Among the final acts of Donald J. Trump’s time in office was to approve a last-minute flurry of presidential pardons. On the list are many of his disgraced cronies, including Steve Bannon, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone. But there was no mercy, evidently, for whistleblowers like Edward Snowden or Reality Winner, nor for Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange.
Yet even as Trump’s team was preparing a clemency list of dozens of people, the president was overseeing a record number of federal executions. Trump has made executing people a priority during his final few months in office, overseeing more federal execution than any other president. Indeed, there have been more federal executions in the past six months than in the previous 56 years.
“How ironic that Donald Trump could show clemency and mercy in his final days, whilst also being the country’s most prolific executioner President in more than a century,” wrote lawyer and anti-war campaigner Aamer Anwar.
Breaking with traditional protocol, the Trump administration has rushed to oversee 13 executions by lethal injection since July. There had previously been no federal executions since 2003. Among the 13 was Lisa Montgomery, the first woman to be put to death by the federal government since 1953. Human rights groups, and even the United Nations, condemned the execution, arguing that Montgomery was clearly psychotic and in no state to stand trial, let alone be executed.
A get out of jail free card
While Trump has rushed to execute death row inmates, he also made a point of granting clemency to his political associates. Bannon, who was Trump’s chief strategist and advisor on his 2016 presidential campaign, is a particularly contentious recipient of clemency, as he is yet to stand trial, let alone be convicted. He is accused of fraud stemming from a case where prosecutors allege he swindled Trump supporters out of millions of dollars intended for the construction of a privately funded wall on the Mexican border. In 2019, Bannon joked on a YouTube live stream about “[taking] all that money from Build The Wall.” The campaign, which Bannon ran, had raised over $25 million. A White House statement noted that “Mr. Bannon has been an important leader in the conservative movement,” when explaining the president’s decision.
Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, was found guilty in 2018 of eight financial crimes, including filing false tax returns attempting to hide tens of millions of dollars he received lobbying for Ukrainian politicians. Stone, the 45th president’s longtime friend, was convicted of lying to Congress and trying to impede the government’s investigation into Trump’s connections to Russia.
Trump’s daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law Jared Kushner were reportedly key figures in drawing up the list of figures to pardon. It is perhaps not surprising that Kushner’s family and friends also feature prominently on the list. Jared’s newly-pardoned father Charles was convicted in 2005 for preparing false tax returns, witness retaliation, and making false statements to the Federal Election Commission. He pleaded guilty and served two years in prison. After he found out his brother-in-law was cooperating with federal authorities investigating, Charles also hired a prostitute to lure him to a New Jersey motel room where he filmed their encounter, sending it to the man’s wife (and Charles’ sister). Jared’s friend Ken Kurson, charged with cyberstalking and harassing a woman by sending her threatening emails and phone calls and sending messages to her coworkers claiming she was having an affair with her boss, was also pardoned.
And while Trump was keen to punish civilian murderers like Montgomery, throughout his tenure, he has gone out of his way to show sympathy to killers in uniform. In December, he pardoned four Blackwater mercenaries convicted for the Nisour Square Massacre — the murder of 17 Iraqi civilians, including children as young as 9 years old. In 2019, he also freed Lt. Michael Behenna, who had stripped an Iraqi prisoner naked, blindfolded, and handcuffed him, drove him out into the desert and shot him in the back of the head. Behenna said he felt “no remorse” and “would do it again,” as he was acting in “self-defense.”
In contrast, there was no clemency granted for prominent whistleblowers, including Edward Snowden or Reality Winner, nor for publisher Julian Assange, who, despite being an Australian living in Europe, remains incarcerated at the behest of Washington. While there had been a large public campaign in his name, privately, Republican lawmakers were lobbying Trump not to entertain the idea of pardoning them. As CNN reported: “Trump decided against it because he did not want to anger Senate Republicans who will soon determine whether he’s convicted during his Senate trial.
A deadly legacy
The United States is one of the very few Western countries that still practice capital punishment. In 2019, only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt executed more of its citizens than the U.S. Incoming president Joe Biden ran on a platform advocating the abolishment of the federal death penalty and giving states financial incentives to do the same.
The final few months of each president’s rule presents them with an opportunity to frame how they wish to be remembered. Obama commuted the sentences of over 1,500 people, including whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who leaked the Iraq War Logs to Assange. Trump, by contrast, has pardoned far fewer people and used his power to save many of his political associates and disgraced members of the American war machine. All the while, he has personally overseen a dramatic spate of federal executions. If he did not want to be remembered as a corrupt individual with a penchant for violence, this was not the way to go about his final days.
Feature photo | Surrounded by US Army cadets, President Donald Trump watches a football game at the United States Military Academy. Photo | Associated Press
Alan MacLeod is a Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent. He has also contributed to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, The Guardian, Salon, The Grayzone, Jacobin Magazine, Common Dreams the American Herald Tribune and The Canary.