On May 17, TMZ reported that Meek Mill, released on bail from prison three weeks earlier, would visit the White House to meet with Donald Trump. The Philly rapper and the president would discuss prison reform, as Meek has spent the past couple of months speaking publicly, and rather personally, about due process. In the past year, Meek’s own criminal case, which has dragged on for more than a decade now, has become a dramatic, high-profile illustration of the criminal justice system’s shortcomings. Celebrated as a Philly folk hero upon his release, Meek found himself in an ideal position to lobby the president about criminal justice reform. But Trump’s critics, including Meek’s fan base, met the very prospect of the meeting with ridicule and disgust. Given Trump’s recommendation that drug dealers face the death penalty, and Meek’s prior conviction on drug-related charges, it seemed obvious enough that Meek’s meeting with Trump wouldn’t have substantially advanced the rapper’s cause so much as it would have bolstered Trump’s credibility with regard to civil rights, black voters, and other disadvantaged citizens. Meek would’ve been a political tool, and Trump could have humiliated him and his cause as thoroughly as he’s passively humiliated Kanye West since meeting with the rapper 18 months ago at Trump Tower. Ultimately, Meek avoided the meeting, reportedly due to his mentor, Jay-Z, a Trump critic, counseling him against it. The week Meek was supposed to visit, the White House hosted a prison-reform summit. Little seems to have come of the roundtables, speeches, and photo ops, which reek of cheap publicity and missed opportunities for real progress.
Kim Kardashian West faced similar skepticism last week when she met with Trump (after lobbying the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, for several months) to discuss the specific plight of Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old black woman incarcerated since 1996 as punishment for a first-time drug possession conviction. Kardashian first learned of Johnson’s plight through a four-minute web video, produced by Mic, in which Johnson pleads for clemency in her own case and criminal justice reform at the national level. The video captions note that the Obama administration denied Johnson’s request for clemency, which Mic and Johnson describe as her only remaining hope. After she first watched the viral video in October, Kardashian assembled a legal and political task force, including her own attorney, to advocate for Johnson. Kardashian sought clemency for Johnson, which only the president can grant. Kardashian’s trip to the White House was the culmination of her efforts, which struck Trump’s critics (as well as the Kardashian family’s critics) as whimsical and foolish. Less than 24 hours after the meeting, the White House announced Trump’s pardon of Dinesh D’Souza, the right-wing charlatan who pleaded guilty to making substantial, illegal campaign contributions to a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in New York. Subsequent reports suggested that Trump might also pardon Martha Stewart, convicted of insider trading, as well as the disgraced former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, convicted of corruption for selling Barack Obama’s old U.S. Senate seat.
The presidential pardon is a broad, unlimited power. Trump has conceived of clemency in exceptionally arrogant, illiberal, and self-serving ways, including his pardons of former Dick Cheney assistant Scooter Libby and disgraced Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio. Reportedly, Trump believes he can pardon himself, and he might also think to pardon his many allies who the special counsel Robert Mueller has bagged in his investigation of Trump’s presidential campaign. Thus, Trump’s mercy seems reserved for right-wing barkers and celebrity petitioners—the Americans who resemble him most. The very sight of Kardashian standing next to Trump behind the Resolute desk—Trump tweeted an official photo to commemorate her visit—seemed to signify a surreal end stage of American democracy. Johnson might benefit from Kardashian’s advocacy, but surely, the country suffers from its political stage being overrun with entertainers. Trump is smiling wide in the photo, soliciting despair from anyone who might hope that American politics might withdraw from the ledge.
The outcome may suggest some cause for optimism. On Wednesday, Trump commuted Johnson’s life sentence. After 21 years in prison, Johnson will go free. Kardashian’s lobbying succeeded toward a righteous end. Obviously, the commutation is a tremendous relief for the exhausted Johnson, who has spent nearly a quarter century removed from freedom and family. It’s also a win for Kim Kardashian, who has struggled in recent weeks to modulate and counterbalance her husband Kanye West’s loud, cruel, right-wing provocations. And it is a win for Trump, who has otherwise struggled to mask his contempt for civil rights and related activism.
In her campaign’s formative months, Kardashian narrowed her public concern to Johnson’s case in particular. But Trump characterized their meeting as a general discussion “about prison reform and sentencing.” Hours after the White House announced Trump’s commutation of Johnson’s sentence, Kardashian said she hopes “to continue this important work by working together with organizations who have been fighting this fight for much longer than I have and deserve the recognition.” By shrewd design, the story of Johnson’s commutation undermines everyone’s worst assumptions about the Trump presidency, the Kardashian family, and the political commitments that bind them. The Oval Office photo of Kardashian and Trump, two reality TV stars, once looked like a dark and ridiculous summary of the country’s postmodern nadir; a snapshot that we’d ideally live to regret. Now, in retrospect, the photo seems more like a predictive insight—a wordless instruction of how American politics must be done now that the president is a whimsical game-show host who rebukes experts and elected officials. With Johnson’s plight resolved, there’s still work to be done all across the political landscape. Next week, Dennis Rodman will join Trump in Singapore as the president negotiates a denuclearization deal with the North Korean regime. Rodman, too, became obsessed with his own signature political concern—North Korea and the Kim family—on a whim; now, his nation can only hope that the retired NBA star proves as effective, in whatever strange way, at the Singapore summit as Kim Kardashian was back home. A couch potato in all things, Trump only humors expertise and compassion as seen on TV.