In an audacious pre-Christmas round of pardons, President Trump granted clemency on Tuesday to two people who pleaded guilty in the special counsel’s Russia inquiry, four Blackwater guards convicted in connection with the killing of Iraqi civilians and three corrupt former Republican members of Congress.
It was a remarkable assertion of pardon power by a president who continues to dispute his loss in the election and might well be followed by other pardons in the weeks before he leaves office on Jan. 20.
Mr. Trump nullified more of the legal consequences of an investigation into his 2016 campaign that he long labeled a hoax. He granted clemency to contractors whose actions in Iraq set off an international uproar and helped turn public opinion further against the war there. And he pardoned three members of his party who had become high-profile examples of public corruption.
The 15 pardons and five commutations were made public by the White House in a statement on Tuesday evening. They appeared in many cases to have bypassed the traditional Justice Department review process — more than half of the cases did not meet the department’s standards for consideration — and reflected Mr. Trump’s long-held grudges about the Russia investigation, his instinct to side with members of the military accused of wrongdoing and his willingness to reward political allies.
Hundreds if not thousands of clemency seekers have been looking for avenues of influence to Mr. Trump as he weighs pardons before leaving office. The statement highlighted a number of prominent Republicans and Trump allies who had weighed in on behalf of those granted clemency. Among them were Pam Bondi, a former Florida attorney general and lobbyist who helped defend Mr. Trump during his impeachment, and Pete Hegseth, a Fox News commentator who has pushed for previous pardons of service members.
One of the most notable pardons went to George Papadopoulos, who was a foreign policy adviser to Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign and who pleaded guilty in 2017 to making false statements to federal officials as part of the investigation by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III.
Alex van der Zwaan, a lawyer who pleaded guilty to the same charge in 2018 in connection with the special counsel’s inquiry, was also pardoned. Both he and Mr. Papadopoulos served short prison sentences.
The Mueller-related pardons are a signal of more to come for people caught up in the investigation, according to people close to the president.
Mr. Trump has already pardoned his first national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, who pleaded guilty twice to charges including lying to the F.B.I. in connection with the Russia inquiry. In July, the president commuted the sentence of Roger J. Stone Jr., his longtime adviser who was convicted on a series of charges related to the investigation. Both men have maintained their innocence.
Mr. Trump’s list of pardons on Tuesday included four former U.S. service members who were convicted on charges related to the killing of Iraqi civilians while working as contractors for Blackwater in 2007.
One of them, Nicholas Slatten, had been sentenced to life in prison after the Justice Department had gone to great lengths to prosecute him. Mr. Slatten had been a contractor for the private company Blackwater and was sentenced for his role in the killing of 17 Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square in Baghdad — a massacre that left one of the most lasting stains of the war on the United States. Among those dead were two boys, 8 and 11.
The three former members of Congress pardoned by Mr. Trump were Duncan D. Hunter of California, Chris Collins of New York and Steve Stockman of Texas.
Mr. Hunter was set to begin serving an 11-month sentence next month. He pleaded guilty in 2019 to one charge of misusing campaign funds.
Mr. Collins, an early supporter of Mr. Trump, had been serving a 26-month sentence after pleading guilty in 2019 to charges of making false statements to the F.B.I. and to conspiring to commit securities fraud.
Mr. Stockman was convicted in 2018 on charges of fraud and money laundering and had been serving a 10-year sentence. Sidney Powell, the lawyer and election conspiracy theorist whom Mr. Trump considered making a White House special counsel to investigate election fraud, argued that he was a candidate for a pardon.
The president also granted full pardons to two former Border Patrol agents whose sentences for their roles in the shooting of an alleged drug trafficker had previously been commuted by President George W. Bush.
Mr. Trump’s moves on Tuesday support the notion that he has used his pardon power more aggressively than most presidents for personal and political purposes. Under the Constitution, the president is the ultimate emergency brake on the criminal justice system.
A tabulation by the Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith found that of Mr. Trump’s 45 pardons or commutations before Tuesday, 88 percent went to people with personal ties to the president or to people who furthered his political aims.
The pardons “continue Trump’s unprecedented pattern of issuing self-serving pardons and commutations that advance his personal interests, reward friends, seek retribution against enemies, or gratify political constituencies,” Mr. Goldsmith said Tuesday. “Like his past pardons, most if not all of them appear to be based on insider recommendations rather than normal Justice Department vetting process.”
The pardons of the Blackwater contractors have direct links to two of Mr. Trump’s close allies: Erik Prince, the former head of Blackwater, and Mr. Prince’s sister Betsy DeVos, the education secretary.
Mr. Prince’s own conduct was investigated by the special counsel’s office. During the 2017 transition, Mr. Prince met with a Russia-sanctioned banker in the Seychelles to come up with ways the Russian government and the incoming Trump administration could cooperate.
President Trump has discussed potential pardons that could test the boundaries of his constitutional power to nullify criminal liability. Here’s some clarity on his ability to pardon.
- May a president issue prospective pardons before any charges or conviction? Yes. In Ex parte Garland, an 1866 case involving a former Confederate senator who had been pardoned by President Andrew Johnson, the Supreme Court said the pardon power “extends to every offense known to the law, and may be exercised at any time after its commission, either before legal proceedings are taken or during their pendency, or after conviction and judgment.” It is unusual for a president to issue a prospective pardon before any charges are filed, but there are examples, perhaps most famously President Gerald R. Ford’s pardon in 1974 of Richard M. Nixon to prevent him from being prosecuted after the Watergate scandal.
- May a president pardon his relatives and close allies? Yes. The Constitution does not bar pardons that raise the appearance of self-interest or a conflict of interest, even if they may provoke a political backlash and public shaming. In 2000, shortly before leaving office, President Bill Clinton issued a slew of controversial pardons, including to his half brother, Roger Clinton, over a 1985 cocaine conviction for which he had served about a year in prison, and to Susan H. McDougal, a onetime Clinton business partner who had been jailed as part of the Whitewater investigation.
- May a president issue a general pardon? This is unclear. Usually, pardons are written in a way that specifically describes which crimes or sets of activities they apply to. There is little precedent laying out the degree to which a pardon can be used to instead foreclose criminal liability for anything and everything.
- May a president pardon himself? This is unclear. There is no definitive answer because no president has ever tried to pardon himself and then faced prosecution anyway. As a result, there has never been a case which gave the Supreme Court a chance to resolve the question. In the absence of any controlling precedent, legal thinkers are divided about the matter.
- Find more answers here.
By nullifying the legal consequences of convictions in the Russia inquiry, Mr. Trump escalated a long campaign, aided by his departing attorney general, William P. Barr, to effectively undo Mr. Mueller’s investigation, discredit the resulting prosecutions and punish those who instigated it in the first place.
The White House continued to chip away Mueller investigation’s legacy in the statement released Tuesday night. It made a point of saying that the inquiry “found no evidence of collusion in connection with Russia’s attempts to interfere in the election,” and it dismissively referred to Mr. Papadopoulos’s crime as “process related.”
Mr. Papadopoulos, 33, served 12 days in jail for lying to the F.B.I. about his contacts with Russian intermediaries during the 2016 presidential race. He later published a book portraying himself as a victim of a “deep state” plot to “bring down President Trump.” In an interview last month, he welcomed the possibility of clemency.
“Of course I would be honored to be pardoned,” Mr. Papadopoulos said.
Mr. van der Zwaan was sentenced in April 2018 to 30 days in prison for lying to investigators for the special counsel’s office about his contacts with a business associate, said to be a Russian intelligence officer, who worked closely with Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.
Mr. Manafort was convicted in 2018 on a range of charges, including tax and bank fraud. He was ordered to serve a combined seven years in prison. This year, Mr. Manafort was granted home confinement amid fears of the coronavirus spreading in prisons.
Mr. Manafort had agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, and he pleaded guilty to some charges against him, but prosecutors later accused him of misleading them and of being of no use in the investigation. Mr. Manafort’s allies hope that Mr. Trump will pardon him.
Two other figures convicted in the Russia investigation — Mr. Manafort’s deputy, Rick Gates, and the president’s former personal lawyer Michael D. Cohen — are seen as unlikely candidates for a pardon from Mr. Trump. Both men cooperated with the investigations into the president.
The case involving the Blackwater contractors was one of the low points in the Iraq war: The killing of the civilians in Nisour Square, which destroyed any remaining credibility the United States had with Iraqis. The case highlighted the outsize role that military contractors had taken on to help beleaguered American forces in Iraq and led to a series of disclosures about how American contractors were acting like thuggish militias throughout the country.
Prosecution proved to be an enormous headache for the Justice Department, as investigators first needed to collect evidence at a crime scene on the other side of the world. In 2009, a federal judge dismissed the cases against four of the contractors, arguing that investigators had relied on tainted evidence.
Two years later, the federal appeals court in Washington reversed that decision. Although the case was reopened, it still took many years to resolve it. In 2019, Mr. Slatten was sentenced to life in prison for what prosecutors alleged was his role in firing the first shot in Nisour Square that killed a civilian and led to contractors firing grenades and machine guns into the crowd.
One commutation on the White House’s list stood out for the connections of the recipient. Philip Esformes, who was sentenced last year to 20 years in prison for Medicaid fraud, had his commutation recommended by, among others, two former attorneys general, Edwin Meese and Michael Mukasey, the White House said.
Peter Baker contributed reporting.