Former President Donald Trump disappointed countless men and women across the planet by failing to pardon either WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange or NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden on his final day as president, on 20 January 2021. CIA whistleblower John Kirakou also missed out on obtaining clemency, after reportedly refusing to pay $2 million in exchange for a pardon.
As of his last day in office, Trump either pardoned or commutated the sentences of over 230 people, 143 of whom received clemency on 20 January. Those who were fortunate to obtain clemency from the former president include 2016 election campaign supporter and chief strategist at the White House Steve Bannon, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and four Black Water mercenaries convicted over their role in the 2007 Nisour Square massacre.
Kevin Gosztola is the managing editor of Shadowproof.com and curates The Dissenter, a newsletter that covers whistleblower stories and provides updates on WikiLeaks. Gosztola covered the court-martial of US Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning and has reported on Assange's extradition case since the beginning. He told Sputnik that while Trump claimed to oppose the national security state establishment, ultimately his actions and policies proved otherwise.
Sputnik: Describe what you know about the push to get Assange and Snowden pardoned and the behind-the-scenes machinations that apparently continued until the eleventh hour.
Kevin Gosztola: The push to get Assange and Snowden pardoned started as early as September of 2020. There were people in Congress, although they were few, who indicated they supported pardoning Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. It did seem like Snowden had much more political support among the few people in Congress who were willing to back such an action by president Trump. But then behind the scenes, there were supporters of Assange that were booking guests on the Fox News prime time shows. They had the best success with Tucker Carlson's show and they made sure that someone was on the air on a regular basis, making the case to Donald Trump for pardoning Assange. And they crafted a partisan pitch for the viewers, as well as Donald Trump, to stand up to the democratic allies in the intelligence establishment and grant Julian Assange a pardon.
Defending civil liberties or exercising First Amendment-secured rights does not make one a Russian agent, and baseless smears don’t count as evidence. Thank you, @TulsiGabbard, for your resolutions to drop the charges against Snowden and Assange. Happy to have cosponsored both. https://t.co/roAZoaohdn— Justin Amash (@justinamash) November 28, 2020
.@realDonaldTrump Since you're giving pardons to people, please consider pardoning those who, at great personal sacrifice, exposed the deception and criminality of those in the deep state. https://t.co/aeXklUsNSd— Tulsi Gabbard 🌺 (@TulsiGabbard) November 26, 2020
Sputnik: Why do you think Trump ultimately decided not to pardon either Assange or Snowden?
Kevin Gosztola: Donald Trump didn't pardon Julian Assange or Edward Snowden, because there was nothing in it for Donald Trump. Donald Trump is a transactional person. If there isn't anything for him to personally gain, whether we're talking money or a personal favour, that would benefit him, then he isn't going to do it. So many of these pardons involved cronies. There was a lot of chatter about family members receiving pardons. There were members of his campaign, who we saw very early back in December receive clemency, but Julian Assange and Edward Snowden do not fit that bill.
And beyond that we could say Donald Trump always had the rhetoric, but he never really stood up to the national security establishment. He never really stood up to the military industrial complex. When he wanted to withdraw troops from wars, he let them give him the runaround. He let them frustrate his pursuit of any change in the agenda. He let them get in his way. And he ultimately backed down every single time that he was met with resistance from these bureaucrats, these career employees that are going to still be in power when Joe Biden assumes office. I think the takeaway is that Donald Trump was never really serious about taking on these people. It was all for his campaign. It was all for show and he decided that he wasn't willing to cross these people and risk any kind of a controversy.
[For example] He has to worry about a Senate trial after the house impeached him for a second time, something that has never happened in the history of the United States. And he knows he needs all the Republican senators in order to avoid being convicted. And if there's any possibility that he plans to run for president again in 2024, he has to make sure he is not convicted. So first and foremost, he's thinking about any Republican senators he needs to vote for him. And they are people who cater to the national security apparatus and he didn't want to anger them. So that's why these campaigns ultimately did not succeed.
According to Tucker Carlson, Mitch McConnell "sent word over to the White House: if you pardon Julian Assange, we are much more likely to convict you in an impeachment trial." https://t.co/TGR7JQrqe5— Cynthia D. Ritchie (@CynthiaDRitchie) January 20, 2021
Sputnik: Were you at all surprised by Trump’s decision not to pardon them?
Kevin Gosztola: I don't know that I would go by a metric of whether I was surprised or not. What I will say is I don't think it was a waste of time for supporters of Snowden or Assange or anyone else who has been prosecuted unjustly under the United States Espionage Act to appeal to Donald Trump for clemency.
We did not know that Barack Obama was going to go ahead and commute Chelsea Manning's sentence, back in 2017. We would never have thought that Barack Obama, who said before Chelsea Manning was ever convicted at trial that she broke the law, we would never have believed that Obama, who passionately disliked leaks from his administration, would show mercy to Chelsea Manning. And I think there was a well-founded belief that a political pitch could be crafted, which would resonate with Donald Trump. And what it seems is Assange and Snowden, they both came close to receiving clemency. However, in the end, [Trump] was too corrupt to grant them clemency. His corruption was in danger of permanently bringing him down [such as at the trial in the Senate].
Sputnik: Is there a message that can be inferred from the types of people Trump did pardon/commute sentences for, compared to those like Assange or Snowden who received no such interventions?
Kevin Gosztola: The message that can be gleaned by looking at the individuals who Donald Trump pardoned is: if you have money, if you have a few million dollars, then you can gain access to Donald Trump and he will give you his support. You can pay him off. If you don't have money, but there's something you can do that will be of great personal benefit. You may be able to still win clemency from Donald Trump. If you can't do either of those, then you're out of luck. If there's no transaction that you can complete, if you're just someone who believes altruistically in principles and values of freedom and justice, if what you did to release documents was simply because you wanted people to know the truth, Donald Trump doesn't have any interest in you. That's the message.
CIA whistleblower @JohnKiriakou says he was told to pay Rudy Giuliani $2 million to secure a pardon from President Trump. "They don't see this as a bribe," he says. "This is the way Washington works." pic.twitter.com/7ZWbkxkFDp— Democracy Now! (@democracynow) January 20, 2021
Sputnik: What can we expect from Joe Biden regarding the cases of either Assange or Snowden, and other journalists and whistleblowers like them?
Kevin Gosztola: We should expect that the Biden Justice Department will continue to oppose any kind of clemency for Assange or Snowden. They will not drop the cases against Assange or Snowden. Though, in the appeal against Assange, they may find that they do not want to put the same amount of energy and resources into pursuing his extradition. That means that if [the current appeal against Assange] failed, that is something they could live with institutionally. However, they're willing to push these appeals to their final stage in the highest court that will hear it because the US national security establishment is perfectly happy with Assange remaining tied up, in prison and unable to be an adversary that challenges US policy through the publication of documents at WikiLeaks.
As far as Snowden [is concerned], Joe Biden was personally involved in ensuring that countries did not grant Edward Snowden asylum. And he was involved in the chain of events that played out where Snowden ultimately wound up stuck in an airport in Moscow and had no choice but to seek asylum from the Russian government in order to have some safety from persecution in the United States. And because that case began under Barack Obama, I would expect that Joe Biden would continue it. And that includes pursuing the confiscation of any money made off of books that Snowden writes. And that includes the confiscation of any fees or money that Snowden makes from speaking engagements.
By not pardoning Julian Assange, Trump gave us one final reminder that he is an enemy of press freedom. Now Biden must decide if he wants to continue Trump’s legacy.— Aaron Maté (@aaronjmate) January 20, 2021
Biden doesn’t even need to pardon: he can just drop appeal of the extradition that Trump’s DOJ already lost. https://t.co/KRTZV1Zy18
Sputnik: Do you think it’s worth trying to put any kind of pressure on the Biden administration to either drop their appeal in Assange’s extradition case or to grant him a pardon?
Kevin Gosztola: It's always worth it to pressure. It's always worth it to engage in activism. It's always worth it to mobilise people. Honestly, it's these kinds of mobilisations that are the only guarantee that any change will occur. And if you don't mobilise people, then it is almost a virtual certainty that Julian Assange will be tied up in extradition until the US has exhausted its appeals or until they prevail. And we don't want that to happen if we're truly concerned about press freedom.
So it's up to people to move the Biden administration and get them on the record and find out what they really feel. What, people under Merrick Garland, if he is confirmed as Attorney General, thinks about this case. What people at the Justice Department - who are rank and file and are going to continue to work on this case after Trump - what they think about this case. We need to find out their position and hold it up against the position that was taken by similar attorneys or prosecutors back when Obama was president and he declined to prosecute Julian Assange.
And as far as Snowden [is concerned], he's in better circumstances than Assange, and he's with his family. He gets to live with his wife, and he has a newborn. But that doesn't mean that living in exile is a pleasant future. And so he should be able to return to the United States and the only way that can happen is if people put pressure on the United States government and force a political shift in the way he's viewed.
It comes down to whether people will challenge leaders in their own political party. Snowden and Assange didn't get pardons because Donald Trump's Republican supporters in Congress did not want to back him up on taking such an act. If we move Biden to drop charges against Assange or Snowden, you'll still have Democrats in the Senate who are influential, who would—similar to what happened with Trump—discourage Biden from taking such an action. And what that points to is, we need pressure from people at a grassroots level to change how Assange and Snowden are viewed. So, education campaigns seem to be what are essential to the possibility of ending these cases.
This interview was edited for clarity.
The final paragraph was amended on 21 January 2021 to more precisely represent the interviewee's arguments..