U.S. Rep. Cohen on Trump pardons: President 'seems more like a dictator than a president'

Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., asks questions to former special counsel Robert Mueller, as he testifies before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on his report on Russian election interference, on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Wednesday, July 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

NASHVILLE - A Tennessee Democratic congressman is sharply rebuking President Donald Trump as the president issues dozens of last-minute pardons to friends, political allies and others, charging the president "seems more like a dictator than a president."

"#Trump said I could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and now he's issuing his Shoot-Someone-on-Fifth-Avenue-and-Get-Away-with-It #pardons," said U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, in one of a series of tweets that began Wednesday and continued into Thursday. "Seems more like a dictator than a president under the #ruleoflaw. #pardongate."

In Trump's latest round of pardons and commutations, he pardoned more than two dozen people, including his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and Roger J. Stone Jr., a longtime informal adviser and friend, both of whom refused to cooperate in the special counsel's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.

The president also pardoned Charles Kushner, the father of Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner. The elder Kushner served two years in prison after he pleaded guilty in 2004 to 16 counts of tax evasion and retaliating against a witness.

Other Trump pardons included four former Blackwater Security Consulting defense contractors, two of them from Tennessee, who were convicted in a 2007 Baghdad massacre after firing at Iraqi civilians, killing 17 and injuring 20 while escorting a U.S. embassy convoy.

The pardoned Tennesseans are Dustin Heard of Maryville and Nick Slatten of Sparta. Heard was sentenced to 30 years in prison and then received a shorter sentence after a federal appeals court order, reported WBIR, a Knoxville television station, while Slatten was sentenced last year to life in prison. Private military company Blackwater was previously owned by Eric Prince, brother of U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Cohen, chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties and a longtime critic of Trump, began his Twitter barrage Wednesday after a column he wrote criticizing the president on the pardons was published Wednesday in The Hill, a Washington, D.C.-based political news site.

"How much more corruption do we have to endure before we see Donald Trump's term end on Jan. 20?" Cohen wrote in the column. "Trump's most recent grants of clemency add to his pattern of self-serving publicity stunts and pervert a power designed for mercy, turning it into a tool of personal perquisites and protection and grift."

Cohen charged the pardons "are of a character so vile they cry out for reform. Although we can't stop these pardons, we must do what we can and make sure this type of abuse can never happen again."

Noting that during his 2016 campaign Trump once declared he could shoot someone on New York City's Fifth Avenue and "get away with it," Cohen said it seems that Trump, whom he called a "narcissistic sociopath," still "thinks he can, acting like a dictator/ruler instead of honoring the rule of law."

For others, the pardons were seen as much-deserved vindication.

"We are thrilled and grateful for the Presidential pardon of Dustin Heard," David Schertier, an attorney for one of the four, told The Washington Post. "We have always believed in Dustin's innocence and have never given up the fight to vindicate him. He served his country honorably and, finally today, he has his well-deserved freedom."

According to the Post, supporters believe that prosecutors disregarded evidence that proved the men had fired in self-defense.

Other presidents have had their pardon controversies, among them Democrat Bill Clinton, who on his last day of office on Jan. 20, 2001, signed a controversial pardon for billionaire businessman and then-fugitive Marc Rich. Rich's ex-wife had contributed $450,000 over a several-year period to the Clinton presidential library, ABC News and other organizations later reported.

Cohen said he plans to re-introduce a slightly revised version of a proposed constitutional amendment he sponsored in the now-ending 116th Congress. It seeks to limit the presidential pardon power and, Cohen said, is intended "to prevent those whose actions showed corrupt intent, or whose pardons would serve the personal interest of the president, from receiving clemency.

"This country needs a serious debate on whether we need the president to have a pardon power at all," Cohen wrote in The Hill column. "If given that power, perhaps it should be limited to groups of people who have been clear victims of injustice, like those convicted of marijuana offenses, or whose actions seem excusable after calm reflection, like Jimmy Carter's pardon of Vietnam-era draft resisters or Lincoln's grants of clemency that prevented some young soldiers from execution."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.