Presidents have long used their authority to issue pardons to Americans who have been charged with and convicted of federal crimes. A presidential pardon is an official expression of forgiveness that removes the civil penalties-restrictions on the right to vote, hold elected office, and sit on a jury, for example-and, often, the stigma attached to criminal convictions.
But the use of the pardon is controversial, particularly because the constitutionally granted power has been used by some presidents to forgive close friends and campaign donors. At the end of his term in January 2001, President Bill Clinton issued a pardon to Marc Rich, a wealthy hedge-fund manager who contributed to Clinton campaigns and who faced federal charges of tax evasion, wire fraud, and racketeering, for example.
President Donald Trump, too, faced criticism over his first pardon. He forgave the criminal contempt conviction against a former Arizona Sheriff and campaign supporter Joe Arpaio, whose crackdown on illegal immigration became a flashpoint during the 2016 presidential campaign. Trump said:
"He's done a great job for the people of Arizona. He's very strong on borders, very strong on illegal immigration. He is loved in Arizona. I thought he was treated unbelievably unfairly when they came down with their big decision to go get him right before the election voting started… Sheriff Joe is a patriot. Sheriff Joe loves our country. Sheriff Joe protected our borders. And Sheriff Joe was very unfairly treated by the Obama administration, especially right before an election-an election that he would have won. And he was elected many times."
Still, all modern presidents have used their power to pardon, to varying degrees. The president who issued the most pardons is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, according to data kept by the U.S. Department of Justice, which helps to evaluate and execute applications for forgiveness. Part of the reason Roosevelt leads in the number of pardons by any president is that he served in the White House for such a long time. He was elected to four terms, in 1932, 1936, 1940 and 1944. Roosevelt died less than a year into his fourth term, but he is the only president to have served more than two terms.
It is also important to remember that a presidential pardon is different than a commutation. While a pardon erases a conviction and restores civil rights to the grantee, a commutation reduces or voids the penalty; in other words, a commutation can reduce a prison sentence and free those who have been convicted from jail.
President Barack Obama's use of his pardon power was relatively rare compared to other presidents. But he granted clemency-which includes pardons, commutations, and remissions-more times than any president since Harry S. Truman. Obama absolved the sentences of 1,937 convicts during his two terms in the White House.
According to the Pew Research Center:
"Barack Obama ended his presidency having granted clemency to more people convicted of federal crimes than any chief executive in 64 years. But he also received far more requests for clemency than any U.S. president on record, largely as a result of an initiative set up by his administration to shorten prison terms for nonviolent federal inmates convicted of drug crimes. Looking at the same data another way, Obama granted clemency to only 5 percent of those who requested it. That's not especially unusual among recent presidents, who have tended to use their clemency power sparingly."
Here's a look at how many pardons were granted by presidents dating back to 1900, according to the U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Pardon Attorney. This list is sorted by the number of pardons issued from highest to lowest. These data cover only pardons, not commutations and remissions, which are separate actions.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt: 2,819 pardons
- Harry S. Truman: 1,913 pardons
- Dwight D. Eisenhower: 1,110 pardons
- Woodrow Wilson: 1,087 pardons
- Lyndon Johnson: 960 pardons
- Richard Nixon: 863 pardons
- Calvin Coolidge: 773 pardons
- Herbert Hoover: 672 pardons
- Theodore Roosevelt: 668 pardons
- Jimmy Carter: 534 pardons
- John F. Kennedy: 472 pardons
- Bill Clinton: 396 pardons
- Ronald Reagan: 393 pardons
- William H. Taft: 383 pardons
- Gerald Ford: 382 pardons
- Warren Harding: 386 pardons
- William McKinley: 291 pardons
- Barack Obama: 212 pardons
- George W. Bush: 189 pardons
- George H.W. Bush: 74 pardons
- Donald J. Trump: 10 pardons*
* Trump is serving his first term in office. Pardon count last updated on July 11, 2019.