According to a tally by Thoughco Trump seems to be in the last place as far as pardons issued, compared to all presidents since 1900. But are these stats misleading given that Trump's presidency is still ongoing, i.e. were past presidents more likely to issue pardons at the end of the term?

Or maybe in [the end of] their 2nd term?

President Obama granted just 22 pardons in his first term, the lowest number of any president since George Washington.

That number may a be a little misleading as Obama preferred commutations and eventually issued more of those than any other president on record. But even considering commutations, Obama has apparently issued the most in 2016:

Obama was particularly active in granting clemency later in his tenure. In the 2016 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, he granted clemency 589 times, including 583 commutations and six pardons. That was the most of any president in any fiscal year since 1920, when Woodrow Wilson issued 341 commutations, 198 pardons, 57 respites and 43 remissions for a total of 639 acts of clemency, according to DOJ.

Are there more comprehensive statistics on the time distribution of pardons within presidential terms?

  • 5
    I don't think there is a preferred time but it is done at a time when potential backlash won't hurt them.
    – Joe W
    Commented Nov 17, 2019 at 16:09
  • 1
    @JoeW: isn't that nearly the same thing as doing it at the end of their presidency, mostly? Commented Nov 17, 2019 at 16:10
  • 1
    Correct, doing the pardons early when it could cost them re-election or seats in congress is why they tend to do it later when the impact won't have a direct impact on them.
    – Joe W
    Commented Nov 17, 2019 at 16:13
  • But are these stats misleading I don't see how the stats can be misleading unless you're trying to infer something from them. The data is the data. So my question is, are you trying to infer something from that?
    – rath
    Commented Nov 18, 2019 at 15:05

1 Answer 1


The most popular month for both Pardons and Clemency is December, during the holidays. Clemency (commuting the sentence without restoring rights) is far more popular among modern presidents than Pardons. For example, Nixon granted clemency to 653 people during the Decembers he had available compared to the 274 he made in all of the other calendar months combined. For George W. Bush, around 50% of the acts of clemency was made during the December Holiday Season.

Indeed, an analysis of 12 presidents covering 10,626 pardons and commutations shows that December is the most popular month with more than two times the number of pardons compared to the next most popular month.

graph of pardons per month

Source: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2214495

Not only is December the most popular month, the fourth December of the President's term (denoted by the red bar on the graph) is the most popular of all. 30 percent of the December pardons were granted in the fourth December of the President's term. Restricting the time window for the most modern Presidents (Nixon to George W. Bush), that number rises slightly higher to 33 percent. As to why, it comes down to two reasons:

  1. It's the best time to do unpopular Pardons when most of the public is distracted from politics by the Holiday Season.
  2. Forgiveness fits well into the motif of the Christmas season.
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    It's a nice answer, but I'm more interested when in their term rather than calendar year. Commented Nov 17, 2019 at 17:16
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    Yes. Could it be related to "lame duck" periods (the time between an election is held and a the new POTUS is sworn in, in which the sitting POTUS is ensured to suffer no political repercusions because he will not have to face new elections).
    – SJuan76
    Commented Nov 17, 2019 at 17:28
  • 4
    @Fizz 33% of Pardons were issued in the fourth December of the term for Nixon to George W. Bush Commented Nov 17, 2019 at 17:33
  • Why was this edited? There's nothing grammactically incorrect about two times Commented Nov 18, 2019 at 15:15
  • @SJuan76: Typically, the President will hold the most controversial pardons for this period as the President will only hurt the re-election chances of his party, not himself. That said, lame duck controversies are not unique as ousted members of congress will often vote closer to their personal ideological beliefs during this period as well, since they are no longer bogged down by needing to consider their career. It's not unheard of for the ousted party to have last minute push through of legislation by narrow margins.
    – hszmv
    Commented Nov 18, 2019 at 16:06

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