Trump considers pardon for Ali, invites protesting athletes to suggest 'friends' for clemency

WASHINGTON — President Trump has a list of “3,000 names” of people he is considering for pardons and commutations, he said Friday, including heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, who was convicted of evading the draft in 1967.

But Ali’s conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court four years later, and the lawyer representing his family said “a pardon is unnecessary.” Ali died in 2016.

Trump spoke to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House before departing for the G-7 summit in Canada.

Trump boasted about the pardons he has issued in recent weeks to early 20th century boxer Jack Johnson and to a nonviolent drug offender named Alice Marie Johnson.

“There will be more pardons. I thought Alice yesterday was beautiful. I thought Jack Johnson, which was recommended by Sylvester Stallone and some great boxers, I thought Jack Johnson was a great one,” Trump said.

Jack Johnson, who was the first African-American heavyweight champion, was convicted at the height of his fame in 1913 of violating a law making it a crime to transport women across state lines for an “immoral purpose.” Historians believe he was targeted for prosecution because he had relationships with white woman. Johnson died in 1946, but in recent years many advocates have pushed for him to get a posthumous pardon, including Stallone, who famously starred in the “Rocky” series of films. The president pardoned Johnson late last month.

Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old African-American great-grandmother who is not related to the boxer, was convicted on multiple counts in 1996 stemming from her involvement in a Tennessee cocaine trafficking organization. She was sentenced to life in prison the following year. Johnson applied for clemency during the administration of President Barack Obama and was denied. She and her lawyers argued that she turned to drug dealing to support her family and was given an overly harsh sentence.

Alice Marie Johnson (left), who was released from prison Wednesday, waits with her daughter, Katina Marie Scales, for a TV interview on Thursday. (Photo: Adrian Sainz/AP).
Alice Marie Johnson (left), who was released from prison Wednesday, waits with her daughter, Katina Marie Scales, for a TV interview on Thursday. (Photo: Adrian Sainz/AP).

Johnson’s cause was taken up by reality television star Kim Kardashian, who brought up her case when she visited Trump in the Oval Office on May 30 to discuss prison reform. Trump commuted Johnson’s sentence on June 6. Johnson was released from jail and reunited with her family the same day. She praised the president for giving her a “second chance in life.”

After discussing his previous pardons, Trump hinted that he is considering one for another high-profile figure.

“I’m thinking about somebody that you all know very well and he went through a lot and he wasn’t very popular then,” Trump began.

A reporter interrupted to ask Trump if he was referring to former NFL player O.J. Simpson, who was convicted on charges of armed robbery and kidnapping in 2008 after he attempted to reclaim his own sports memorabilia from dealers. Simpson lost the items amid various financial woes after a civil jury found him liable for the 1997 murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman. Simpson was acquitted of the murders in a criminal trial.

“No. I’m not thinking about O.J.,” Trump said. “I’m thinking about Muhammad Ali.”

Ali, considered one of the greatest boxers of all time, was also one of the most controversial. Born Cassius Clay, he changed his name after he joined the Nation of Islam, and his refusal to report for induction to the Army at the height of the Vietnam War made him a reviled figure among conservatives. Convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison in 1967, he also was stripped of his championship, which he later regained in an epic fight against George Foreman. His sentence was postponed as he appealed the verdict, and in 1971 the Supreme Court overturned his conviction.

“He was not very popular then, certainly his memory is very popular now. I’m thinking about Muhammad Ali. I’m thinking about that very seriously,” Trump said.

Attorney Ron Tweel, who had represented Ali, issued a statement saying a pardon was not needed due to the Supreme Court decision.

“We appreciate President Trump’s sentiment, but a pardon is unnecessary. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Muhammad Ali in a unanimous decision in 1971. There is no conviction from which a pardon is needed,” Tweel said.

Muhammad Ali in 1967 at the Federal Building in Houston, where a federal judge told him to refile his plea to avoid the draft after his scheduled induction. (Photo: Fred Kaufman/AP)
Muhammad Ali in 1967 at the Federal Building in Houston, where a federal judge told him to refile his plea to avoid the draft after his scheduled induction. (Photo: Fred Kaufman/AP)

The White House did not respond to a request for comment from Yahoo News asking for Trump’s view on the Supreme Court decision and whether the president was considering something other than a traditional pardon for Ali.

Trump noted that not all the pardons he is considering are for famous figures and said he has a “group of 3,000” names to draw from.

“I would get more thrill out of pardoning people that nobody knows like Alice. … I thought Kim Kardashian was great because she brought Alice to my attention. Alice was so great, and the way she left that jail, and the tears, and the love that she has with her family, I mean to me, that was better than any celebrity that I could pardon,” said Trump.

Trump also said he wants to ask athletes who have been involved in national anthem protests for recommendations of people to pardon. Players in various sports leagues, particularly the NFL, have kneeled during the national anthem before games to protest police violence against African-Americans and other criminal justice issues. Trump has been sharply critical of the protests, including suggesting that any player kneeling was a “son of a bitch” who should be fired. While he has repeatedly called the players unpatriotic, Trump has not often addressed their reasons for the demonstrations.

On Friday, he reiterated his view that the players should stand for the anthem, but said he would respond to the concern that some have been “unfairly treated by the justice system” by asking the athletes to recommend people for pardons.

“In sports leagues, they’re not proud enough to stand for our national anthem. I don’t like that. What I’m going to do is, I’m going to say to them instead of talk — it’s all talk, talk, talk — we have a great country. You should stand for our national anthem,” Trump said, adding, “I am going to ask all of those people to recommend to me — because that’s what they’re protesting people that they think were unfairly treated by the justice system and I understand that — and I’m going to ask them to recommend to me people that were unfairly treated.”

Trump explained that he believed the athletes likely knew of cases in which people might deserve clemency.

“If they have people, if the players, if the athletes have friends of theirs or people that they know about that have been unfairly treated by the system, let me know,” said Trump.

In cases where he would find these people were indeed “unfairly treated,” Trump said he would “pardon them or at least let them out.”

“They know a lot of things that we’re not going to know. They’ve seen a lot of abuse and they’ve seen a lot of unfairness,” Trump said of the athletes.

(Cover thumbnail photos: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images, Fred Kaufman/AP)

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