Milken Had Key Allies in Pardon Bid: Trump’s Inner Circle

Milken Had Key Allies in Pardon Bid: Trump’s Inner Circle

Michael Milken, a symbol of 1980s greed who went to prison for securities fraud and conspiracy, was at home in Encino, Calif., on Feb. 18 when he got a phone call from the White House. President Trump was on the line with good news: Mr. Milken had been pardoned.

Mr. Milken hung up, got in his car and drove to the home of his 96-year-old mother, Ferne Milken, according to Geoffrey Moore, Mr. Milken’s spokesman. When he shared the news, his mother burst into tears.

The presidential pardon “was a complete surprise,” Mr. Moore said. During the phone call, Mr. Trump claimed that the pardon was his idea and was based entirely on Mr. Milken’s philanthropic work, Mr. Moore said.

In fact, the pardon was the climax of a decades-long campaign on Mr. Milken’s behalf. And it was hardly a spontaneous gesture by a president acting alone. In announcing the pardon, the White House took the unusual step of releasing the names of 33 people who it said had provided “widespread and longstanding support” for pardoning Mr. Milken.

Mr. Milken appears to have benefited from the help of people — including Rudolph W. Giuliani, now the president’s personal lawyer, and Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary — who have close relationships with Mr. Trump and Mr. Milken.

Among them was the billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Mr. Adelson and his wife, Miriam, are Mr. Trump’s largest donors by far, having given his campaigns more than $35 million, and plan to give even more to help him get re-elected. Both Mr. Adelson and his wife are on the White House list of Milken pardon supporters.

Mr. Adelson has a long history with Mr. Milken. During the 1980s, Mr. Milken’s firm helped raise money to finance the construction of Mr. Adelson’s Sands Exposition Center in Las Vegas. More recently, Mr. Adelson gave $20 million to Ariel University, the Israeli school in the heart of the occupied West Bank, where the main campus is named after the Milken family. (Mr. Adelson “contacted no one” on Mr. Milken’s behalf, a spokesman for Mr. Adelson said.)

Only two of the people on the White House list appear to have no financial or personal ties to either Mr. Milken or Mr. Trump.

“We haven’t seen the fruits of the process so totally captured by the rich and well-connected as we do here,” said Margaret Love, the head of the pardon office in the Justice Department during parts of the George Bush and Bill Clinton administrations.

After he was released from prison in 1993, Mr. Milken sought to transform his image from Wall Street felon to generous philanthropist. He remained enormously wealthy from his days as a pioneering financier, and he bankrolled a wide range of charitable endeavors, including medical research. His medical expertise and connections have made him a go-to person for prominent people battling cancer. He also created the Milken Institute, a think tank that hosts conferences that have become a see-and-be-seen gatherings for the world’s most famous business, political and academic leaders.

At the same time, he and his associates sought a presidential pardon, courting Democrats and Republicans.

President Clinton reportedly came close to pardoning Mr. Milken in the waning days of his presidency, but didn’t after an outcry from Justice Department officials.

During the George W. Bush administration, Mr. Milken submitted a formal petition for a pardon with the Justice Department. President Bush denied it on the last full day of his term in January 2009.

Mr. Bush later wrote in his autobiography that he had been “disgusted” by the jockeying for pardons by people with connections who pulled strings for their friends and wealthy benefactors. “I came to see massive injustice in the system,” Mr. Bush wrote, without naming any individuals. “If you had connections to the president, you could insert your case into the last-minute frenzy.”

When Mr. Trump was elected, the efforts to win a pardon for Mr. Milken gained new traction. There was a confluence of Trump backers who were supporters of Mr. Milken, and Mr. Milken had relationships with people close to Mr. Trump. Some urged the president to pardon Mr. Milken.

“Milken and I are good friends now, and I believe Milken is an excellent candidate for a pardon,” Mr. Giuliani told the Fox News host Sean Hannity on Nov. 10, 2016, less than 48 hours after Mr. Trump’s electoral triumph.

“Wow,” Mr. Hannity said.

The endorsement was notable in part because Mr. Giuliani, as the United States attorney for Manhattan in the 1980s, had presided over the investigation of Mr. Milken. The two men later became close, bonding over Mr. Milken’s financial support for research into prostate cancer, which both men had battled.

Mr. Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, also supported a pardon, according to people familiar with the effort. Mr. Mnuchin has known Mr. Milken for years, and he flew last year on Mr. Milken’s private jet. Mr. Mnuchin has been a speaker at the Milken Institute’s conference. He also spoke at a Milken-sponsored event at the Hamptons home of the billionaire real estate magnate Richard LeFrak, a longtime friend of Mr. Trump’s whom the White House identified as supporting the pardon.

Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, also supported a presidential pardon. Mr. Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, have had prominent speaking platforms at Milken Institute gatherings.

This time Mr. Milken didn’t file a petition with the Justice Department, and his supporters also bypassed it, going directly to the White House.

When Mr. Trump announced the pardon on Feb. 18, the White House played down Mr. Milken’s crimes, calling the federal charges against him “novel” and asserting that he pleaded guilty in 1990 only to spare his younger brother, Lowell Milken, from prosecution. Mr. Milken’s spokesman has made similar claims in the past. The White House declined to comment on the record.

To bolster the case for the pardon, the White House emphasized the list of people who had supported clemency. Some of the people on the list hadn’t realized their names would be made public although they supported the pardon, according to people familiar with their thinking.

In addition to Mr. Mnuchin and Mr. Giuliani, the list included other members of the Trump administration, major Trump donors and people who did business with Mr. Milken.

During his heyday at Drexel, Mr. Milken raised billions of dollars for others on the list, including Ray Irani when he ran Occidental Petroleum and the media magnate Rupert Murdoch, another prostate cancer survivor with whom Mr. Milken remains close. Mr. Murdoch, whose company owns Fox News, is one of Mr. Trump’s confidantes.

Nearly everyone on the list has converged at the Milken Institute’s annual conferences, a networking opportunity that rivals the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo broadcast her show live from the event in 2015, and in 2017 she interviewed Mr. Mnuchin there. Ms. Bartiromo, whom Mr. Trump has praised as “fantastic,” was included on the list.

Ms. Bartiromo said on air the day after the pardon was announced that she had spoken to Mr. Trump and lobbied him to pardon Mr. Milken.

Nelson Peltz, the activist investor and an early client of Mr. Milken, raised more than $10 million for the president’s re-election campaign at an event this month at his Palm Beach, Fla., estate.

Other Trump donors on the list include Robert Kraft, the New England Patriots owner; the billionaire hedge fund manager John Paulson; and several prominent real estate developers.

Two others — Joshua Harris, a founder of the buyout firm Apollo Global Management, and Gary Winnick, a co-founder of Pacific Capital Group — both worked for Mr. Milken at Drexel Burnham Lambert in the 1980s.

One of the few Milken supporters named by the White House who have no significant financial or personal ties to Mr. Milken or Mr. Trump is David Bahnsen, an investment adviser, who wrote an unsolicited letter seeking a Milken pardon to the White House in 2017.

But even he has White House connections. Mr. Trump’s top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, is “one of my best friends,” Mr. Bahnsen said.

Maggie Haberman and Karen Yourish contributed reporting.

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