Trump issues wave of pardons and commutations to Russia probe defendants, former GOP lawmakers, Blackwater guards, and Border Patrol agents

Erin Schaff – Pool/Getty ImagesPresident Donald Trump at the White House on November 26, 2020.
  • President Donald Trump issued a wave of pardons and commutations to 20 people on Tuesday.
  • Included on the list were two associates who were ensnared in the FBI’s Russia investigation, as well as multiple former Republican congressmen who were convicted of or pleaded guilty to several felonies.
  • Also included were four Blackwater guards who were implicated in the 2007 massacre of 14 Iraqi civilians, and two Border Patrol agents accused of shooting an unarmed undocumented immigrant in 2006 and covering it up.
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President Donald Trump issued a series of pardons and commutations on Tuesday to 20 people including associates ensnared in the Russia probe, three former Republican congressmen who pleaded guilty to or were convicted of felonies, and four former Blackwater guards implicated in the massacre of more than a dozen Iraqi civilians.

Also included on Trump’s list of pardons were two former Border Patrol agents who were convicted in connection to the shooting of an unarmed undocumented immigrant. And the president granted executive clemency to multiple individuals convicted of nonviolent drug offences.

Among the former lawmakers Trump pardoned was Duncan Hunter, who pleaded guilty last year to one count of misusing campaign funds. He was sentenced to 11 months in prison but has not yet begun serving out his sentence.

Also on the list was former GOP congressman Steve Stockman, who was convicted in 2018 on 23 felony counts of fraud, money laundering, conspiracy, and false statements. Stockman was sentenced to ten years in prison and ordered to pay more than $US1 million in restitution. Trump commuted the remainder of Stockman’s sentence on Tuesday, citing his age, his pre-existing health conditions, and the fact that he contracted COVID-19 while in prison.

Trump also granted a pardon to former Rep. Chris Collins, who pleaded guilty last year to making false statements to the FBI and conspiracy to commit securities fraud. He is currently serving out a 26-month sentence.

The four Blackwater guards Trump pardoned on Tuesday were found guilty in connection to a deadly shooting in Baghdad that killed 14 Iraqi civilians. One of the former contractors, Nicholas Slatten, was convicted of first-degree murder and is serving out a lifetime prison sentence. The other three defendants were convicted of multiple counts of voluntary manslaughter, attempted manslaughter, and firearms offences.

“This verdict is a resounding affirmation of the commitment of the American people to the rule of law, even in times of war,” the US attorney in Washington, DC, said in a statement after the verdict came out in 2014. “Seven years ago, these Blackwater contractors unleashed powerful sniper fire, machine guns and grenade launchers on innocent men, women, and children. Today, they were held accountable for that outrageous attack and its devastating consequences for so many Iraqi families.”

The two former Border Patrol agents the president pardoned, Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean, were convicted in 2006 for shooting and injuring an unarmed undocumented immigrant. Their sentences were later commuted by President George W. Bush, and Trump granted them full pardons on Tuesday.

George Papadopoulos and Alex van der Zwaan both pleaded guilty to charges in connection to the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election. Both men were pardoned on Tuesday.

Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy advisor to Trump’s 2016 campaign, pleaded guilty to one count of lying to the FBI as part of the Mueller investigation. But he later backtracked on the admission, saying in his book that he “misspoke” to the FBI and that the lie he pleaded guilty to was “unintentional.”

He also wrote that he felt “forced” into pleading guilty to avoid being charged with violating foreign lobbying laws. The former aide also told Reuters last year that he had formally applied for a pardon from Trump. Papadopoulos reiterated his hope for a pardon last month, saying in an interview with ABC’s Chicago affiliate this month, “Of course I would be honoured to be pardoned.”

Van der Zwaan, a Dutch lawyer who worked with former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates, was charged with “wilfully and knowingly” making “false, fictitious, and fraudulent statements and representations” to federal investigators about his work in 2012 for the law firm Skadden, Arps, Meagher & Flom.

He was also accused of misleading federal investigators about his communications with Gates, who is a longtime associate of Manafort.

In particular, van der Zwaan is said to have lied to investigators about why he did not provide the special counsel Robert Mueller’s office with a September 2016 email between him and another person referred to as “Person A” in the February charging document.

Papadopoulos and van der Zwaan are among several Trump associates caught up in the Russia probe whom the president has shown leniency to in recent months.

In July, he commuted the sentence of the longtime Republican strategist Roger Stone, who was convicted last year of seven felony counts of making false statements, obstruction, and witness tampering. Last month, Trump also pardoned former national security advisor Michael Flynn, who in December 2017 pleaded guilty to one count of lying to the FBI.

Politico reported earlier this month that Trump is considering pardoning as many as 20 associates in the waning days of his presidency, including his three eldest children, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and his personal defence lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

Axios reported that the president is offering pardons “like Christmas gifts” and has even offered them to people who never asked for and did not want them.

The president’s pardon power as outlined in the Constitution is extraordinarily broad and has very few exceptions. That said, Trump has faced significant blowback for his decision to show leniency towards his friends and allies, as well as his willingness to circumvent the extensive legal and ethical review process that determines who receives executive clemency.

Jack Goldsmith, a professor at Harvard Law School, tallied up the number of pardons Trump has issued throughout his presidency, and found that 88% were granted to those who were close to him or political loyalists.

Trump’s actions this week and media reports detailing the executive clemency grants that still may come show he’s been more than willing to continue testing the limits of that power, and he’s even suggested pardoning himself.

Trump has not been charged with any crime but is caught up in multiple federal and state investigations into his business and financial dealings. He was named as “Individual-1,” an unindicted co-conspirator, in the Manhattan US attorney’s office’s charging document against the former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance laws while facilitating illegal hush-money payments to two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump.

Mueller’s team also found at least ten instances in which Trump may have obstructed justice in connection to the Russia inquiry. Prosecutors ultimately declined to make a “tradiitonal prosecutorial judgment” on whether Trump obstructed justice, citing a 1973 Justice Department memo saying a sitting president cannot be indicted. But Mueller testified to Congress last year that the president could be charged with obstruction upon leaving office.

The president is also the focus of two fraud investigations in New York looking into the Trump Organisation. Any charges that stem from the inquiries would not fall under the scope of the pardon power, which only applies to federal crimes.

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