Trump commutation of Roger Stone might be unethical. But it's not bad politics.

The idea that the president could be hurt by this act rests on assumptions that Trump and his bedrock of loyal supporters have long proved wrong.
Image: Roger Stone reacts after Trump commuted his federal prison sentence in Fort Lauderdale
Roger Stone outside his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fl., on July 10, after President Donald Trump commuted his federal prison sentence.Joe Skipper / Reuters
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By David Mark

There's a reason presidents usually wait to issue controversial pardons or prison sentence commutations until the waning weeks, days or even hours of their terms. Outgoing presidents anticipate that much of the coming political blowback can be muted by blanket coverage of their successor’s inauguration and the opening of a new presidential administration. That late-in-the-game approach allows presidents to pardon unpopular figures and still slip out of office reasonably unscathed politically.

He has already issued so many controversial pardons and repeatedly flouted the law that the Stone move is just a continuation of the same political background noise.

President Donald Trump doesn’t care to exercise that kind of caution. On Friday night, less than four months before facing re-election against presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, Trump commuted the 40-month sentence of longtime adviser Roger Stone. The move came days before his former campaign aide was set to report to federal prison as punishment for lying to Congress in a House investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

The commutation has spurred a widespread view that, by not playing politics as usual and waiting until he was on his way out of office to help an unsavory associate, Trump has hurt his re-election chances.

“The Stone commutation is far from the end of the story. The voters will see this for what it is: abuse of power and obstruction of justice,” tweeted Norm Eisen, a Democratic House adviser for Trump’s impeachment. Erstwhile Obama strategist David Axelrod agreed that the Stone commutation hurts Trump’s chances: “In service of energizing his base, he’s actually digging a bigger hole with everyone else.”

And it’s not only Democrats making this self-interested assessment. Even some of Trump’s closest allies were skittish about freeing Stone from time behind bars. Trump advisers cautioned that voters would disapprove, especially when a commutation contradicted a recommendation from his own Justice Department.

But a Trump loss in November — a real possibility based on current polling — won’t hinge on Stone. That supposition rests on assumptions about politics that have long been shattered by Trump and his bedrock of loyal supporters.

Commuting Stone’s sentence before Election Day is completely on-brand for Trump. He has already issued so many controversial pardons and repeatedly flouted the law that the Stone move is just a continuation of the same political background noise.

There is little sign that these other political jaw-droppers — from being impeached over his efforts to pressure Ukraine’s president into digging up political dirt on Biden to his remarks blaming “two sides” for deadly violence that erupted during a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 — moved the political needle. Indeed, most anybody who would vote against Trump over his decision to relieve Stone of prison time was sure to oppose him anyway.

And while this move comes closer to the home stretch of the 2020 election, it also comes as a pandemic ravages the nation physically and economically. That is what poses a genuine threat to Trump’s re-election chances.

Trump softened the ground for the Stone commutation through past use of presidential pardon and commutation powers. In August 2017, he pardoned former Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, who was convicted of criminal contempt for ignoring a judge’s order not to detain suspected illegal immigrants. The next year, in a case mirroring his own interactions with federal prosecutors over the Russia probe, Trump pardoned I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who had been a top adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney and was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice tied to the disclosure of Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA officer.

The Arpaio pardon did seem to contribute to Trump’s record-low approval rating, at 35 percent in late August 2017. But that was relatively early in his presidency, when shock value still meant something. By the time of Trump’s Libby pardon eight months later, the president’s approval ratings had jumped to 39 percent, a considerable amount since public opinion about him has shifted much less than his White House predecessors, with views largely fixed and any swings in ratings confined to a narrow window. That suggests the Libby pardon did not appreciably hurt Trump’s approval ratings.

By the time the Stone commutation rolled around this July, 45 percent of Republicans said in a February YouGov poll that they supported a Trump pardon — a step beyond what the president announced on Friday. (The Stone commutation means the longtime Trump adviser’s criminal record still stands even if his sentence is scrapped, while a pardon would have wiped it away.) Only 29 percent of Republicans were opposed.

Similarly, in a late-February Morning Consult poll, 53 percent of voters said it would be inappropriate for Trump to pardon Stone. But a plurality of Republicans, 38 percent, said a Stone pardon would be appropriate, well more than the 28 percent opposed.

So if anything, the move may help the president shore up support among his all-important base. Trump has realized that he is in trouble in the upcoming election, and rather than trying to court independent voters, he is focusing entirely on playing to his base in hopes of ramping up turnout as much as possible.

Trump’s commutation of Stone’s sentence leaves the president roughly where he has stood since spring as the coronavirus pandemic worsened — in real jeopardy of losing. That’s not due to his pardons, but to public opinion souring on the incumbent’s failure to lead during the crisis. A recent Pew Research Center poll found Biden ahead of Trump 52-41 percent on who can better handle the public health impact of the coronavirus outbreak.

And it’s not the examples of ethical lapses and moral outrages that have powered recent Democratic victories. Instead, they’ve won when they’ve emphasized issues. In 2018, health care dominated the midterm elections, which ended up with Democrats winning the House majority and making big gains down ballot. That came after Democratic candidates repeatedly emphasized the Trump administration’s efforts to overturn Obamacare.

it’s not the examples of ethical lapses and moral outrages that have powered recent Democratic victories. Instead, they’ve won when they’ve emphasized issues.

But Democrats have lost when trying to highlight Trump’s deficient character and amorality. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, for instance, made this a staple of its campaign strategy, only to see it fall flat amid an electorate that knew what they were getting with Trump and were OK with it. And during that year’s primaries, a long line of Republican primary rivals to Trump tried to highlight his deficient character, an approach that failed spectacularly.

If Democrats focus on Trump’s commutation of Stone’s sentence and broader abuse of the pardon power, they’re hurting themselves. If they continue to let Trump self-destruct over the coronavirus pandemic and struggling economy, Biden has a real chance to win.

It may not be the most satisfying or cathartic type of campaign for Democrats, who have viewed Trump as morally unfit for the presidency since he announced his candidacy in June 2015. But it’s the one most likely to end Trump’s time in office.