The end of President Obama’s terms in office promises to be an epic exercise in the power of presidential clemency.
To date, the president has pardoned 148 felons — mostly small-time drug dealers. But he has commuted the sentences of 1176 criminals — far more than any modern president. And given his talk about criminal justice reform and the idea that there are too many people of color in prison, the possibility exists that he will blow away the record for clemency shown to felons.
Among them is Bowe Bergdahl, a US Army sergeant held captive for five years by the Taliban before his release in a prisoner swap, who is due to be court-martialed for desertion.
Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist convicted for the 1975 deaths of two FBI agents in what his supporters say was a setup, is also hoping to enjoy Obama’s good graces.
Then there’s Edward Snowden, who made the shattering revelation in 2013 of a global communications and internet surveillance system set up by the United States.
The 33-year-old, a refugee in Russia, is backed by numerous celebrities like actress Susan Sarandon and singer Peter Gabriel, as well as Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union.
If Obama fails to pardon Snowden, his supporters say he may face the death penalty under the incoming administration of Republican Donald Trump, who has called him a “terrible traitor.”
In another leak case, Chelsea Manning is serving a 35-year sentence in solitary confinement for handing 700,000 sensitive military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks, some of them classified.
Activists say her sentence is excessive and point to the psychological frailty of the transgender soldier who has already made two suicide attempts.
Even though the White House has dismissed a possible pardon for Snowden and Manning, their supporters are still hoping for a final magnanimous gesture from a president about to leave the constraints of his high office on January 20.
But both cases present unique challenges: Snowden has yet to be sentenced and merely faces espionage charges in the US, while Manning has an appeal pending before military court.
The US Constitution allows a president to pardon “offenses against the United States” and commute — either shorten or end — federal sentences.
Obama has so far granted 148 pardons since taking office in 2009 — fewer than his predecessors, who also served two terms, George W. Bush (189) and Bill Clinton (396).
But he has surpassed any other president in the number of commutations, 1,176.
Most of those who benefited from the president’s clemency were minor drug dealers no longer considered a threat.
Obama has promised to use his clemency powers to help serve penal justice, rather than to grant special favors.
The problem with mass commutations and pardons is that the Department of Justice can’t possibly adequately vet the recipients of this mercy. Some “minor,” non-violent drug dealers may have committed violent crimes in the past, but either weren’t caught or pled the charges down.
But I think the most likely high-profile criminal who may be granted a pardon is Bowe Bergdahl. Recall that when Bergdahl was released, the president stood with his parents in the Rose Garden praising the young man for his courage. As it turned out, Bergdahl was a deserter. Despite that, the president and his surrogates never deviated from the narrative that Bergdahl was a hero.
It would be in keeping with Obama’s vindictive personality that he pardon Bergdahl to stick it to those who criticized him for giving the Taliban five of their commanders for a deserter.