Trump latest batch of pardons favors the well-connected

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President Donald Trump issued a series of pre-Christmas pardons and commutations Tuesday, granting clemency to the former campaign operative whose 2016 activities triggered the FBI probe that led to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, to three former Republican congressmen and to four security contractors convicted for massacring Iraqi civilians in 2008.

Trump’s pardons included his first two congressional endorsers, former Rep. Chris Collins — convicted on charges related to insider trading — and former Rep. Duncan Hunter, who pleaded guilty to flagrant campaign finance abuses, including some to support extramarital affairs. Collins was already serving a 26-month sentence. Hunter had yet to begin his 11-month term.

Some of Trump’s actions seemed intended to send a clear message, such as disapproval of Mueller’s investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, while the pardons to Collins and Hunter appeared to simply be rewards for their political loyalty.

Trump also commuted the sentence of former Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas), who was convicted in 2018 on a variety of fraud and money laundering charges. Stockman had served two years of a 10-year sentence.

Others, including a few for people convicted of drug offenses, are part of a modest number of clemency grants Trump has offered to convicts whose cases were pursued by prominent criminal justice reform advocates. Trump’s predecessor, President Barack Obama, issued far more in those sorts of cases and actively solicited clemency applications.

Trump’s decision to pardon George Papadopoulos, whose early-2016 interactions with a Russia-linked professor led the FBI to launch the counterintelligence investigation into Trump’s campaign, follows a roller coaster for the young operative.

Papadopoulos initially cooperated with investigators and hinted he would play a whistleblower-type role. He pleaded guilty in 2017 to a false-statement charge and wound up serving 12 days in prison.

Later, he very publicly broke with investigators, alleging he was the target of an anti-Trump operation. He wrote a book called “Deep State Target” that turned him into a Trump-world darling.

“We are both very happy!” Papadopoulous said in a brief message to POLITICO when asked about his pardon, a reference to him and his wife Simona Mangiante Papadopoulos, who also played a brief role in the Mueller probe.

Trump had once dismissed Papadopoulos as a “low level volunteer” who had “proven to be a liar.” But Papadopoulos’ conversion into Trump acolyte changed his fortunes. Trump also pardoned a bit player in the Mueller investigation, Alex van der Zwaan, whose interactions with Trump advisers Paul Manafort and Rick Gates became of interest to investigators.

Van der Zwaan, a Skadden Arps attorney, pleaded guilty in 2018 to a felony false-statement charge. He admitted that he lied to the FBI and lawyers for Mueller’s office during questioning about his involvement with a report the firm prepared in 2012 at the request of the Ukrainian government. Van der Zwaan served a 30-day sentence in 2018 before leaving the country.

The pardons come less than two weeks after Trump pardoned another central figure in the Russia probe, former national security adviser MIchael Flynn.

One set of Trump pardons released Tuesday could result in significant fallout overseas. Trump effectively wiped out the convictions of four contractors for the former Blackwater Worldwide security firm in connection with a shooting spree in Baghdad’s Nisour Square that left 17 Iraqis dead and 20 wounded.

One of the former Blackwater contractors granted a full pardon Tuesday by Trump, Nicholas Slatten, was convicted serving a sentence of life in prison. The three others, Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty and Paul Slough, were serving terms of between 12 and 15 years in prison.

Iraqi anger over the massacre and the perceived impunity of security contractors led the country to attempt to ban armed private contractors altogether and to demands for the four men and a colleague–collectively known as the Blackwater 5–to be returned to Iraq for trial.

President George W. Bush eventually brokered a deal that promised the contractors would face justice in the U.S. and allowed security contractors to continue operating in Iraq.

Trump could have simply commuted the sentences of the men, but he granted the full pardons, suggesting he viewed their convictions as unjust.

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