In an audacious pre-Christmas round of pardons, President Trump granted clemency on Tuesday to two people convicted 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 has disputed his loss in the election and might be only the start of more to come in the final 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.
Among those pardoned was 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.
Also pardoned was Alex van der Zwaan, a lawyer who pleaded guilty to the same charge in 2018 in connection to the special counsel’s inquiry. Both men 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 recently pardoned his former 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 inquiry into Russian involvement in the election. The president in July 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 pardon list also included four former U.S. service members who were convicted on charges related to the killing of Iraqi civilians while working as contractors 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 10 men, two women and two boys, who were 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 endorser of Mr. Trump, is 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 was serving a 10-year sentence.
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.
The pardons are not likely to be the last before Mr. Trump leaves office on Jan. 20, and they will no doubt feed the notion that he has used his pardon power aggressively for personal and political purposes. The founders gave the president the power to serve as the ultimate emergency brake on the criminal justice system to right the wrongs of those deserving of grace in mercy.
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.
A tabulation by the Harvard Law School professor Jack Goldsmith found that of the 45 pardons or commutations that Mr. Trump had granted up until Tuesday, 88 percent aided someone with a personal tie to the president or furthered his political aims.
And 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 the investigation by Mr. Mueller, discredit the resulting prosecutions and punish those who instigated it in the first place.
The White House continued to chip away at the legacy of the Mueller investigation in a statement released on Tuesday night. The statement made a point of saying that the Mueller investigation “found no evidence of collusion in connection with Russia’s attempts to interfere in the election,” and 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.
Peter Baker contributed reporting.