3 Takeaways From the Investigation Into Trump’s Pardon of Jonathan Braun
Two days after Donald J. Trump left the White House, The New York Times published a story about how one of his last acts as president had been to commute the 10-year sentence of Jonathan Braun, a marijuana smuggler who had ongoing legal problems and a reputation for making violent threats.
In his final weeks in office, Mr. Trump had used his pardon power on behalf of a parade of loyalists, as well as scores of others who were not big political names. But few of them stood out like Mr. Braun, who was still under investigation by the Justice Department in an entirely different matter: for gouging small businesses through high-interest loans.
At the time of the commutation, the New York State attorney general and the Federal Trade Commission were also after Mr. Braun for making predatory loans. Among other things, they accused him of threatening borrowers who owed him money. And his family had told others they were willing to spend millions of dollars to get him out of the prison sentence he had just started to serve on the drug charges.
With Mr. Trump running again for president and suggesting that he again intends to make full use of his pardon powers if elected, The Times decided to take a closer look at how the pardon came about and what it said about the Trump White House’s standards for clemency.
Here are the main takeaways from our investigation, which is based on documents and interviews with current and former officials and others familiar with Mr. Braun’s case:
The Commutation Undercut a Federal Criminal Investigation
Mr. Trump’s decision to commute Mr. Braun’s sentence undermined what had been an ambitious Justice Department investigation being led by the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan into predatory lenders in the merchant cash advance industry by pulling the rug out from under investigators who had been in negotiations with Mr. Braun about cooperating with them.
Prosecutors felt they needed an industry insider to flip on others in the business, explain the intricacies of lending agreements and serve as a narrator on the witness stand. In Mr. Braun, who had made clear he was desperate to get out of prison, they thought they had an ideal candidate. They were still going back and forth with his lawyer about a deal that would have freed him from prison when Mr. Trump commuted his sentence.
Prosecutors instantly lost their leverage over Mr. Braun. The investigation into the industry, and Mr. Braun’s conduct, remains open but is hampered by the lack of help from an insider.
The Case Exposed Shortcomings in the Justice System
At multiple levels, right up to the president, the justice system appeared to fail more than once to take full account of all of Mr. Braun’s activities despite longstanding concerns among prosecutors that he was a threat and could not be deterred.
A decade and a half ago, he fled the country while the Justice Department was closing in on him in the drug case, but prosecutors later let him out of jail while awaiting sentencing because he agreed to cooperate with their ongoing investigations into drug traffickers. But he used that freedom to establish himself as a predatory lender, leading to a string of accusations that he employed threats and intimidation — a record that the Trump White House seems not to have considered or given any weight in granting him the commutation.
In all, he was free for nearly a decade while awaiting sentencing on the drug charges. Former federal prosecutors and defense attorneys said they knew of no other case in which a defendant was allowed to be free for so long and engaged in the conduct of which Mr. Braun is accused.
Once Mr. Trump let him out of prison in early 2021, Mr. Braun returned to working in the merchant cash advance business, with regulators and some customers again accusing him of using intimidating tactics.
The Kushners Had a Role in the Pardon Process
Mr. Braun’s family used ties to the family of Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, to open doors at the White House. Mr. Braun had attended Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, N.J., which was funded by Jared Kushner’s family. Mr. Braun enrolled in its first freshman class, alongside Jared Kushner’s youngest sister, Nicole.
In seeking the commutation, Mr. Braun’s family reached out to Charles Kushner, Jared Kushner’s father. Jared Kushner’s White House office drafted the language used in the news release to announce commutations for Mr. Braun and others.
Mr. Braun’s cousin, in conversations with others, has credited the Kushners with helping Mr. Braun secure the commutation.
The Braun family also hired Alan Dershowitz, the pro-Trump lawyer who had ties to Jared Kushner, to promote Mr. Braun’s request. Others who dealt with Mr. Braun later relayed to investigators that they had been told that the Braun family helped secure the commutation by relying on their connections to the Kushner family.