Snowden allies see opening amid Trump clemency blitzDecember 25, 2020
The pardons have started. And they’re not going to stop.
Sensing an opening, some of Trump’s closest congressional allies are imploring the president to add one controversial name to his list: Edward Snowden.
Aware that Trump bypasses the formal pardon process and chooses candidates based on advice from the friends and celebrities in his orbit, several Republican lawmakers have been encouraging the president to offer clemency to Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who caused a firestorm in 2013 when he leaked classified information that exposed the vast underbelly of America’s global spying apparatus.
Sen. Rand Paul has talked to Trump about a Snowden pardon, as has Rep. Matt Gaetz, both lawmakers who have had Trump’s ear. The just-pardoned Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser, also made a public appeal for Snowden’s clemency.
Their pitch: Snowden has been unfairly persecuted after revealing the mendacity of people like James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence. It’s an argument that may play well with Trump, who also sees himself as a victim of the American intelligence services and despises Clapper.
“He revealed that James Clapper, the highest-ranking, most powerful spy in the world, was spying on Americans and lied to us about it,” Paul said in an interview. “So I think what Snowden did was a service to the American people and he ought to be pardoned.”
But while the libertarian wing of the GOP is pushing for a Snowden pardon — alongside a few scattered Democrats and high-profile human rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union — more traditional Republicans are opposed. To them, Snowden is a traitor — full stop. He broke the law by leaking classified information and did irreparable damage to the country’s spying capability.
“I think he’s a traitor worthy of federal prison,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said bluntly.
But Republican members of Congress who have spoken with the president recently view him as increasingly malleable in his final days in office, especially as he works to win over lawmakers to his attempt to challenge final certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s win in Congress on Jan. 6. The result could be a more amenable Trump as he fields eleventh-hour pardon requests.
It’s a pattern that has been playing out in recent days as Trump issued two rounds of pre-Christmas pardons and commutations, including for three former members of Congress, numerous people convicted in Robert Mueller’s probe into Russia’s 2016 election interference, and four security contractors convicted for massacring Iraqi civilians in 2008.
Many of the 49 acts of clemency originated with pleas from Trump’s friends and allies. Former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who helped defend him in his 2020 impeachment trial, made some suggestions, as did Christopher Ruddy, the CEO of the pro-Trump media outlet Newsmax.
Other pardons were supported by Matt Schlapp, chair of the American Conservative Union, whose wife worked for Trump at the White House and his unsuccessful reelection campaign, and former lawyer and lobbyist David Safavian, who himself was pardoned by Trump in February for his role in obstructing a federal investigation.
Paul himself pushed for four of the pardons, including Jesse Benton, the senator’s relative by marriage who was convicted of campaign finance violations.
And more batches of pardons are expected, according to two Republicans close to the White House.
Trump may give preemptive pardons to as many as 20 close associates and family members, including his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, and his children, Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump and Ivanka Trump, none of whom have been charged with a crime. Steve Bannon, a former campaign and White House aide who was charged with defrauding investors in a scheme to independently build a southern border wall, has also been discussed.
But he could easily expand the circle to include any number of names suggested by those around him. And Snowden is increasingly being mentioned.
After being pardoned on Wednesday, Stone, who was convicted of obstructing a congressional investigation and witness intimidation, urged Trump to provide a “full and unconditional pardon” to Snowden.
“The injustice done to me does not stand alone,” he wrote in a statement. “Other good Americans have been victims of a corrupt system made to serve venal power-seekers, rewarding deceit and manipulation, rather than reason and justice. President Trump can be the purveyor of justice over the vile machinations of wicked pretenders to the mantle of public service.”
Some Trump allies say the Snowden pardon overtures could work because the president usually bypasses the lengthy, multilevel process for clemency that had been conducted at the Justice Department for a century in lieu of making decisions himself in consultation with a handful of aides.
“Why would I go through DOJ?” said one of the Republicans, who is pushing for a pardon for someone else. “The Constitution says it’s the president who has the authority.”
The Constitution does give the president power “to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.” That typically either comes in the form of a commutation — which reduces or eliminates a sentence, but does not wipe away a conviction — or a full pardon, which disposes of all legal consequences from a crime.
The White House did not respond to questions about Snowden.
Many of Trump’s pardons have gone to headline-grabbing individuals: 19th Century suffragist Susan B. Anthony, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, George W. Bush adviser Scooter Libby and Charles Kushner, his son-in-law’s father.
Snowden, 37, would certainly fit in that category. Currently living in Russia, Snowden faces charges of espionage and theft of government property for disclosing classified NSA information, including the details of secret spying programs that hoovered up internet activity and telephone records.
The Obama administration accused Snowden of harming national security. But Snowden has advocated for a pardon on Twitter, saying he didn’t cause death to any Americans and highlighting lawmakers who support the idea.
But a former senior administration official said he doubts the Snowden push will work, given the high percentage of Republicans who favor his prosecution.
“By and large most Republicans would agree he is a traitor,” the person said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and former Speaker Newt Gingrich, both Trump allies, oppose the pardon.
“Snowden did enormous damage to the United States and I can’t imagine any reason for pardoning him,” Gingrich said.
But Gaetz, a Florida Republican and Trump ally who introduced a resolution calling for the federal government to drop all charges against Snowden, said in a brief phone call that he hopes Trump pardons Snowden.
And on Twitter, he claimed “Trump is listening to the many of us who are urging him” to pardon Snowden.
Trump’s stance is less obvious.
Trump once called Snowden a “traitor” and a “spy who should be executed.” But he more recently expressed a willingness to consider a pardon. In August, Trump said he was considering offering clemency to Snowden, lamenting that “a lot of people” believe the former NSA contractor was “not being treated fairly.”
But ever since Trump expressed an openness to pardoning Snowden, several members of Congress who once stood by Trump are balking at the idea of a pardon.
“He’s responsible for the largest, most damaging leak of classified information in U.S. history,” said House GOP Conference Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.). “He gave secrets to our adversaries, the Chinese, the Russians. It would just be unconscionable to pardon him.”
Cheney has been a top political foe of the libertarian wing of the GOP that Paul and Gaetz represent, drawing criticism for months now as she has broken with the president on several issues.
Even the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., has gone after her publicly, comparing her to Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who does not support the president and voted to remove him from office in the Senate’s impeachment trial earlier this year. More recently, Trump himself slammed Cheney on Twitter.
Notably, few Democrats have gotten behind the push for a Snowden pardon. Top Democrats have been pushing for reforms to the federal government’s surveillance powers in the wake of Snowden’s actions, but they are hesitant to publicly back an erasure of federal charges for Snowden.
Instead, Democrats are focusing their ire on the process Trump has used to issue his pardons and sentence commutations. Democrats say that while the presidential pardon authority is absolute, Trump has abused the process to reward his allies and associates and has gone around the traditional Justice Department protocols for issuing them.
“I think there needs to be a process for pardons. It should not be a political, knee-jerk response. It should be based upon the considerations which go to the severity of the crime as well as the humanitarian issues,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a top member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “And I don’t believe he is doing any of his pardoning considerations that way. I think the process he’s using is just wrong.”
Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.