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Trump continues to use pardons to reward allies, settle scores

Rep. Duncan Hunter, pictured here on Capitol Hill in 2015, pleaded guilty in a campaign finance scandal.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, pictured here on Capitol Hill in 2015, pleaded guilty in a campaign finance scandal.
(Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call)

President Trump on Tuesday pardoned Duncan Hunter, the former California congressman who last year pleaded guilty in a campaign finance scandal, as the president races to reward allies and settle scores in the final weeks of his term.

Hunter, an outspoken supporter of Trump who had been scheduled to begin his nearly one-year prison sentence next month, admitted to using more than $150,000 in campaign donations to buy video games, dog food, luxury hotel rooms and even plane tickets for his family’s pet rabbits.

The White House said Trump was pardoning Hunter “at the request of many members of Congress.” He did not issue a pardon to Hunter’s estranged wife, Margaret, who pleaded guilty to her role in the same scheme and has since filed for divorce.

The pardon was part of a new batch of clemency actions by Trump, who has relished his unilateral power to wipe felonies from supporters’ records or cut their sentences short. Tuesday’s announcement included a total of 15 pardons and five commutations and includes two former members of Congress besides Hunter, two men who pleaded guilty in connection with the Russia investigation and four former private security guards involved in one of the most notorious incidents in the Iraq war.

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Hunter was the second member of Congress to endorse Trump. The first, former New York congressman Chris Collins, also received a pardon on Tuesday. He pleaded guilty last year to securities fraud and lying to investigators.

A key part of the case against Collins was a series of phone calls he made from the South Lawn of the White House, where he was attending a congressional picnic three years ago, to share inside information about a pharmaceutical company in which his family had invested. Informed that the company’s only product, a drug aimed at multiple sclerosis, had failed its trials, Collins told his son, who quickly sold roughly 1 million shares the next day.

A third former Republican congressman, Steve Stockman of Texas, had his sentence commuted by Trump. Stockman has served two years of his 10-year sentence for misusing charitable funds.

In addition, the president continued to target the Russia investigation with his clemency power. He pardoned George Papadopoulos, a former campaign advisor, and Alex van der Zwaan, a lawyer who was connected to Trump campaign leaders. Both of them pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators.

Last month, Trump pardoned Michael Flynn, his former national security advisor, and commuted the sentence of Roger Stone, a longtime political advisor. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, and he admitted to secretly lobbying for Turkey. Last year, Stone was convicted of lying to Congress and witness tampering.

Tuesday’s pardons included four men who had been convicted for their involvement in one of the most notorious incidents in the Iraq war, the killing of 17 civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square by employees of Blackwater, a private company hired to provide security to State Department officials in the country.

Ten men, two women and two boys, aged 9 and 11, were shot and killed in the 2007 incident. One of the men receiving a pardon, Nicholas Slatten, was serving a life sentence after a jury convicted him in December 2018 of first-degree murder.

The other three defendants — Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard — had been given mandatory-minimum sentences of 30 years each on manslaughter and firearm charges.

Slatten and his supporters had argued that he and the other three were scapegoated by U.S. officials to assuage Iraqi public opinion, which was inflamed by what many Iraqis considered an unprovoked massacre. The men were shot in the mistaken belief that a potential suicide bomber was moving toward the convoy they were guarding, defense lawyers argued.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, who presided over the trial, rejected the scapegoating argument when he sentenced Slatten last year.

“The jury got it exactly right,” the judge said. “This was murder.”

Blackwater’s founder, Erik Prince, is the brother of Trump’s secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.

Trump has brushed off crimes committed by U.S. personnel in war zones. Last year he pardoned Clint Lorance, a former Army lieutenant who was serving a 19-year sentence for ordering his men to open fire on unarmed Afghan men in 2012. Two of them were killed.

“Lie to cover up for the president? You get a pardon,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, tweeted on Tuesday night. “Corrupt politician who endorsed Trump? You get a pardon. Murder innocent civilians? You get a pardon.”


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