The pre-Christmas pardons and commutations came as the president has been exploring how to reward friends and allies in his waning days in the White House, with more acts of clemency expected to come.
Trump has told advisers he wants to be liberal with pardons and plans to sign more before leaving office on Jan. 20, according to people familiar with his views. The White House has been flooded with requests from dozens of members of Congress, one senior administration official said, as well as lawyers, lobbyists, allies and other supporters of the president.
The first batch released Tuesday night shows how the president is using the power of his office to undo the work of the Russia probe that shadowed much of his term, undercut major cases that took on political corruption and wave away the crimes of Americans convicted of participating in a massacre during the Iraq War.
Democrats accused Trump of abusing his pardon power to reward allies and undermine the rule of law.
“If you lie to cover up for the President, you get a pardon,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) said in a statement. “If you are a corrupt politician who endorsed Trump, you get a pardon. If you murder civilians while at war, you get a pardon.”
Trump gave a full pardon to George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser to his 2016 campaign who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI during its Russia investigation.
Papadopoulos in 2017 agreed he had misled the FBI about his interactions with a London-based professor who claimed Russia had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic rival, in the form of thousands of emails. In 2018, Papadopoulos served his 14-day prison sentence.
But the onetime energy adviser, 33, later actively sought a pardon to expunge his record and bolster his post-conviction claims that he had been unfairly targeted by the U.S. authorities, including special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — allegations that echoed Trump’s own grievances against the Mueller probe.
Shortly after the pardon was announced, Papadopoulos tweeted, “Thank you, Mr. President!!! This means the world to me and my family!”
Trump also pardoned Alex van der Zwaan, a Dutch lawyer who had worked with Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort in work related to Ukraine and pleaded guilty in 2018 to lying to Mueller’s team. He served 30 days in prison before returning to his home in London.
The president has now used his powers to personally intervene and grant clemency in multiple cases that Mueller brought against his former advisers. In November, he pardoned former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his dealings with a Russian diplomat, though he later sought to withdraw that plea. In July, the president commuted the sentence of his longtime friend, Roger Stone, who was convicted of seeking to impede a congressional investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and sentenced to 40 months in prison.
The Papadopoulos pardon serves as a particularly pointed jab by the president at the Russia investigation, which shadowed the first half of his term in office. It was a July 2016 tip about the young campaign volunteer that first led the FBI to open an investigation into whether members of the Trump campaign were conspiring with the Kremlin.
“Today’s pardon helps correct the wrong that Mueller’s team inflicted on so many people,” the White House said in a statement Tuesday night.
There are approximately 14,000 people in line for pardons and commutations. For years, criminal justice advocates have criticized Republican and Democratic administrations alike for backlogs that left thousands of rehabilitated people seeking mercy to languish in prison.
Trump has moved even more slowly than his predecessors, who acted on hundreds or thousands of petitions by the end of four years in office. And rather than consult with the Justice Department’s pardon attorney for recommendations, Trump has routinely subverted the process and largely favored political allies and those who are well-connected for clemency.
The White House statement about Trump’s actions Tuesday noted who had recommended each pardon and commutation, a group that included Republican members of Congress and other Trump allies. Of the 20 people who received clemency, only seven had active petitions for pardons or clemency listed in online Justice Department records.
Trump’s decision to pardon elected officials who had admitted wrongdoing — as well as prominent business executives who had engaged in fraud and other white-collar crimes — flies in the face of his onetime campaign promise to “drain the swamp” in American political and corporate life.
Among those pardoned were three former Republican congressmen, each of them convicted of federal offenses during the Trump administration. Two had been early and avid supporters of Trump’s campaign.
Former congressman Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.) — who prosecutors alleged used hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds to pay for family vacations and theater tickets, and even to facilitate extramarital affairs — had been facing an 11-month federal prison sentence. He pleaded guilty in 2019 to misusing campaign funds. Hunter notably won reelection while under federal indictment, only to later admit wrongdoing and resign.
Former congressman Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) had been serving a 26-month sentence for an insider-trading scheme and lying to the FBI. He, too, had pleaded guilty in the case.
Collins and Hunter were among Trump’s first congressional supporters and the investigations into their activities had long rankled the president, who would castigate his attorney general at the time, Jeff Sessions, for allowing the cases to move forward, according to White House officials and Trump advisers. Trump used to speak regularly to Collins.
Former congressman Steve Stockman (R-Tex.) was about two years into a 10-year sentence, having been convicted in 2018 of conspiring to take hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations that were meant for charity and voter education.
Among those who had signed a petition seeking mercy for Stockman was attorney Sidney Powell, who has been pushing Trump’s false allegations that his election loss came as a result of fraud.
Trump also pardoned a Republican member of the Utah House of Representatives, Phil Lyman. Lyman was sentenced to spend 10 days in jail for his role in a 2014 all-terrain vehicle demonstration that was intended to protest federal land management practices. He has insisted he was the victim of selective prosecution, and his case had been championed by other Utah Republicans.
The four private security contractors Trump pardoned — Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard — all worked for the now infamous Blackwater Worldwide security company, founded by Trump supporter Erik Prince.
Trump has long viewed Prince as an ally, and mused about giving him more government contracts during his presidency, according to White House officials and Trump advisers.
The September 2007 shooting in which the Blackwater contractors were involved left 14 dead and 17 wounded and set off a diplomatic crisis on oversight of American security contractors during one of the deadliest periods in the Iraq War.
Slatten had been sentenced to life in prison; Slough and Liberty to 15 years; and Heard to 12 years and seven months.
Trump also granted pardons to two former Border Patrol agents whose sentences for shooting a suspected drug smuggler fleeing their custody had been previously commuted.
According to the White House and news accounts from the time, the agents — Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean — were working near El Paso when they shot the suspected smuggler, Osvaldo Aldrete Dávila, as he tried to get away from them.
Compean was sentenced to 12 years in prison and Ramos to 11 years. President George W. Bush had commuted their sentences.
Trump extended pardons and commutations to several people who have been active in criminal justice reform or whose causes were championed by others in that field.
But most of the drug offenders who received executive mercy had already benefited from having their sentences lifted. In February, Trump had commuted the sentences of Crystal Munoz, Tynice Nichole Hall and Judith Negron; on Tuesday he wiped away their terms of supervised release. Weldon Angelos was released early after federal court action; Trump gave him a full pardon.
A statement from the White House indicated that four men and women who received clemency had been recommended by Alice Johnson, the woman whose own prison sentence after a drug conviction was commuted by Trump in 2018 following lobbying by the celebrity Kim Kardashian.
Johnson later received a full pardon after speaking at the 2020 Republican National Convention and has been speaking with Trump and senior White House advisers in recent weeks, aides said.
In recent months, Johnson has given the president and senior White House advisers names of people to consider for clemency, eschewing the traditional process.
In a statement Tuesday night, Johnson called Angelos “an incredible advocate for criminal justice reform.”
“We worked together tirelessly to help others gain their freedom,” she said. “Now to see his life fully restored is truly a blessing — just in time for Christmas! I’m so happy for him and thankful for this act of mercy.”
Beth Reinhard contributed to this report.