Politics

Trump pardons 15, including people convicted in Mueller probe

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Key Points
  • President Donald Trump issued pardons to 15 people, including those convicted as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, and commuted some or all of the criminal sentence of five others.
  • Those granted pardons include former congressmen Duncan Hunter of California, and New York's Chris Collins, as well as former Trump campaign foreign policy advisor GeorgePapadopoulos.
  • Four former Blackwater USA guards who were convicted in the killings of 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007 also were pardoned by Trump.
  • Before this week Trump, who lost the presidential election to Joe Biden had issued just 28 pardons and commuted the sentences of 16 other people, a sharply lower rate than presidents since 1900.
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President Trump issues 15 pardons, including two Russia figures and Blackwater guards

President Donald Trump on Tuesday issued pardons to 15 people, including two men convicted as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, and four former Blackwater USA guards who were convicted in the killings of 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007.

Others who received pardons included two former Republican congressmen who admitted committing financial-related crimes.

Trump also commuted all or some of the criminal sentences of five other people, as the president faces his last month in office.

One of those people, south Florida health-care facility owner Philip Esformes, was sentenced in September 2019 to 20 years in prison for what prosecutors said was "the largest health care fraud ever charged by the Department of Justice." Esformes, 52, will now be freed from prison because of Trump's action.

Trump, who has been harshly critical of Muller's investigation into his 2016 campaign and its contacts with Russians, pardoned his former campaign foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos, who had been convicted of making false statements during that probe.

George Papadopoulos, a former member of the foreign policy panel to Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, poses for a photo before a TV interview in New York, New York, U.S., March 26, 2019.
Carlo Allegri | Reuters

"Today's pardon helps correct the wrong that Mueller's team inflicted on so many people," Trump's press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement about Papadopoulous.

The president also pardoned Alex van der Zwaan, a lawyer and Dutch national who pleaded guilty of lying to the FBI during the Mueller probe. Van der Zwaan was the first person convicted in the investigation, and was sentenced in 2018 to 30 days in jail.

Alex van der Zwaan leaves the U.S. District Court after his sentencing in Washington, April 3, 2018.
Leah Millis | Reuters

The four former Blackwater security contractors who received pardons, Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard, opened fire in and around Nisur Square in Baghdad on Sept. 16, 2007, according to evidence in their cases. Fourteen civilians were killed, including two women and two boys, age 11 and 9, according to the Justice Deparment. At least 17 more victims were injured.

Slatten, who was convicted of murder, fired "without provocation," according to the Justice Department. He has been serving a sentence of life in prison.

The other three men were convicted of manslaughter and other charges, and were re-sentenced last year to 15 years in prison, half of their original sentences.

In a statement, McEnany said that "the pardon of these four veterans is broadly supported by the public, including Pete Hegseth," a Fox News contributor, and a number of GOP congressmen.

"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," McEnany said in her statement.

Others granted pardons include former congressmen Duncan Hunter of California and New York's Chris Collins.

Former U.S. Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) exits federal court on October 1, 2019 in New York City.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images

Collins, who pleaded guilty last year to crimes related to tipping off his son about non-public information about a pharmaceutical company's failed drug trial, was the first member of Congress to endorse Trump's campaign as president in 2015. He began serving a prison sentence of 26 months in October.

Hunter pleaded guilty in 2019 to misusing campaign funds, along with his wife, who together converted and stole more than $250,000 over several years. He was due to begin serving an 11-month jail sentence next month.

Another fallen GOP member of Congress, Steve Stockman of Texas, had the rest of his 10-year prison sentence for misuse of charitable funds commuted by the president. Stockman, 64, had served more than two years of that term, and contracted Covid-19 this year.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., condemned many of the pardons in a scathing statement.

"I doubt government contractors who slaughtered civilians or corrupt Congressional cronies were what the Founders had in mind when they drafted the pardon clause," said Blumenthal, who is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"Most despicably, President Trump is twisting this presidential power to reward allies who broke the law on his behal," he said. "Donald Trump leaves the presidency just as he took it: without a shred of respect for the Constitution and as a complete disgrace to his office."

Trump also pardoned two former U.S. Border Patrol agents, Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean, for their convictions of shooting and wounding an unarmed illegal alien who was trafficking 700 pounds of marijuana in 2005. President George W. Bush had commuted their prison sentences of 11 and 12 years respectively, in 2009.

The pardons come as Trump has refused to concede that he lost the presidential election to Joe Biden, whose victory was certified last week by the Electoral College. Trump's loss set off immediate speculation that he would reward allies and others with executive clemency actions in his final weeks in the White House.

Trump has been notably stingy with granting executive clemency, which includes pardons and sentence commutations, compared with previous presidents.

Before Tuesday, Trump had issued just 28 pardons and commuted the criminal sentences of 16 other people, according to the Justice Department, a sharply lower rate than that of even other one-term presidents.

Trump's pardons have included ones to financial fraudster Michael Milken; press baron Conrad Black; former Arizona sheriff Joe Arapaio, who was convicted of contempt of court; Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the former advisor to ex-Vice President Dick Cheney for obstruction of justice; conservative gadfly Dinesh D'Souza, for campaign contribution fraud; and ex-New York Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik, for tax and other crimes.

In November, Trump pardoned his first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, for making false statements to FBI agents.

In July, Trump commuted the 40-month prison sentence of Republican consultant Roger Stone, who was convicted of lying to Congress.

Beneficiaries of his prison sentence commutations also have included former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who tried to sell an appointment to the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when the latter became president.

Trump previously issued pardons to several dead people, among them the early 20th century Black boxing champion Jack Johnson, for the crime of crossing state lines with his white girlfriend, and Susan B. Anthony, the 19th suffragette convicted of illegal voting.

Trump also pardoned the late scientist Zay Jeffries, who was convicted of engaging in anticompetitive conduct in violation of the Sherman antitrust law in 1948, the year President Harry Truman awarded him the Presidential Medal of Merit for work during World War II, which included contributions to the Manhattan Project.

Trump in August pardoned Alice Marie Johnson, a woman convicted of cocaine distribution conspiracy. The president two years earlier had commuted Johnson's sentence of life imprisonment after lobbying on her behalf by the reality TV star Kim Kardashian West.

The only other one-term president in the past 30 years, Trump's fellow Republican George H.W. Bush, by comparison pardoned 74 people and issued commutations for three others.

Obama, who served two terms in office before Trump, pardoned 212 people, or more than six times the number pardoned by Trump in half of that time. Obama commuted the sentences of more than 1,700 people.

The last Republican to serve two terms, George W. Bush, pardoned 189 people, and commuted 11 sentences.