President Donald Trump announced unexpectedly Thursday that he is granting a full pardon to Dinesh D'Souza, the conservative author and filmmaker who pleaded guilty to violating federal campaign finance laws in 2014 after he was indicted earlier that year on charges that he illegally used straw donors to contribute to Republican Senate candidate Wendy Long in New York in 2012.
"Will be giving a Full Pardon to Dinesh D'Souza today. He was treated very unfairly by our government!" Trump tweeted.
Trump, who signed the paperwork formally pardoning D'Souza before announcing it on Twitter, had never met or spoken with D'Souza before this week. He told reporters aboard Air Force One Thursday that he called him for the first time Wednesday night to inform him that he would be pardoning him. The two spoke for nearly three minutes, according to the President.
"He almost had a heart attack," Trump said.
In a tweet celebrating his pardon, D'Souza said "(President Barack) Obama & his stooges tried to extinguish my American dream & destroy my faith in America. Thank you @realDonaldTrump for fully restoring both(.)"
Though Trump said no one had asked him to pardon D'Souza, a source familiar with how things unfolded told CNN that Sen. Ted Cruz, among others, personally lobbied him to consider doing so.
D'Souza's wife confirmed Cruz's role on Twitter.
"I want to thank @realDonaldTrump for giving my husband a pardon but I particularly want to thank @SenTedCruz for putting it on his radar and helping make it happen! So grateful!" Debbie D'Souza tweeted.
The official White House statement on D'Souza's pardon said he was, in the President's opinion, "a victim of selective prosecution for violations of campaign finance laws."
"Mr. D'Souza accepted responsibility for his actions, and also completed community service by teaching English to citizens and immigrants seeking citizenship. In light of these facts, the President has determined that Mr. D'Souza is fully worthy of this pardon," the statement said.
Trump said Thursday that he is also considering pardoning Martha Stewart and pardoning or commuting the sentence of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Both were stars with Trump on NBC's "The Apprentice" franchise.
The President told reporters that Blagojevich had said something "stupid" but that it was similar to what other politicians have said and called the 18-year sentence "really unfair." He added that "plenty of other politicians could have said a lot worse."
D'Souza was sentenced to five years of probation, including eight months living under supervision in a halfway house and a $30,000 fine.
"I knew that causing a campaign contribution to be made in the name of another was wrong and something the law forbids," D'Souza had said at his plea hearing. "I deeply regret my conduct."
D'Souza is a contentious figure who once accused then-President Barack Obama of adopting "the cause of anti-colonialism" from his Kenyan father in a 2010 Forbes magazine cover story when Obama was in office. In the piece, he referred to Obama's father as a "philandering, inebriated African socialist, who raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anticolonial ambitions." He also once argued that Adolf Hitler was not "anti-gay."
"Dinesh D'Souza is an individual who, you know, has made restitution and accepted responsibility for his actions, but these are infractions and crimes that are rarely prosecuted, and many believe that he was the subject of some selective prosecution from the previous administration," White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah said on Fox News Thursday.
"Nonetheless, he's accepted responsibility and the President believes it's appropriate that he receive a pardon after community service, paying a fine, and doing other things that the judge has required," Shah said.
D'Souza once called on comedienne Rosie O'Donnell to be prosecuted for violating campaign finance laws in a fashion similar to his case.
A Justice Department spokesperson confirmed Thursday that Trump's pardon of D'Souza did not go through the department's Office of Pardon Attorney.
In the past, the Office of the Pardon Attorney has assisted the White House on clemency petitions -- though it is not constitutionally required.
Fox News host and former judge Jeanine Pirro called D'Souza's pardon "fantastic news."
"Obama's political prosecution null and void," she added.
Preet Bharara, who brought charges against D'Souza when he was US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, asserted that there was no unfairness in the case.
"The President has the right to pardon but the facts are these: D'Souza intentionally broke the law, voluntarily pled guilty, apologized for his conduct & the judge found no unfairness. The career prosecutors and agents did their job. Period," Bharara, a CNN senior legal analyst, tweeted, along with a link to D'Souza's guilty plea.
Though past presidents have waited until the end of their term for controversial pardons, Trump has granted clemency to four people during his first 16 months in office. His pardons include former Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice in an investigation into leaking the identity of a CIA officer, and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt in a case related to his hard-line tactics with undocumented immigrants.
The President did not use the Office of the Pardon Attorney for the pardons for Arpaio or Libby.
Trump was visibly irked last month when a reporter asked if he would consider a pardon for Michael Cohen, his longtime attorney who is now under federal investigation for possible bank fraud, wire fraud, and campaign finance violations.
"Stupid question," Trump responded.