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Woman Released After Trump Commutes Her Life Sentence For Nonviolent Drug Offense

TV personality Kim Kardashian West went to the White House on May 30 to lobby for the release of Alice Marie Johnson.
Mandel Ngan
AFP/Getty Images
TV personality Kim Kardashian West went to the White House on May 30 to lobby for the release of Alice Marie Johnson.

Updated at 7: 40 p.m. ET

President Trump commuted the life sentence of Alice Marie Johnson, who had been in federal prison for more than 20 years for a first-time drug conviction. Johnson was released hours later

Trump granted Johnson clemency after reality TV star Kim Kardashian West lobbied for her release during a visit to the White House.

In a tweet Wednesday, Kardashian West wrote "BEST NEWS EVER!!!!" with a link to an article about the commutation.

This is the latest celebrity-backed act of clemency from Trump, who has embraced his constitutional authority to pardon and shorten prison sentences for people convicted of federal crimes.

Johnson's supporters argued she should not have to spend the rest of her life in prison for a nonviolent drug offense.

They say she was a model prisoner. During her incarceration, she wrote plays and became an ordained minister.

Johnson was convicted of cocaine conspiracy and money laundering charges. At the time of sentencing, The Associated Press reported that U.S. federal Judge Julia Gibbons said Johnson was "the quintessential entrepreneur" of a drug ring that dealt in tons of cocaine.

The White House said in a statement that Johnson "has accepted responsibility for her past behavior."

"While this administration will always be very tough on crime, it believes that those who have paid their debt to society and worked hard to better themselves while in prison deserve a second chance," the White House said.

Brittany Barnett, a member of Johnson's legal team, said Johnson learned of her commutation on a call with Kardashian and her lawyers. Kardashian delivered the news.

Johnson told her legal team and Kardashian that she feels like she has been "resurrected from the dead," Barnett said.

Prior to Johnson's, Trump issued five pardons and one commutation.

All of these cases have involved public figures or have been the subject of national media attention.

Trump has also proved to be receptive to appeals from celebrities. He granted a rare posthumous pardon for legendary boxer Jack Johnson in response to a request from actor Sylvester Stallone.

Trump is moving more quickly to exercise his pardon power than recent presidents. His last three predecessors in the White House had not issued any pardons or commutations at this point in their presidencies.

Unlike other presidential actions, which require legislative support or can be challenged legally, the president's power to pardon is almost unchecked.

There is a Justice Department review process, but presidents are not bound to follow it and Trump has not adhered to department guidelines in many of these cases.

Trump says he is also weighing clemency for Martha Stewart and former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Trump is facing a special counsel investigation into his campaign's possible ties to Russian meddling in the 2016 election, which he calls a "witch hunt." There has been speculation that Trump may be trying to send a signal with these pardons that he would be willing to act in the cases of those who might be indicted because of the probe.

He even raised the possibility of pardoning himself in a recent tweet, saying he has the "absolute right" to do so, but he has not done anything wrong.

Asked Wednesday whether the president has the power to pardon himself, House Speaker Paul Ryan said he didn't know the legal specifics, but added, "He shouldn't, and no one is above the law."

Legal experts are divided on whether a president can pardon himself.

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Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.