Two men convicted as a result of the investigation of President Donald Trump's staff ties to Russia, a Republican congressman convicted of misusing campaign funds, and four Blackwater security guards convicted of murder for the deaths of 17 Iraqis in Baghdad are among the 20 people granted some form of clemency by Trump this evening.
In addition, some lesser-known people convicted of drug crimes or smaller incidences of fraud were granted mercy by the president. Weldon Angelos, who became a cause celebre demonstrating the harshness of federal mandatory minimums, was granted a full pardon this evening. Angelos was sentenced to 55 years in prison for three marijuana deals. He was freed in 2016 due to the mercy of a prosecutor who had second thoughts about all the charges piled on the man.
Pardoning Angelos, along with some other lesser-known folks, is genuinely good for criminal justice. Unfortunately, Trump's dollops of mercy here will be overshadowed by some of the other very politicized pardons.
Trump pardoned two more people who gotten caught up in the Russia probe of Trump's campaign in Robert Mueller's special investigation, George Papadopoulos and Alex van der Zwaan. The two men, much like Michael Flynn, had been convicted of lying to FBI agents during the course of the investigation. And much like Flynn, they were not charged with any additional crimes. Both have already served their time (14 days for Papadopoulos, and 30 days for van der Zwaan, who was also subsequently deported).
Trump pardoned former California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter. Hunter was convicted in March and sentenced to 11 months in prison for misusing hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds for personal purposes, including trips, parties, and entertainment.
Two other Republican politicians also received mercy from Trump. Former U.S. Rep. Chris Collins of New York, who pleaded guilty to insider trading in 2019 and was sentenced to 26 months in prison, was given a full pardon. Former Texas Rep. Steve Stockman, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2018 for misusing charitable and political donations for personal use, wasn't pardoned, but Trump commuted the remainder of his sentence.
Beyond that crop of purely political clemency gestures, Trump also fully pardoned four men—Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, and Dustin Heard—who were all convicted of various murder and manslaughter charges for the shooting deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square in Baghdad while serving as private contracted guards with Blackwater. In the pardon announcement, the White House justified the pardons because:
On appeal, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that additional evidence should have been presented at Mr. Slatten's trial. Further, prosecutors recently disclosed—more than 10 years after the incident—that the lead Iraqi investigator, who prosecutors relied heavily on to verify that there were no insurgent victims and to collect evidence, may have had ties to insurgent groups himself.
Meanwhile, this very same administration is setting modern records by executing prisoners convicted of murder, even as their defense attorneys make complaints that courts and juries weren't given the full picture of their crimes. Just two weeks ago, the Department of Justice under Trump executed Brandon Bernard, even though five jurors who sentenced him to death and a prosecutor who worked on the case had come forward to say they had changed their minds.
The White House letter explaining these pardons lists who pushed the president for mercy, and very frequently it's Trump allies in Congress or in the administration who have pushed for these pardons.
This doesn't necessarily make them bad and wrong—we should all take a dim view of any federal conviction whose sole charges are lying to the FBI—but the list of commutations shows a president who is not terribly interested in mercy for anybody outside of his orbit. Trump ultimately has a poor record of commutations and pardons (though he has just improved on it). The New York Times notes, "A tabulation by the Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith found that of the 45 pardons or commutations that Mr. Trump had granted up until Tuesday, 88 percent aided someone with a personal tie to the president or furthered his political aims."
Tonight added more pardons and commutations to those with ties to Trump, as well as to those without.
Surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden was not on tonight's list, but we know several lawmakers in Trump's orbit are trying to convince him. And, of course, there are many, many more people behind bars who are in situations like Angelos. Let's hope Trump's mercy extends to them as well.