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Updated at 1:56 p.m. ET on July 13, 2020.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly lied about the coronavirus pandemic and the country’s preparation for this once-in-a-generation crisis.
Here, a collection of the biggest lies he’s told as the nation endures a public-health and economic calamity. This post will be updated as needed.
On the Nature of the Outbreak
When: Friday, February 7, and Wednesday, February 19
The claim: The coronavirus would weaken “when we get into April, in the warmer weather—that has a very negative effect on that, and that type of a virus.”
The truth: It’s too early to tell if the virus’s spread will be dampened by warmer conditions. Respiratory viruses can be seasonal, but the World Health Organization says that the new coronavirus “can be transmitted in ALL AREAS, including areas with hot and humid weather.”
When: Thursday, February 27
The claim: The outbreak would be temporary: “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle—it will disappear.”
The truth: Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned days later that he was concerned that “as the next week or two or three go by, we’re going to see a lot more community-related cases.”
When: Multiple times
The claim: If the economic shutdown continues, deaths by suicide “definitely would be in far greater numbers than the numbers that we’re talking about” for COVID-19 deaths.
The truth: The White House now estimates that anywhere from 100,000 to 240,000 Americans could die from COVID-19. Other estimates have placed the number at 1.1 million to 1.2 million. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. But the number of people who died by suicide in 2017, for example, was roughly 47,000, nowhere near the COVID-19 estimates. Estimates of the mental-health toll of the Great Recession are mixed. A 2014 study tied more than 10,000 suicides in Europe and North America to the financial crisis. But a larger analysis in 2017 found that while the rate of suicide was increasing in the United States, the increase could not be directly tied to the recession and was attributable to broader socioeconomic conditions predating the downturn.
[Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes: Trump can’t even imitate a normal president]
When: Multiple times
The claim: “Coronavirus numbers are looking MUCH better, going down almost everywhere,” and cases are “coming way down.”
The truth: Coronavirus cases are either increasing or plateauing in the majority of American states. Increases in state-level testing do account for some of the increase in cases and, on average, the country’s positive-test rate is lower than it was in March and April. But those numbers obscure the situation in more than a dozen states where, as of this writing on May 27, cases are still increasing.
When: Wednesday, June 17
The claim: The pandemic is “fading away. It’s going to fade away.”
The truth: Trump made this claim ahead of his rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when the country was still seeing at least 20,000 new daily cases and a second spike in infections was beginning.
When: Thursday, July 2
The claim: The pandemic is “getting under control.”
The truth: Trump’s claim came as the country’s daily cases doubled to about 50,000, a higher daily case count than seen at the beginning of the pandemic, and the number continues to rise, fueled by infections in the South and the West.
When: Saturday, July 4
The claim: “99%” of COVID-19 cases are “totally harmless.”
The truth: The virus can still cause tremendous suffering if it doesn’t kill a patient, and the WHO has said that about 15 percent of COVID-19 cases can be severe, with 5 percent being critical. Fauci has rejected Trump’s claim, saying the evidence shows that the virus “can make you seriously ill” even if it doesn’t kill you.
When: Monday, July 6
The claim: “We now have the lowest Fatality (Mortality) Rate in the World.”
The truth: The U.S. has neither the lowest mortality rate nor the lowest case-fatality rate. As of July 13, the case-fatality rate—the ratio of deaths per confirmed COVID-19 cases—was 4.1 percent, which places the U.S. solidly in the middle of global rankings. It has the world’s ninth-worst mortality rate, with 41.33 deaths per 100,000 people, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Blaming the Obama Administration
When: Wednesday, March 4
The claim: The Trump White House rolled back Food and Drug Administration regulations that limited the kind of laboratory tests states could run and how they could conduct them. “The Obama administration made a decision on testing that turned out to be very detrimental to what we’re doing,” Trump said.
The truth: The Obama administration drafted, but never implemented, changes to rules that regulate laboratory tests run by states. Trump’s policy change relaxed an FDA requirement that would have forced private labs to wait for FDA authorization to conduct their own, non-CDC-approved coronavirus tests.
When: Friday, March 13
The claim: The Obama White House’s response to the H1N1 pandemic was “a full scale disaster, with thousands dying, and nothing meaningful done to fix the testing problem, until now.”
The truth: Barack Obama declared a public-health emergency two weeks after the first U.S. cases of H1N1 were reported, in California. (Trump declared a national emergency more than seven weeks after the first domestic COVID-19 case was reported, in Washington State.) While testing is a problem now, it wasn’t back in 2009. The challenge then was vaccine development: Production was delayed and the vaccine wasn’t distributed until the outbreak was already waning.
When: Multiple times
The claim: The Trump White House “inherited” a “broken,” “bad,” and “obsolete” test for the coronavirus.
The truth: The novel coronavirus did not exist in humans during the Obama administration. Public-health experts agree that, because of that fact, the CDC could not have produced a test, and thus a new test had to be developed this year.
When: Multiple times
The claim: The Obama administration left Trump “bare” and “empty” shelves of medical supplies in the national strategic stockpile.
The truth: The 2009 H1N1 outbreak did deplete the N95 mask supply and was never replenished, but the Obama administration did not leave the stockpile empty of other materials. While the stockpile has never been funded at the levels some experts have requested, its former director said in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic, that it was well-equipped. (The outbreak has since eaten away at its reserves.)
When: Sunday, May 10
The claim: Referring to criticism of his administration’s response, Trump tweeted: “Compare that to the Obama/Sleepy Joe disaster known as H1N1 Swine Flu. Poor marks ... didn’t have a clue!”
The truth: It is misleading to compare COVID-19 to H1N1 and to call the Obama administration’s response a disaster, as my colleague Peter Nicholas has reported. In 2009, the CDC quickly flagged the new flu strain in California and began releasing antiflu drugs from the national stockpile two weeks later. A vaccine was available in six months.
Another claim: Trump later attacked “Joe Biden’s handling of the H1N1 Swine Flu.”
The truth: Biden was not responsible for the federal government’s response to the H1N1 outbreak, as Nicholas has also explained.
On Coronavirus Testing
When: Friday, March 6, and Monday, May 11
The claim: “Anybody that needs a test, gets a test. We—they’re there. They have the tests. And the tests are beautiful” and “If somebody wants to be tested right now, they’ll be able to be tested.”
The truth: Trump made these two claims two months apart, but the truth is still the same: The U.S. does not have enough testing.
When: Wednesday, March 11
The claim: In an Oval Office address, Trump said that private-health-insurance companies had “agreed to waive all co-payments for coronavirus treatments, extend insurance coverage to these treatments, and to prevent surprise medical billing.”
The truth: Insurers agreed only to absorb the cost of coronavirus testing—waiving co-pays and deductibles for getting the test. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the second coronavirus-relief bill passed by Congress, later mandated that COVID-19 testing be made free. The federal government has not required insurance companies to cover follow-up treatments, though some providers announced in late March that they will pay for treatments. The costs of other non-coronavirus testing or treatment incurred by patients who have COVID-19 or are trying to get a diagnosis aren’t waived either. And as for surprise medical billing? Mitigating it would require the cooperation of insurers, doctors, and hospitals.
[Read: The dangerous delays in U.S. coronavirus testing haven’t stopped]
When: Friday, March 13
The claim: Google engineers are building a website to help Americans determine whether they need testing for the coronavirus and to direct them to their nearest testing site.
The truth: The announcement was news to Google itself—the website Trump (and other administration officials) described was actually being built by Verily, a division of Alphabet, the parent company of Google. The Verge first reported on Trump’s error, citing a Google representative who confirmed that Verily was working on a “triage website” with limited coverage for the San Francisco Bay Area. But since then, Google has pivoted to fulfill Trump’s public proclamation, saying it would speed up the development of a new, separate website while Verily worked on finishing its project, The Washington Post reported.
When: Tuesday, March 24, and Wednesday, March 25
The claim: The United States has outpaced South Korea’s COVID-19 testing: “We’re going up proportionally very rapidly,” Trump said during a Fox News town hall.
The truth: When the president made this claim, testing in the U.S. was severely lagging behind that in South Korea. As of March 25, South Korea had conducted about five times as many tests as a proportion of its population relative to the United States. For updated data from each country, see the COVID-19 Tracking Project and the database maintained by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
When: Monday, May 11
The claim: America has “developed a testing capacity unmatched and unrivaled anywhere in the world, and it’s not even close.”
The truth: The United States is still not testing enough people and is lagging behind the testing and tracing capabilities that other countries have developed. The president’s testing czar, Brett Giroir, and Fauci confirmed the need for more testing at a May 12 Senate hearing too. They said that the country won’t be able to perform 50 million tests, about what the country needs to safely reopen, until the fall.
Another claim: The United States has conducted more testing “than all other countries together!”
The truth: By May 18, when Trump last made this claim, the U.S. had conducted more tests than any other country. But it had not conducted more tests than the rest of the world combined. (As of May 27, more than 14 million tests have been administered in America.)
When: Multiple times
The claim: “Cases are going up in the U.S. because we are testing far more than any other country.”
The truth: COVID-19 cases are not rising because of “our big-number testing.” Outside the Northeast, the share of tests conducted that come back positive is increasing, with the sharpest spike happening in southern states. In some states, such as Arizona and Florida, the number of new cases being reported is outpacing any increase in the states’ testing ability. And as states set new daily case records and report increasing hospitalizations, all signs point to a worsening crisis.
On Travel Bans and Travelers
When: Wednesday, March 11
The claim: The United States would suspend “all travel from Europe, except the United Kingdom, for the next 30 days,” Trump announced in an Oval Office address.
The truth: The travel restriction would not apply to U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents, or their families returning from Europe. At first, it applied specifically to the 26 European countries that make up the Schengen Area, not all of Europe. Trump later announced the inclusion of the United Kingdom and Ireland in the ban.
Another claim: In the same address, Trump said the travel restrictions would “not only apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo but various other things as we get approval.”
The truth: Trump followed up in a tweet, explaining that trade and cargo would not be subject to the restrictions.
When: Thursday, March 12
The claim: All U.S. citizens arriving from Europe would be subject to medical screening, COVID-19 testing, and quarantine if necessary. “If an American is coming back or anybody is coming back, we’re testing,” Trump said. “We have a tremendous testing setup where people coming in have to be tested … We’re not putting them on planes if it shows positive, but if they do come here, we’re quarantining.”
The truth: Testing is already severely limited in the United States. It is not true that all Americans returning to the country are being tested, nor that anyone is being forced to quarantine, CNN has reported.
When: Tuesday, March 31
The claim: “We stopped all of Europe” with a travel ban. “We started with certain parts of Italy, and then all of Italy. Then we saw Spain. Then I said, ‘Stop Europe; let’s stop Europe. We have to stop them from coming here.’”
The truth: The travel ban applied to the Schengen Area, as well as the United Kingdom and Ireland, and not all of Europe as he claimed. Additionally, Trump is wrong about the United States rolling out a piecemeal ban. The State Department did issue advisories in late February cautioning Americans against travel to the Lombardy region of Italy before issuing a general “Do Not Travel” warning on March 19. But the U.S. never placed individual bans on Italy and Spain.
When: Multiple times
The claim: “Everybody thought I was wrong” about implementing restrictions on travelers from China, and “most people felt they should not close it down—that we shouldn’t close down to China.”
The truth: While the WHO did say it opposed travel bans on China generally, Trump’s own top health officials have made clear that the travel ban was the “uniform” recommendation of the Department of Health and Human Services. Fauci and Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the coronavirus task force, both praised the decision too.
When: Multiple times
The claim: The Trump administration’s travel restrictions on China were a “ban” that closed up the “entire” United States and “kept China out.”
The truth: Nearly 40,000 people traveled from China to the United States from February 2, when Trump’s travel restrictions went into effect, to April 4, The New York Times reported. Those rules also do not apply to all people: American citizens, green-card holders and their relatives, and people on flights coming from Macau and Hong Kong are not included in the “ban.”
On Taking the Pandemic Seriously
When: Tuesday, March 17
The claim: “I’ve always known this is a real—this is a pandemic. I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic … I’ve always viewed it as very serious.”
The truth: Trump has repeatedly downplayed the significance of COVID-19 as outbreaks began stateside. From calling criticism of his handling of the virus a “hoax,” to comparing the coronavirus to a common flu, to worrying about letting sick Americans off cruise ships because they would increase the number of confirmed cases, Trump has used his public statements to send mixed messages and sow doubt about the outbreak’s seriousness.
When: Thursday, March 26
The claim: This kind of pandemic “was something nobody thought could happen … Nobody would have ever thought a thing like this could have happened.”
The truth: Experts both inside and outside the federal government sounded the alarm many times in the past decade about the potential for a devastating global pandemic, as my colleague Uri Friedman has reported. Two years ago, my colleague Ed Yong explored the legacy of Ebola outbreaks—including the devastating 2014 epidemic—to evaluate how ready the U.S. was for a pandemic. Ebola hardly impacted America—but it revealed how unprepared the country was.
On COVID-19 Treatments and Vaccines
When: Monday, March 2
The claim: Pharmaceutical companies are going “to have vaccines, I think, relatively soon.”
The truth: The president’s own experts told him during a White House meeting with pharmaceutical leaders earlier that same day that a vaccine could take a year to 18 months to develop. In response, he said he would prefer if it took only a few months. He later claimed, at a campaign rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, that a vaccine would be ready “soon.”
When: Thursday, March 19
The claim: At a press briefing with his coronavirus task force, Trump said the FDA had approved the antimalarial drug chloroquine to treat COVID-19. “Normally the FDA would take a long time to approve something like that, and it’s—it was approved very, very quickly and it’s now approved by prescription,” he said.
The truth: FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn, who was at the briefing, quickly clarified that the drug still had to be tested in a clinical setting. An FDA representative later told Bloomberg that the drug has not been approved for COVID-19 use, though a doctor could still prescribe it for that purpose. Later that same day, Fauci told CNN that there is no “magic drug” to cure COVID-19: “Today, there are no proven safe and effective therapies for the coronavirus.”
When: Friday, April 24
The claim: Trump was being “sarcastic” when he suggested in a briefing on April 23 that his medical experts should research the use of powerful light and injected disinfectants to treat COVID-19.
The truth: Trump’s tone did not seem sarcastic when he made the apparent suggestion to inject disinfectants. Turning to Birx and a Department of Homeland Security science-and-technology official, he mused: “I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning? … It would be interesting to check that.” When he walked this statement back the next day, he added that he was only asking his experts “to look into whether or not sun and disinfectant on the hands [work].”
[Read: Anthony Fauci’s plan to stay honest]
When: Friday, May 8
The claim: The coronavirus is “going to go away without a vaccine … and we’re not going to see it again, hopefully, after a period of time.”
The truth: Fauci has repeatedly said, including during a Senate hearing on May 12, that the coronavirus’s sudden disappearance “is just not going to happen.” Until the country has “a scientifically sound, safe, and effective vaccine,” Fauci said last month, the pandemic will not be over.
When: Multiple times
The claim: Taking hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 is safe. “You’re not going to get sick or die,” Trump said on one occasion. “It doesn’t hurt people,” he commented on another.
The truth: Trump’s own FDA has warned against taking the antimalarial drug with or without the antibiotic azithromycin, which Trump has also promoted. Several large observational studies in New York, France, and China have concluded that there is no benefit from taking the drug. Another recent study found a greater risk of death or heart-rhythm problems among hospitalized patients who took hydroxychloroquine than among those who did not.
Another claim: “One bad” study from the Department of Veterans Affairs that found no benefit among veterans who took hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 was run by “people that aren’t big Trump fans.” The study “was a Trump-enemy statement.”
The truth: There’s no evidence that the study was a political plot orchestrated by Trump opponents, and it reached similar conclusions as other observational reports. The VA study was led by independent researchers from the University of Virginia and the University of South Carolina with a grant from the National Institutes of Health.
Another claim: Many frontline doctors and workers are taking hydroxychloroquine to prevent COVID-19.
The truth: Multiple trials are under way to determine if health-care workers should take the drug as a preventative. But there are no conclusive numbers for how many workers are taking the drug outside of those studies.
On the Defense Production Act
When: Friday, March 20
The claim: Trump twice said during a task-force briefing that he had invoked the Defense Production Act, a Korean War–era law that enables the federal government to order private industry to produce certain items and materials for national use. He also said the federal government was already using its authority under the law: “We have a lot of people working very hard to do ventilators and various other things.”
The truth: Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Peter Gaynor told CNN on March 22 that the president has not actually used the DPA to order private companies to produce anything. Shortly after that, Trump backtracked, saying that he had not compelled private companies to take action. Then, on March 24, Gaynor told CNN that FEMA plans to use the DPA to allocate 60,000 test kits. Trump tweeted afterward that the DPA would not be used.
When: Saturday, March 21
The claim: Automobile companies that have volunteered to manufacture medical equipment, such as ventilators, are “making them right now.”
The truth: Ford and General Motors, which Trump mentioned at a task-force briefing the same day, announced earlier in March that they had halted all factory production in North America and were likely months away from beginning production of ventilators, representatives told the Associated Press. Since then, Ford CEO James Hackett told CNN that the auto company will begin to work with 3M to produce respirators and with General Electric to assemble ventilators. GM said it will explore the possibility of producing ventilators in an Indiana factory. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, whose company Trump highlighted in a tweet, has said that the company is “working on ventilators” but that they cannot be produced “instantly.”
On States’ Resources
When: Tuesday, March 24
The claim: Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York passed on an opportunity to purchase 16,000 ventilators at a low cost in 2015, Trump said during the Fox News town hall.
The truth: Trump seems to have gleaned this claim from a Gateway Pundit article. That piece, in turn, cites a syndicated column from Betsy McCaughey, a former lieutenant governor of New York, which includes a figure close to 16,000. The number comes from a 2015 report from the state’s health department that provided guidance for how New York could handle a possible flu pandemic. The report notes that the state would need 15,783 more ventilators than it had at the time to aid patients during “an influenza pandemic on the scale of the 1918 pandemic.” The report does not include a recommendation to Cuomo for additional purchases or stockpiling. Trump “obviously didn’t read the document he’s citing,” a Cuomo representative said in a statement.
Another claim: Trump also repeated a claim from the Gateway Pundit article that Cuomo’s office established “death panels” and “lotteries” as part of the state’s pandemic response.
The truth: The 2015 report and the accompanying press release announced updated guidelines for hospitals to follow to allocate ventilators. The guidelines “call for a triage officer or triage committee to determine who receives or continues to receive ventilator therapy” and describes how a random lottery allocation might work. (Neither should be the first options for deciding care, the report notes.) Cuomo never established a lottery.
When: Sunday, March 29
The claim: Trump “didn’t say” that governors do not need all the medical equipment they are requesting from the federal government. And he “didn’t say” that governors should be more appreciative of the help.
The truth: The president told Fox News’ Sean Hannity on Thursday, March 26, that “a lot of equipment’s being asked for that I don’t think they’ll need,” referring to requests from the governors of Michigan, New York, and Washington. He also said, during a Friday, March 27, task-force briefing, that he wanted state leaders “to be appreciative … We’ve done a great job.” He added that he wasn’t talking about himself, but about others within the federal government working to combat the pandemic.
When: Sunday, March 29, and Monday, March 30
The claim: Hospitals are reporting an artificially inflated need for masks and equipment, items that might be “going out the back door,” Trump said on two separate days. He also said he was not talking about hoarding: “I think maybe it’s worse than hoarding.”
The truth: There is no evidence to show that hospitals are maliciously hoarding or inflating their need for masks and personal protective equipment when reporting shortages in supplies. Although Cuomo reported anecdotal stories of thefts from hospitals early in March, he was referring to opportunists trying to price-gouge early in the pandemic. Reuters has reported a handful of stories of nurses hiding masks to conserve supplies amid shortages, but not wide-scale thefts as Trump claimed.
When: Tuesday, April 14
The claim: Asked about his past praise of China and its transparency, Trump said that he hadn’t “talk[ed] about China’s transparency.”
The truth: Trump lauded the country in tweets he sent in late January and early February. In one, he highlighted the Chinese government’s “transparency” about the coronavirus outbreak.
When: Friday, May 29
The claim: The WHO ignored “credible reports” of the coronavirus’s spread in Wuhan, the Chinese city that first reported the new virus, including those published in The Lancet medical journal in December.
The truth: The Lancet said it did not publish such reports in December. Its first reports on the virus’s spread in Wuhan were published on January 24.
Another claim: Taiwanese officials had warned the WHO about human-to-human transmission of a new virus by December 31.
The truth: Taiwan did not cite “human to human” transmission in the communications Trump referenced, but it did ask for more information and compared the virus to SARS.
Another claim: In mid-January, the WHO said the coronavirus could not be transmitted between humans.
The truth: The WHO did say on January 12 that early investigations by China could find “no clear evidence” of human-to-human transmission in Wuhan, but it did not rule such transmission out. Two days later, a WHO official said during a press conference that “it is possible that there is limited human-to-human transmission” among families, and warned hospitals around the world to prepare for a greater outbreak.
When: Multiple times
The claim: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged people to attend “parties” and a parade in San Francisco’s Chinatown to “show that this thing doesn’t exist.”
The truth: Pelosi did visit San Francisco’s Chinatown in late February to encourage residents not to fear the coronavirus in the city. “Precautions have been taken” and the city was “on top of the situation,” she said. But Pelosi did not urge people to attend a parade or parties. San Francisco reported its first case of COVID-19 on March 5, a week later, and the Bay Area ordered residents to shelter in place three weeks after the speaker’s visit.
Another claim: Pelosi was “dancing in the streets of Chinatown, trying to say, ‘It’s okay to come to the United States. It’s fine. It’s wonderful. Come on in. Bring your infection with you,’” Trump said in May.
The truth: Trump is embellishing his original lie: Pelosi was not dancing in Chinatown or urging sick people to bring the coronavirus to the United States.
When: Sunday, April 19 and Tuesday, April 21
The claim: Protesters who gathered in a handful of states over the weekend to oppose social distancing were “doing social distancing” themselves and “were all six feet apart.”
The truth: Protesters have clogged streets in at least seven states after an April 15 demonstration at the Michigan state capitol grabbed national attention. In California, Colorado, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, demonstrators did not seem to be following the CDC’s safety guidelines, local news outlets reported, and photos and videos from the ground show tightly packed protests.
Forget Bernie Kerik, Scooter Libby, Michael Milken—even Sheriff Joe Arpaio. This was the presidential reprieve President Donald Trump’s critics feared most.
Trump’s move tonight to commute the sentence of his longtime associate Roger Stone, nearly five months after a federal judge sentenced him to more than three years in prison, was surely the least surprising of his many high-profile acts of executive clemency. The president, after all, had been complaining about Stone’s prosecution from the start; had telegraphed by tweet his displeasure with the Department of Justice’s sentencing recommendation; and had tried to browbeat Judge Amy Berman Jackson into granting Stone a new trial.
But the seeming inevitability of Trump’s decision made it no less brazen. Stone was more than a political ally of the president, like Arpaio. He was not just a friend of a friend, like Kerik, Libby, and Milken—whose pardons were encouraged privately by Trump’s buddies or via public endorsements from the president’s fans on Fox News. Stone was a longtime confidant of Trump, but he was more than that. To the president’s critics, he was an accomplice to Trump’s crimes, convicted of lying to Congress and threatening a witness in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, which directly involved Trump and his campaign. As Jackson noted in explaining her sentence, Stone “was not prosecuted for standing up for the president; he was prosecuted for covering up for the president.”
The official reprieve came on a Friday evening. “Roger Stone is a victim of the Russia Hoax that the Left and its allies in the media perpetuated for years in an attempt to undermine the Trump presidency,” read a White House statement explaining Trump’s decision. “Mr. Stone would be put at serious medical risk in prison. He has appealed his conviction and is seeking a new trial. He maintains his innocence and has stated that he expects to be fully exonerated by the justice system.”
The president’s clemency power allows him to commute any federal sentence as well as to grant pardons. Because Trump is not fully pardoning Stone, he can proceed with an appeal of his conviction that could allow him to clear his name, at least in the eyes of the law. “Mr. Stone, like every American, deserves a fair trial and every opportunity to vindicate himself before the courts,” the White House said. “The president does not wish to interfere with his efforts to do so.”
Jackson, a veteran judge and an appointee of President Barack Obama, knew in February that the punishment she was handing down could very well be quickly and irrevocably lifted by a president who was watching her decision closely. All four prosecutors on Stone’s case had withdrawn from their roles after Attorney General William Barr intervened to force the Justice Department to revise its original sentencing recommendation of seven to nine years. Yet when a new team of prosecutors showed up in court for Stone’s sentencing, they defended their predecessors’ original, harsher request. Jackson pressed the prosecutors to account for the department’s dueling recommendations, but they refused to discuss “internal deliberations.”
[Read: A brief history of Roger Stone]
Jackson said her decision was not influenced by political pressure. In a lengthy speech before handing down Stone’s sentence, she called out Trump’s comments as “entirely inappropriate.” And she defended the investigation and prosecution of Stone in language that echoed the laments of Trump opponents, who say the president and his allies have waged an assault on the very idea of truth. “The truth still exists. The truth still matters,” she said. “The dismay and disgust at the defendant’s belligerence should transcend party.”
Yet, ultimately, the judge sided with Barr, determining that the prosecutors’ recommendation of a longer sentence was more “than necessary” and giving Stone a prison term less than half as long as the original request. This should not have been a surprise; in March 2019, Jackson gave a similarly mid-range sentence to Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, after his conviction for fraud and other crimes. But if Jackson’s sentence offered Trump a way out of using his clemency power, he ignored it.
The president did not act when Stone was sentenced but waited until just days before he was to report to prison. Citing the coronavirus pandemic, the 67-year-old Stone had asked Judge Jackson whether he could delay the start of his sentence—already pushed back from April until June—to September 1. Jackson granted him only a two-week reprieve, but Trump took care of the rest.
Although not surprised, Democrats nonetheless reacted angrily to the news. “With Trump there are now two systems of justice in America: One for Trump’s criminal friends and one for everyone else,” tweeted Representative Adam Schiff of California, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Democrats have no plans to try to again impeach a president they hope to defeat in November, but Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the chairman of the party’s House caucus, bluntly warned Trump that he could be indicted as soon as he leaves office.
A defining trait of Trump as president is his disdain for constraints of any kind. He has raged at courts that have ruled against him, and he has chafed at—and occasionally gone around—Congress when it ignores his wishes. Trump appears to love his clemency power precisely because it is the most pure and unadulterated authority granted to the president by the Constitution. It is final and unappealable. Congress can’t stop it; a future president can’t undo it; the Supreme Court cannot review it.
In the summer of 2018, I asked Democratic Representative Jerry Nadler of New York, who was then vacillating on the question of whether Trump should be impeached, to name something that the president could do that he thought would surely merit his removal from office. Nadler was not yet the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Special Counsel Robert Mueller had not yet delivered his voluminous report on election interference, and Trump had not yet had his fateful phone call with the president of Ukraine. Yet the first example Nadler gave was a pardon.
He told me a story about the 1788 convention where Virginia decided to ratify the Constitution. The delegates were discussing the pardon power when one of them suggested that it was too broad and should be narrowed. “What if the president engaged in a criminal conspiracy and pardoned his co-conspirators?” the delegate asked, according to Nadler. “And James Madison answered, ‘Well, that could never happen, because a president who did that would be instantly impeached.’”
The Framers, Nadler concluded, “viewed the impeachment power as a limitation on the pardon power.”
Tonight, Trump stepped in to save a man convicted of lying to Congress in order to protect the president. And what galls and frustrates his critics is the realization that the one check Congress has on that particular power is the move it has already unsuccessfully deployed.