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Every President's Most Controversial Pardon, Ranked

Updated September 14, 2020 21.4k votes 2.2k voters 43.1k views44 items

List RulesVote up the most controversial presidential pardons - those that most shocked the country and led to intense national debate.

Why do presidents pardon people? It depends on the situation and who you ask, as the topic of presidential pardons is ripe with controversy. United States history is no stranger to political scandals and presidential corruption, and pardons are often a cause of public outrage. Oftentimes, individuals granted clemency by the Commander in Chief become the subject of national debate. Even partial pardons - like commuted sentences - are often met with backlash. Here, you'll find every president's most controversial pardon, ranked by your votes.

As they're absolved of past criminal convictions, people who have been pardoned by the president get a second chance at life. However, there is a lot of disagreement in regards to who actually deserves a second chance. The nation was appalled when Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon for his part in Watergate, as Americans were desperate to see reparation for widespread political corruption. Donald Trump's pardon of Joe Arpaio sparked a debate as to whether the Arizona sheriff was a deeply prejudiced tyrant or an unsung champion of justice. What other presidential pardons have shocked Americans? Vote up the pardons you find controversial below.

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  • 1

    Dr. Samuel Mudd helped Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, escape shortly after Booth shot Lincoln. While he was sentenced to life in prison for his actions, Andrew Johnson gave him a full and unconditional pardon.

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  • 2

    Hands down Gerald Ford's most controversial pardon was that of Richard Nixon. The former president received a full, unconditional pardon for his role in the Watergate Scandal, which resulted in his resignation. Nixon is the only former president to receive a pardon.

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  • 3

    Bill Clinton kept it in the family when granting controversial pardons. He pardoned his brother, Roger Clinton, Jr., for 1985 convictions of cocaine possession and drug-trafficking. Roger Clinton later received several DUIs.

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  • 4

    Calvin Coolidge had a few controversial pardons of his own, including that of German spy Lothar Witzke. Along with spying for Germany, Witzke was involved with a 1916 bombing attack on New York Harbor that left seven dead. After being pardoned, Witzke was deported to Germany. 

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  • 5

    George H. W. Bush pardoned Armand Hammer for his crime of making illegal contributions to the Nixon campaign. The timing of the pardon was controversial as Hammer had contributed over $100,000 to the Republican party shortly before he was absolved of wrong-doing.

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  • 6

    Woodrow Wilson issued the only full executive pardon to someone convicted under the Espionage Act when he pardoned Frederick Krafft in 1918. Krafft was accused - and found guilty of - attempting to cause insubordination and disloyalty towards the American government and armed forces. There were multiple accounts of the incident in question and Krafft denied all charges against him.

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  • 7

    John Quincy Adams pardoning of Ho-Chuck leaders Wekau and Chickhonsic, who were convicted of murder, was one of the first truly controversial presidential pardons. He lifted their sentences in exchange for a land cession in 1828.

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  • 8

    One of Donald Trump's most controversial pardons was that of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Arpaio was convicted of contempt of court for illegally detaining people without reasonable evidence after being ordered to cease these practices. Civil rights groups protested the pardon as they viewed Arpaio's actions as unconstitutional attacks on immigrants.

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  • 9

    Alexander McKenzie helped secure the appointments of many political figures in Alaska. He then used political favors as a way to get the same judges to take gold mines from their rightful owners and give them to him. After being ordered by a high court to return the mines to their owners, McKenzie did nothing and was eventually found guilty of contempt of court. President McKinley pardoned him in 1901 after only serving three months.

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  • 10

    In 2017, Barack Obama commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, who was court-martialed for violating the espionage act after giving classified documents to WikiLeaks. The move allowed her to leave prison after serving only seven years of a 35-year sentence.

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  • 11

    Dwight D. Eisenhower's decision to commute the death sentence of Maurice Schick – who brutally murdered a young girl at a US Army camp in Japan – to life in prison without the possibility of parole went all the way to the Supreme Court. Schick alleged that "life imprisonment without parole" was unconstitutional, but the Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of Eisenhower's decision. 

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  • 12

    Richard Nixon commuted the sentence of Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa – who was convicted of fraud and bribery – in 1971. Hoffa disappeared four years later following a meeting with known members of the mafia. He was declared legally dead in 1982.

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  • 13

    Lyndon B. Johnson pardoned Congressman Frank W. Boykin – who was convicted of conspiracy and conflict of interest – upon the request of Robert F. Kennedy in 1964. 

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  • 14

    George W. Bush commuted the sentence of his assistant Lewis "Scooter" Libby – who was also Dick Cheney's Chief of Staff – for a perjury conviction associated with revealing the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plume.

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  • 15

    John Tyler pardoned Alexander William Holmes, who admitted to throwing several people off a lifeboat in 1841. The reason Holmes was granted a pardon is that the crew did what they did in order to lessen the load of the lifeboat and save some lives rather than forcing everyone to go down with the ship.

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  • 16

    Just like his predecessor Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter went easy on Watergate offenders when he commuted the sentence of G. Gordon Liddy, who led the group that broke into the DNC at the Watergate Complex. While Liddy had been sentenced to 20 years in prison, Carter released him after only four years. 

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  • 17

    Grover Cleveland used the power of the presidency to pardon a known associate of Billy the Kid, Billy Wilson. Wilson was arrested with a gang of outlaws after being involved in a shoot-out in White Oaks that resulted in the death of a deputy sheriff.

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  • 18

    Utah governor Brigham Young encouraged independence among residents of his state. After federal officials received information regarding obstruction of officials, President James Buchanan appointed a new governor. Young called upon his militia and withheld federal troops for several months in what was called the Utah War. Young eventually agreed to step-down and Buchanan pardoned Young for his involvement in the uprising.

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  • 19

    Ulysses S. Grant effectively pardoned most members of the Confederacy when he signed the Amnesty Act in 1872. This allowed former Confederacy members to once again vote and hold office. Tensions were still high across the United States and Grant viewed the act as a way to promote unity.

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  • 20

    Stephen A. Douglas Puter was involved in a number of land scandals in Oregon and California. Via fraudulent claims, Puter got thousands of acres of federal land transferred to private owners in Oregon and California. He was issued a pardon in 1907 in order to become a witness for the state. His testimony led to the indictments of three of his co-conspirators.

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  • 21

    Andrew Jackson's most controversial pardon wasn't contentious in and of itself, rather the problem came from the recipient's refusal to accept it. George Wilson was found guilty of robbery of the mail in 1829. Wilson refused the pardon without explaining his reasoning, and the Supreme Court ruled that it was his right to reject it. Wilson was ultimately executed by hanging.

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  • 22

    James Monroe reportedly pardoned numerous people convicted of piracy.

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  • 23

    Herbert Hoover's pardon of Indiana Governor Warren T. McCray highlighted the influence the KKK wielded in the state. McCray got himself in trouble by taking out questionable loans, but it was his vetoing of legislation supported by the KKK that led to his arrest when Indiana's Attorney General – and KKK member– filed a series of suits against him. McCray was convicted of mail fraud in 1927 and received a pardon from Hoover in 1930 after the president was informed of the Klan's role in his initial conviction.

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  • 24

    FBI agent Mark Felt was convicted of ordering illegal break-ins to the homes of several members of the revolutionary,militant group the Weather Underground in 1980. President Ronald Reagan issued a pardon during Felt's appeal.  In 2005, Felt was revealed to be "Deep Throat," the informant who helped Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncover the Watergate Scandal.

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  • 25

    Harry S. Truman used his presidential pardon power to commute the sentence of Oscar Collazo – who was found guilty of attempting to assassinate Truman – from death to life imprisonment in 1952. Collazo's sentence was further commuted to time served by Jimmy Carter in 1979 and he was able to return to Puerto Rico.

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