Should Trump Pardon Assange and Snowden?

This might be the only question left in which the answer does not fall along party lines. Probably equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans would agree or disagree on the pardons for these two individuals.

Democrats loved Assange when he was leaking documents that exposed the wrongdoings of American firms or Republicans. They especially liked Assange for exposing shady military maneuvers in Iraq when he leaked information acquired by Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning. With such Democratic support, President Obama pardoned Manning three days before leaving office; a move many in the intelligence community found particularly infuriating.

On the other hand, many Democrats will never forgive Assange for releasing the Hilary Clinton and John Podesta emails prior to the 2016 election. They believe that, had it not been for this action, Clinton, and not Donald Trump, would have become president. In fact, Clinton once wondered whether it was possible to “drone” Assange.

But the Republicans are equally split on the pardons for these individuals. The more libertarian-leaning a person is, the more likely they are to support such pardons. Libertarians, in their distaste for big government, mostly believe that Snowden is a hero. He exposed the extent to which the intelligence community could spy on citizens, if they so desired. The PRISM project showed how the government worked with social media and private firms to gather information on individuals. Interestingly, those on the far left also found such an invasion of privacy to be against their core, anti-government beliefs

Such operations by the intelligence community led to them being branded as the “deep state”. This refers to an organization within any government that works independently of the elected political authority. In some instances, this is referred to as a shadow government. The leaks by Snowden, with the help of Assange’s Wikileaks, put the U.S. intelligence community in this light. These two individuals, in effect, gave the intelligence community a black eye.

It is, therefore, not surprising that those within this community have no love lost for either Assange or Snowden. This can best be seen in a speech given by Secretary of State and former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo.

Among other negative remarks, he refers to Assange as operating a “hostile intelligence service”. However, Pompeo has an even lower opinion of Snowden. “He should be brought back from Russia and given due process, and I think the proper outcome would be that he would be given a death sentence.” 

In other words, any attempt by Trump to pardon either of these men would be resisted by Pompeo and many other members of the intelligence community. However, facing condemnation from his staff and other associates has never prevented Trump from doing what he wanted in the past.

Outside of the intelligence community, Trump has recently been approached by numerous politicians and celebrities to pardon Snowden. Among these are Tulsi Gabbard, Eric Holder (who was against this in the past), Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, Rand Paul, and a number of currently serving senators on both sides of the political divide. Public opinion also seems to have shifted towards a Snowden pardon.  A poll done in 2016 asking whether Snowden should be pardoned unveiled these results.

While a similar poll this year found this.

Admittedly, these aren’t the most scientific polls since they are done online to audiences which are predetermined to vote one way or the other, yet, they do show that a positive sentiment exist and appears to be growing.

Assange’s case is a little more complicated, but he has his supporters. Snowden, in fact, has weighed in on Assange’s behalf, not that this will influence Assange’s detractors much. Others who support Assange are somewhat predictable: Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Pamela Anderson, Oliver Stone, and Daniel Elsburg. On the other side of the aisle, Sarah Palin, Tulsi Gabbard, Rand Paul, and Matt Gaetz have supported a pardon. Mitch McConnell, on the other hand, has labeled him a “high-tech terrorist”. Former Republican congressman,  Dana Rohrabacher, actually met with Assange and purportedly offered to intercede with President Trump on his behalf. All Assange had to do was to give up the source of the DNC leaks. It’s not clear whether Trump even knew about this but when F.B.I. Director, James Comey, heard about the plan, he pulled the rug out from under it. (For a more detailed account of this, see my post on how Assange could avoid imprisonment.)

Just recently, a U.N. human rights expert posted an open letter to Donald Trump asking him to pardon Assange. Among the reasons given for this are the following.

The opinion of the general public on Assange is mixed. In a 2019 YouGov poll, 53% of Americans think Assange should be extradited. Of course, this does not mean they think he should be punished. Maybe they just feel he deserves a fair trial.

Yet, it does seem that when this poll was taken, Assange was not viewed all that positively by Americans. However, an Irish poll showed an altogether different attitude towards Assange’s extradition, which is reflected in similar U.K. polls.

Worldwide polls also support Assange, as can be seen in this Slashdot poll from 2019.

Given the fact that Assange has already served time in prison, the poll indicates that about 60% of people believe he should be freed.

On January 4, 2021, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser will announce her decision on Assange’s extradition. There is a case to be made that he is being railroaded and that extradition is a foregone conclusion. However, with public opinion being against this, anything could happen. My guess is that Trump will not interfere before a decision is made. Even if extradition is not the outcome, Assange could still remain in a British prison for years. He is certain to appeal a decision in favor of extradition.

Trump could drop all charges against Assange and leave any decisions on his freedom up to the British courts. He could pardon Snowden and allow him to return to the U.S., if that is what Snowden wants. Some say he would be safer if he stayed in Russia. The belief is that ‘accidents’ could happen to either man if they were freed.

Such pardons would boost Trump’s popularity among some groups, but lose it among others. Overall, he may gain a little more than he loses. He would certainly be excoriated by the intelligence community. Then again, they have not been his biggest fans in the first place. In fact, it may be a way for Trump to get revenge on a group that has badgered him throughout his presidency. It would, in a sense, serve as a presidential punch in the nose.

Yes, Trump would be happier if Assange would reveal his source for the Clinton emails. It could take away the Russian connection burden he has carried around for four years. However, time is running out. He can continue pardoning people until the day he leaves office. As it is, he is far behind in granting pardons and clemency when compared to other presidents. He has pardoned 28 people and granted clemency to 16. In contrast, President Obama, during his two terms, pardoned 212 people and granted clemency to 1715.

No matter who President Trump pardons, you can expect criticism and praise by predictable outlets. However, if he pardons Assange or Snowden, some on the left will surprisingly support him and some on the right will not. Of course, he may do nothing, which will not be good news for Snowden and Assange as there is almost no chance that Biden would entertain a pardon for either of them. In such a case, Snowden will remain in Russia and Assange will likely be extradited and put on trial, where he faces a potential sentence of 175 years,

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