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Trump's 44 uses of clemency powers seen as a bad thing by critics. Obama granted clemency nearly 2,000 times.
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Trump's 44 uses of clemency powers seen as a bad thing by critics. Obama granted clemency nearly 2,000 times.

Trump has granted clemency less often than any president in more than a century

When President Donald Trump announced that he would be issuing a pardon for retired Gen. Michael Flynn, a longtime Trump ally and former national security adviser for the Trump administration, the president's opponents ripped the move as an alleged abuse of the president's clemency powers.

Criticism of Trump's use clemency for allies is nothing new. Many observers were upset when he pardoned former Maricopa County (Arizona) Sheriff Joe Arpaio in 2017 for targeting Hispanics while searching for illegal aliens.

With so much alleged abuse of the presidential clemency power, the average news consumer could be excused for thinking that President Trump might have racked up a massive number of pardons (forgiving crimes and restoring civil rights) and commutations (reducing sentences for convictions) over the last four years.

But that estimation would be wrong, as a recent report from Pew Research pointed out.

The real numbers

The truth is that Trump has granted clemency only 44 times, Pew reported.. He has granted 28 pardons and 16 commutations. The president has granted less than 0.5% of all clemency requests.

Trump critics might not like whom the president has pardoned and why, but the Constitution grants him — and every president — the power to do so.

And he's a piker compared to his predecessor.

President Barack Obama issued clemency 1,927 times — including 212 pardons and 1,715 commutations.

And many of Obama's clemency moves were seen extremely controversial at the time, Pew noted:

But Trump is far from the only president who has faced scrutiny over his use of clemency. Obama's frequent use of commutations, particularly for prisoners convicted of drug-related crimes, prompted criticism from Republicans, who said it benefited “an entire class of offenders" and infringed on the “lawmaking authority" of the legislative branch.

Defenders of President Obama's use of clemency power will note that Obama granted only 5.3% of all requests.

But that doesn't tell the whole story. There was a spike in the total number of requests during the eight years of the Obama presidency — 36,544 — nearly three times the previous record number of requests, which was set in 12 years of the Franklin Roosevelt administration.

The reason for the spike, as Pew noted, was that the Obama administration actively encouraged prisoners to request pardons and commutations. They even set up a program called "the Clemency Initiative."

This massive increase in the number of petitions drove down Obama's requests-granted rate.

More from Pew:

Obama's relatively low percentage, however, is largely due to the fact that his administration encouraged federal prisoners to apply for leniency under a program known as the Clemency Initiative. The program, which launched in April 2014 and ended in 2017 when Obama left office, allowed “qualified federal inmates" – those who met certain Justice Department criteria – to apply to have their prison sentences commuted. The initiative led to a surge in petitions and helps explain why Obama's use of clemency tilted so heavily toward sentence commutations, rather than pardons.

Overall, Obama received more than 36,000 clemency petitions during his time in office, by far the largest total of any president on record. Petitions have declined considerably during Trump's tenure.

Prior to President Trump, the lowest rate of clemency requests granted was came during the George W. Bush presidency (2%).

This story has been updated.

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