During an NBC News town hall, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden botched statistics about clemencies during the Obama administration and the size of the Black population in Delaware.
Former President Barack Obama did not grant clemency to “18,000 people,” as Biden claimed. Combined, Obama pardoned or commuted the prison sentences of about 1,900 individuals.
And, as of 2019, Delaware’s total estimated Black population ranked 33rd among all 50 states and Washington, D.C. It’s not the “eighth largest Black population” in raw numbers, as the former vice president suggested.
In both cases, Biden meant to say something else, his campaign told us.
The Oct. 5 campaign event, which was held outdoors in Miami, was moderated by “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt and featured questions from undecided voters in the swing state of Florida. NBC said it was seen by an average of 6.7 million viewers across three networks, “making it the most-watched town hall during both the 2020 and 2016 election cycles, according to Nielsen Media Research.”
During an exchange about criminal justice reform, Biden claimed “18,000 people … got clemency” during the Obama-Biden administration, and only “two or three” have received it during the Trump administration. That’s false.
Holt, Oct. 5: Mr. Vice President, though, the critics and Donald Trump himself will say that you had almost 50 years working in government and legislation and as a vice president, and you weren’t able to accomplish those things then.
Biden: Yes, and I wasn’t president.
Holt: He points out the criminal justice reform bill. You and Barack Obama served at a time when you had both houses of Congress and still couldn’t get some of these things done.
Biden: Yeah, we did. We let — 18,000 people were — got clemency. He got two or three, what he’s talking about.
The Department of Justice keeps statistics on executive clemency actions, including the two most common forms: pardons and commutations.
A presidential pardon is “an expression of the President’s forgiveness and ordinarily is granted in recognition of the applicant’s acceptance of responsibility for the crime and established good conduct for a significant period of time after conviction or completion of sentence,” the Justice Department’s FAQ page says. A pardon restores a convicted person’s civil abilities including the right to vote, hold public office and serve on a jury.
A commutation, meanwhile, “reduces a sentence, either totally or partially, that is then being served, but it does not change the fact of conviction, imply innocence, or remove civil disabilities that apply to the convicted person as a result of the criminal conviction.”
Obama, during his eight years as president, awarded presidential pardons to 212 people, and he commuted the prison sentences of 1,715 others. That’s a total of 1,927 acts of clemency.
Biden’s campaign told us he misspoke and meant to say 1,800 — not 18,000.
Trump hasn’t granted clemency to only “two or three” individuals, either. Through 43.5 months as president, Trump issued 27 pardons and 11 commutations, according to DOJ data as of Sept. 8.
The American Bar Association said, “The majority of President Obama’s clemency grants were for nonviolent drug offenders, as part of a clemency initiative established by the Department of Justice in 2014.” The Obama-era initiative encouraged qualified federal inmates to petition the president to have their sentences commuted or reduced.
On the other hand, “most of Trump’s grants of clemency,” based on a Washington Post review, “have gone to well-connected offenders who had not filed petitions with the pardon office or did not meet its requirements.” The Post actually wrote that article in February, months before Trump commuted the 40-month prison sentence of Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime associate and political adviser, who was convicted last November of witness tampering, lying to Congress and obstructing a congressional investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Other politically connected figures who were pardoned or had their sentences commuted by Trump include: former Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio; the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby; conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza, former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik and former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Delaware’s Black Population
After talking about clemency actions, Biden mentioned how he was involved in the civil rights movement in Delaware when he was younger.
“My state is the eighth largest Black population. No great shakes, I’m not making myself out to be a great civil rights leader. But that’s how I got involved with politics,” he said.
However, as of 2019, Delaware — with an estimated 219,418 Black residents — ranked 33rd out of all states and the District of Columbia, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The top 10 states with the largest Black population in raw numbers were Texas, Florida, Georgia, New York, California, North Carolina, Maryland, Illinois, Virginia and Louisiana.
Biden would have been on target if he had said “my state is the eighth largest Black population in the United States of America as a percent of population.” That’s what he told the national associations of Black and Hispanic journalists in an Aug. 6 interview.
In 2019, 22.5% of Delaware’s 973,764 residents were Black, according to the most recent Census estimates. Only D.C., Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Maryland, Alabama and South Carolina had more Black residents as a share of their total population than Biden’s home state.
But he left out the necessary “percent of population” qualifier in his town hall remarks.