President Donald Trump on Tuesday pardoned 15 people, including Republican allies, a 2016 campaign official ensnared in the Russia probe and former government contractors convicted in a 2007 massacre in Baghdad.
Trump also commuted the sentences of five people. While it is not unusual for presidents to grant clemency on their way out the door, Trump has made clear that he has no qualms about intervening in the cases of friends and allies whom he believes have been treated unfairly. Despite speculation, though, not on the list were members of Trump’s own family, his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and the president himself.
The pardons included former Republican Reps. Duncan Hunter of California and Chris Collins of New York. Trump commuted the sentence of former Rep. Steve Stockman of Texas.
Collins, the first member of Congress to endorse Trump to be president, was sentenced to two years and two months in federal prison after admitting he helped his son and others dodge $800,000 in stock market losses when he learned that a drug trial by a small pharmaceutical company had failed.
Hunter was sentenced to 11 months in prison after pleading guilty to stealing campaign funds and spending the money on everything from outings with friends to his daughter’s birthday party.
Trump also announced pardons for allies ensnared in the Russia investigation. One was for George Papadopoulos, his 2016 campaign adviser whose conversation unwittingly helped trigger the Russia investigation that shadowed Trump’s presidency for nearly two years. He also pardoned Alex van der Zwaan, a Dutch lawyer who was sentenced to 30 days in prison for lying to investigators during special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Van der Zwaan and Papadopoulos are the third and fourth Russia investigation defendants granted clemency. By pardoning them, Trump once again took aim at Mueller’s probe and pushed a broader effort to undo the results of the investigation that yielded criminal charges against a half-dozen associates.
Last month, Trump pardoned former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and months earlier commuted the sentence of another associate, Roger Stone, days before he was to report to prison.
In the group announced Tuesday night were four former government contractors convicted in a 2007 massacre in Baghdad that left more a dozen Iraqi civilians dead and caused an international uproar over the use of private security guards in a war zone.
Supporters of Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard, the former contractors at Blackwater Worldwide, had lobbied for pardons, arguing that the men had been excessively punished in an investigation and prosecution they said was tainted by problems and withheld exculpatory evidence. All four were serving lengthy prison sentences.
Last November, Trump pardoned a former U.S. Army commando who was set to stand trial next year in the killing of a suspected Afghan bomb-maker and a former Army lieutenant convicted of murder for ordering his men to fire upon three Afghans.
“Paul Slough and his colleagues didn’t deserve to spend one minute in prison,” said Brian Heberlig, a lawyer for one of the four pardoned Blackwater defendants. “I am overwhelmed with emotion at this fantastic news.”
The Blackwater case has taken a complicated path since the killings at Baghdad’s Nisoor Square in September 2007, when the men, former veterans working as contractors for the State Department, opened fire at the crowded traffic circle.
Prosecutors asserted the heavily armed Blackwater convoy launched an unprovoked attack using sniper fire, machine guns and grenade launchers. Defense lawyers argued their clients returned fire after being ambushed by Iraqi insurgents.
They were convicted in 2014 after a monthslong trial in Washington’s federal court, and each man defiantly asserted his innocence at a sentencing hearing the following year.
“I feel utterly betrayed by the same government I served honorably,” Slough told the court in a hearing packed by nearly 100 friends and relatives of the guards.
Slough and two others, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard, were sentenced to 30 years in prison, though after a federal appeals court ordered them to be re-sentenced, they were each given substantially shorter punishments. A fourth, Nicholas Slatten, whom prosecutors blamed for igniting the firefight, was sentenced to life in prison.
A federal appeals court later cut Slatten’s first-degree murder conviction, but the Justice Department tried him again and secured another life sentence last year.
The trial was held years after a first indictment against the men was dismissed when a judge ruled that the Justice Department had withheld evidence from a grand jury and violated the guards’ constitutional rights. The dismissal outraged many Iraqis, who said it showed Americans considered themselves above the law.