Clemency for Kwame, Confusion for All

Why’d Trump take pity on the disgraced mayor of a city he reviles?
Kwame Kilpatrick
Many questions surround President Trump’s decision to free Kwame Kilpatrick, the disgraced Democratic ex-mayor of a city Trump despises. // Kwame Kilpatrick photograph by Bill Pugliano/Getty Image

If there was one act in the final throes of Donald Trump’s tenure that defied the public’s understanding of the peripatetic priorities and interests of the 45th president, it was his Inauguration Eve commutation of the lengthy prison term of former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. While many of Trump’s pardons over his final month in office had some potentially self-serving purpose — political allies like former chief strategist Steve Bannon or ex-Republican National Committee moneyman Elliott Broidy, say — there does not appear to be any specific tie between the Republican president and the disgraced Democratic ex-mayor.

Rather, Trump’s decision to release Kilpatrick, 50, from the federal pen after serving seven years of his 28-year sentence handed down in 2013 for public corruption crimes scrambled the usual partisan alignment. No less than current Mayor Mike Duggan, a Democrat who seldom has had a kind word about the former president, chimed in on Twitter: “Kwame Kilpatrick is a person of great talent who still has much to contribute. I know how close he is to his three sons and I could not be happier for them being together again. This is a decision President Trump got right.” And the clemency occurred as a result of the advocacy
for Kilpatrick by, among others, two Democratic state representatives, Sherry Gay-Dagnogo and Karen Whitsett.

Meanwhile, Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider, who oversees the Eastern District of Michigan where Kilpatrick was convicted, blasted the move, telling the Detroit Free Press: “Kilpatrick has earned every day he served in federal prison for the horrible crimes he committed against the people of Detroit. He is a notorious and unrepentant criminal.” And a top Republican lawmaker in Michigan tells Hour Detroit — on condition of anonymity because he fears criticizing Trump could harm his future electoral chances — he found Kilpatrick’s release “an inexplicable, disgusting thing that just reinforces a lot of perceptions that Trump has a soft spot for elected officials who scam their constituents.”

Indeed, that may be a common thread for some of Trump’s pardons. In early 2020, Trump commuted the prison sentence of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat convicted of trying to auction off a vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder. In the same wave that freed Kilpatrick, Trump pardoned former U.S. Reps. Randall “Duke” Cunningham, Duncan Hunter, Rick Renzi, Robin Hayes, and Chris Collins, all Republicans convicted of various betrayals of the public trust.

In Kilpatrick’s case, the ex-mayor had exhausted appeals all the way up to the Supreme Court. Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, ignored a petition signed by more than 28,000 people urging him to commute the sentence on grounds that it was “just too excessive.” 

That has been the persistent drumbeat from a range of progressives and leaders in the Black community, that the 28-year sentence was unusually harsh and perhaps racially motivated. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer seemed to agree with that in remarks to Fox 2 in late January: “Anyone who’s looked at things that were comparable, and sentences that were inflicted on folks, knows that he was treated differently.” Yet Schneider and others disagree, insisting Kilpatrick’s sentence was modeled after a 28-year sentence imposed the year before on a former Cleveland-area county commissioner, Jimmy Dimora, who is white and remains behind bars.

Perhaps Dimora’s problem is that he didn’t have anyone close enough to Trump to grab the president’s ear. Whitsett talked up a Kilpatrick pardon during a visit with Trump at the White House in April 2020, after she had publicly insisted she’d recovered from COVID-19 due to taking hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug Trump repeatedly claimed could cure the coronavirus. (Subsequent studies showed the medication was largely ineffective.) Other Kilpatrick supporters lobbying Trump included former Fox News personalities Diamond and Silk.

“Oftentimes, pretty much all the time, I really rely on the recommendations of people who know them,” Trump told reporters after the Blagojevich commutation, explaining his process for deciding on pardons and clemency.

Still, Trump’s inclusion of Kilpatrick makes it even harder to square with the fact that a bedrock of the ex-president’s baseless allegations of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election came down to how notoriously crooked Kilpatrick’s former stomping ground is. “Detroit and Philadelphia, known as two of the most corrupt political places anywhere in our country, easily, cannot be responsible for the outcome of a presidential race,” Trump said. And yet, the Michigan Republican says, “He gave a commutation to the very emblem of Detroit at its most corrupt?” 

That and other questions persist. If Trump felt that “the ends of justice do not require” imprisoning Kilpatrick until 2037, as the commutation document states, then why must Kilpatrick’s criminal consigliere, contractor Bobby Ferguson, stay in custody for the 10 years that remain on his sentence for crimes they committed together? Why give full pardons to folks like Bannon, who had yet to be convicted and now won’t have to pay any restitution to victims of the scheme he admits he perpetuated as a condition of accepting the pardon, but leave Kilpatrick on the hook for $4.7 million in fines assessed him by the judge who sentenced him after his conviction on 24 counts that included racketeering, extortion, bribery, and fraud? And what will Kilpatrick do now with his “great talent” to fulfill Duggan’s vision that he “still has much to contribute”? Kilpatrick, seen shortly after his release staying at his mother’s ranch in suburban Atlanta, is barred from running for state or local office for the foreseeable future, so what else does he do now?

One clue might just be a flourish straight out of the playbook of the ex-president who released him. “Detroit,” Kilpatrick famously proclaimed in 2008 when he left City Hall in disgrace, “you done set me up for a comeback.”