Talk about bad timing. After the election, Barack Obama and the Democratic Party have stoked hysteria over Russian hacking of the DNC and John Podesta’s e-mails. Obama just kicked 35 Russian diplomatic officials out of the country over the allegations, turning it into a major diplomatic rift. Just as this contretemps appears to have reached its zenith, two notorious figures who stole massive amounts of diplomatic and national-security data and exposed it to the world have asked Obama to pardon them, as Politico’s Josh Gerstein reports — one of whom now lives under Vladimir Putin’s grant of asylum:
Four of the most well-known targets of President Barack Obama’s war on leaks — including Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning — are among those who have requested pardons or commutations in the waning days of his presidency.
Lawyers who track Obama’s approach to clemency applications say all four — which also include retired Marine Corps Gen. James “Hoss” Cartwright and former CIA officer John Kiriakou — face long odds in part because of intense attention to the dangers of hacking and the national security leaks that follow.
The fact that the requests don’t meet the usual Justice Department criteria and aren’t covered by the special initiative Obama set up to reduce the sentences of non-violent drug offenders sentenced to long terms in federal prison also make them more unlikely.
Well, that’s not the only issue that makes these grants unlikely. The Manning case has many facets to it, but the connection to Wikileaks makes it all but impossible. The DNC and Podesta e-mails went through Wikileaks too, and the Obama administration has accused them of being Russian dupes or agents for publishing those private communications from private organizations. How can Obama justify a pardon for Manning, who transmitted far more information from military and diplomatic communications to the same organization?
Snowden’s application is even more obviously problematic. Manning was tried, convicted, and sentenced for his crimes. Snowden ran out of the country, eventually setting up shop in Russia under Putin’s protection. Fugitives typically do not get consideration for presidential pardons, at least not unless they’re really Rich and give lots of money to the Clintons and other Democrats. After the Russia panic stoked by Obama himself and fellow Democrats, there’s no possible way that Obama would ignore Snowden’s status as a fugitive and a Russian asylum recipient to pardon him for putting actual sensitive data into the open.
For the same reason, the prospects for a Hillary Clinton pardon seem more remote than they did before the election, too. The Hill asked that question earlier this week:
From Obama’s perspective, the decision to grant or withhold a pardon is a political and a personal one. Legal considerations do not directly arise.
Like all presidents at the end of their terms, he is concerned about the legacy he leaves for history. Does he want his legacy to include a pardon of the secretary of State who served under him during the entirety of his first term in office?
Because acceptance of a pardon amounts to a confession of guilt, the acceptance by Clinton would, to a degree, besmirch both Clinton and also Obama. After all, Clinton was Obama’s secretary of State. If she was committing illegal acts as secretary, it happened literally on his watch.
On the other hand, if the new administration were to prosecute and convict Clinton of crimes committed while she was secretary, that might be an even greater embarrassment for Obama post-presidency.
A Hillary Clinton pardon focused only on the e-mail scandal would force the Obama administration to argue that hacking the DNC and John Podesta had more consequence than a Secretary of State putting classified info into non-secured systems. That’s a laughable premise that should already be getting skewered in the media, and a pardon might just force that issue. A pardon that more broadly includes the pay-to-play corruption between State and the Clinton Foundation gets even more problematic, especially in regard to the Uranium One deal that gave Russia control over 20% of US uranium while putting $500,000 in Bill Clinton’s pocket. Which benefited Russia more — Hillary’s transmission of classified info in the clear and her arrangement to put more uranium under Moscow’s control, or e-mails at the DNC and Center for American Progress?
In a rational exit, we’d see more low-level pardons rather than splashy and controversial clemency actions:
“I think he’s going to announce a lot of names in the next few weeks. I don’t think any of them will be these big-name figures,” said Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. “This administration does have an aversion to high-profile cases generally.”
The big question is whether Obama’s lame-duck period qualifies as a “rational exit.” Issuing these pardons will completely undercut Obama’s attempts to paint Russia as the reason for his party’s collapse, as well as just being plainly bad ideas. I’d bet that Manning, Snowden, and Hillary should all prepare themselves for disappointment in the pardon process … but I wouldn’t bet too much money on it.