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Controversy swirls as Trump issues new wave of pardons and commutations

Correction: The original version of this piece omitted the credit for a photo of Rep. Steve Stockman. The credit for that photo should be Gage Skidmore. We regret the error.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now to the fallout from President Trump's flood of pardons and commutations last night.

    Mr. Trump's latest round of executive clemency was a nearly 50 percent increase from the number he granted in the previous four years.

    William Brangham reports.

  • William Brangham:

    The overnight swirl of news from President Trump included an off-camera announcement about new grants of clemency.

    There were 20 recipients in all, pardons for 15, five others receiving commutations for their sentences. Some, like George Papadopoulos, are familiar figures from special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. Papadopoulos was an aide to the 2016 Trump campaign.

    And Alex van der Zwaan was a lawyer with links to former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. Both Papadopoulos and van der Zwaan pleaded guilty to lying to investigators. Both received pardons last night.

    Three former Republican congressman also received pardons. Steve Stockman of Texas was serving his sentence for money laundering and fraud. Chris Collins of New York was serving his sentence related to an insider trading case. And Duncan Hunter of California was close to starting his jail sentence for misusing campaign funds.

    Collins and Hunter were also among Mr. Trump's earliest supporters in Congress.

    The president's actions last night continue to trend of rewarding allies with pardons and commutations, according to Dan Kobil. He's a professor at Capital University in Ohio, who studies executive clemency.

  • Dan Kobil:

    A very heavily disproportionate number of the pardons that he pardons that he has granted has been to those to whom he has a connection or is beholden or who have lied to protect him.

  • William Brangham:

    Some of the president's previous pardons and commutations went to other allies, like confidant Roger Stone and his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, both of whom were swept up in the Mueller probe.

    The announcement of Papadopoulos' pardon last night justified it by saying it was to help correct the wrong that Mueller's team inflicted on so many people.

    Normally, the Justice Department is involved in reviewing clemency petitions, but Dan Kobil says President Trump has taken a different approach.

  • Dan Kobil:

    It looks like the vast majority of the pardons and commutations that the president has issued have not gone through the Office of the Pardon Attorney. In fact, the vast majority of pardoned applications have been dismissed without any action at all.

    So, almost every one of these appear to have gone directly through the White House, although we don't know for certain.

  • William Brangham:

    Last night's announcement also included pardons for four former Blackwater security contractors convicted in the 2007 killing of more than a dozen Iraqi civilians in Baghdad, including two young boys.

    The White House pointed to alleged evidentiary issues with that case.

    But, today, this Baghdad resident expressed outrage.

  • Saleh Abed (through translator):

    The infamous Blackwater company killed citizens at Nisour Square. Today, we heard they were released upon a personal order by President Donald Trump, as if they don't care for spilled Iraqi blood.

  • William Brangham:

    Blackwater was founded by Erik Prince, himself a Trump ally and brother of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

    So, now we want to take a deeper look at the implications of these Blackwater pardons.

    And for that, I'm joined by retired Colonel Gary Solis. He served 26 years in the Marine Corps, including as a military judge. He is also an adjunct professor of law at West Point.

    Colonel Solis, very good to have you on the "NewsHour."

    These four men were convicted by the U.S. government for their role in massacring these Iraqi civilians, unarmed civilians. Do you think that this was an appropriate pardon?

  • Lt. Col. Gary Solis:

    Absolutely not. There is no basis for this pardon.

    This — there is no judicial error that is righted. There's no societal wrong that's cured. These people were convicted. Slatten, the primary person in the trials, was convicted of murder twice and sentenced to life twice. The other three were convicted of voluntary manslaughter, sentenced to 30 years.

    There's just no reason that I can see for these pardons.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, supporters of these men, including some Republicans in Congress, argue that the investigation into this massacre was tainted from the start, that the Iraqi police did most of the initial investigating, that the FBI didn't show up for several weeks, and that — in some ways, that the cake was already baked before the investigation really began.

    What do you make of that assertion?

  • Gary Solis:

    I would simply say that it's — that they are in error to think, that there were investigations by the FBI that found that these were indeed unwarranted shootings that occurred.

    There was investigations by military — U.S. military that found the same thing. And, of course, there were two trials that found the same thing.

    So, if there was any — there was — initially, charges were dismissed because they were wrongly based on grants of immunity. But then they went to trial, another trial, and they were convicted. There's — I don't believe there's any basis to attack the credibility and the justness of these convictions.

  • William Brangham:

    So, your sense is that even though, I mean, the Iraqi government clearly wanted us to prosecute these men for murder, and the DOJ did handle this case, and brought enormous amounts of evidence and Iraqis to the United States to testify, you're confident — you're a former judge and a retired Marine colonel.

    You are confident that these men got a fair trial and that they are guilty.

  • Gary Solis:

    There's not a doubt in my mind, no.

    We have — throughout the Middle East, al Qaeda, Taliban, ISIS, we have provided them now with a hammer with which they can beat us every time we utter the words, we, the United States, utter the words justice or fairness.

    And for what reason? It's hard to understand why this was done, because throughout the — throughout the Middle East, particularly on Iraq, of course, now, they know that the United States promising fairness and justice, a just outcome, has let these individuals go free, and they're not going to forget it.

    And we're going to be a long time overcoming the distrust of America's word, on the basis of this case.

  • William Brangham:

    So, you think that there are long-term implications for U.S.-Iraqi relations from this?

  • Gary Solis:


    This is not here today, gone tomorrow for them. These are people who saw 20 of their individuals wounded, 17 of them killed, including women and children — or a woman and child. And they're not going to forget this tomorrow or next week or next month.

    No, I think that this is something that's going to be with us and that we may be paying a price for, for a long time to come.

  • William Brangham:

    What is your sense of what this might do for U.S. service members serving abroad or U.S. contractors who are helping? I mean, these men were there as a security detail for State Department officials in Baghdad.

    What's your sense of what this pardon might mean for all of those forces of ours operating elsewhere in the world?

  • Gary Solis:

    Any time you have distrust among the people whom you're trying to serve and protect, you have got a problem.

    These people — the people in the Middle East, where we are so heavily engaged now and tomorrow, as I say, are not going to forget that our word was not worth — was not worth anything, when we assured them of justice in a case that clearly cried out for justice.

    There was absolutely no reason, no alibi for these shootings, for these killings. And now we have let them free. As we said before, they're not going to forget this. And this — that distrust will translate to combatants' deaths and injury down the road.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, retired Marine General Gary Solis, thank you very much for being here.

  • Gary Solis:

    You bet.

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