardon — the crime is still on her record, she just got out of jail before she was originally supposed to — but the reaction has been all over the place.

According to CNN, Manning was accused of sending 750,000 classified government documents and videos to Wikileaks. The website published them all in 2010, including a graphic video of a U.S. helicopter attacking civilians. She was convicted on 20 of 22 counts and sentenced to 35 years. Despite being a transgender woman, she was forced to serve her time in an all-male Army prison, making her punishment that much worse.

The main person against the commutation was the secretary of defense himself, who Obama overruled. One former intelligence official was shocked, calling the move "deeply hypocritical" and said that the whole intelligence community was "deflated." Donald Trump had previously said he thought the death penalty would be appropriate for this kind of crime. Numerous Republicans were angry, calling it treachery and a slap in the face to other soldiers. Add it to the long list of things Republicans didn't like about Obama and it was probably water off a duck's back by that point.

President Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio

Just when you thought President Donald Trump couldn't get any more controversial, he goes and pardons Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Or if you want to look at it another way, just when you thought Sheriff Joe Arpaio couldn't get any more controversial, he goes and gets pardoned by Trump.

The Washington Post said it's rare for presidents to issue pardons this early in their terms, especially ones that might come back and bite them in the behind come election time. Another odd thing about this pardon was that it was given before Arpaio was even sentenced.

And while the pardon of "Sheriff Joe" is probably hugely popular with Trump's base, it isn't likely to make him many fans outside it. That's because the sheriff is the walking, talking definition of controversial. According to CNN, he was held in criminal contempt of court after he violated a court order to stop illegally profiling Latinos and assuming they were illegal immigrants.

The reactions to the pardon came so fast, you'd think there was a competition to see who could be against it first. Senator John McCain said, "No one is above the law." The ACLU called it "a presidential endorsement of racism." Former acting attorney general Sally Yates said the president had shown "his own contempt for our Constitution, our courts, and our founding principles of equality and justice."