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Donald Trump and Barack Obama meet at the White House on Nov. 10, 2016. Donald Trump and Barack Obama meet at the White House on Nov. 10, 2016.

Donald Trump and Barack Obama meet at the White House on Nov. 10, 2016.

Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher February 24, 2020

Facebook post misrepresents Obama’s use of pardon power

If Your Time is short

  • Obama issued many more pardons and sentence commutations than Trump, largely in his second term.

  • Obama followed a clemency policy aimed at relatively low-level offenders and relied on Justice Department recommendations.

  • Trump has largely acted outside the normal review process, most recently giving clemency to high-profile white-collar criminals.

The latest round of clemency grants from President Donald Trump sparked new criticism that he was abusing his expansive pardon powers by skirting the normal review process and favoring white-collar criminals who were prominent and well-connected.

But two days after the Feb. 18 announcements, a Facebook post implied that it was Barack Obama, not Trump, who had abused the largely unchecked pardon power.

The post said:

"Pardons — Obama: 1,927, Trump: 26. And Trump is abusing that power?" 

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

The numbers in the post are roughly accurate totals for presidential clemency actions, which include both pardons and sentence commutations. But either way, they’re not a good measure of abuse of power.

In his eight years in office, Obama issued 1,927 clemency actions. The vast majority of them — nearly 90% — were sentence commutations granted to ordinary individuals, based on a policy of criminal justice reform in drug cases, and specific recommendations from the U.S. Justice Department. Trump has acted outside the Justice Department process in granting clemency to a few well-known white-collar offenders.

Two types of clemency

Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution says the president "shall have the Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment." 

The general term for these presidential actions is clemency, but there are two types, the Justice Department says on its website. A pardon, described as an "expression of the President’s forgiveness," is issued after a person’s conviction or after a person’s sentence has been completed. It restores rights, such as the right to vote or run for office. A commutation reduces a sentence, either totally or partially, but it does not remove the conviction.

Obama vs. Trump

Obama issued 212 pardons and 1,715 commutations, for a total of 1,927 acts of clemency — the number used in the Facebook post. 

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Trump has taken 35 clemency actions, more than the figured cited in the Facebook post. Roughly two-thirds of them were pardons, including two posthumous ones.

Trump has been criticized for issuing the actions outside the usual review process and for seeming to favor certain high-profile or connected individuals.

"Obama acted in each case pursuant to a report and recommendation from the Justice Department, which came to him through an orderly and regular process that gave everyone a fair chance of success," said Margaret Love, a lawyer specializing in executive clemency who was a Justice Department pardon attorney from 1990 to 1997. "By contrast, Trump has almost totally ignored the established DOJ process, and acted pursuant to informal and unofficial recommendations from friends, celebrities, media personalities, business colleagues, etc."

The Trump White House has noted the achievements and the prominent supporters of people whom Trump granted clemency.

In announcing Trump’s 11 most recent actions, the White House cited the election of Edward DeBartolo Jr. to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as an NFL team owner and his charitable contributions; called Michael Milken one of America’s greatest financiers and noted his philanthropic work; and praised former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich for tutoring and mentoring fellow prisoners. 

DeBartolo, whose family controls the San Franscisco 49ers, was convicted in 1998 and sentenced to probation for failing to report a felony regarding an extortion attempt. Milken pleaded guilty to securities violations in 1989 and served two years in prison in the early 1990s. Both were pardoned.

Blagojevich received a commutation after spending eight years in prison for a scheme to sell an appointment to the U.S. Senate seat Obama vacated in 2008.

Our ruling

A Facebook post claims: "Pardons — Obama: 1,927, Trump: 26. And Trump is abusing that power?" 

The numbers for Obama are roughly accurate if you count total acts of clemency — pardons plus sentence commutations. But only about 11% of those were pardons.

The numbers alone don’t suggest abuse of power. Experts told us that Obama followed a policy of clemency actions aimed at low-level criminals who were given long sentences many years ago, and he followed recommendations made by the Justice Department, whereas Trump has largely acted on his own.

For a statement that contains only an element of truth, our rating is Mostly False.

Our Sources

Facebook, post, Feb. 19, 2020

Check Your Fact, "Fact Check: Viral Image Claims Obama Pardoned 1,927 People And Trump Pardoned 26," Feb. 21, 2020

PolitiFact, "Can the president pardon himself? 4 questions about the presidential pardon," July 21, 2017

U.S. Department of Justice, Office of the Pardon Attorney, accessed Feb. 21, 2020

U.S. Department of Justice, "Clemency statistics," Feb. 7, 2020

U.S. Department of Justice, "Office of the Pardon Attorney Frequently Asked Questions," Dec. 14, 2019

Email, James Robenalt, attorney with the firm Thompson Hine, Feb. 21, 2020

Email, pardon attorney Margaret Love, Department of Justice pardon attorney from 1990 to 1997, Feb. 21, 2020

Email, American University clemency expert and American politics professor Jeffrey Crouch, Feb. 21, 2020

Email, Kermit Roosevelt, constitutional law professor, University of Pennsylvania Law School, Feb. 21, 2020

Email, Harold Bruff, University of Colorado constitutional law professor, Feb. 21, 2020 

New York Times, "The 11 Criminals Granted Clemency by Trump Had One Thing in Common: Connections," Feb. 19, 2020

The Atlantic, "Our Founders Didn’t Intend for Pardons to Work Like This," Feb. 21, 2020

The White House, clemency statement, Feb. 18, 2020

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More by Tom Kertscher

Facebook post misrepresents Obama’s use of pardon power

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