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Trump grants clemency to three ex-GOP members of Congress and two men convicted in the Russia probe

FILE - This combination made from file photo shows Blackwater guards, from left, Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty, Nicholas Sl
FILE - This combination made from file photo shows Blackwater guards, from left, Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty, Nicholas Slatten and Paul Slough. On Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, President Donald Trump pardoned 15 people, including Heard, Liberty, Slatten and Slough, the four former government contractors convicted in a 2007 massacre in Baghdad that left more a dozen Iraqi civilians dead and caused an international uproar over the use of private security guards in a war zone. (AP Photo/File)

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump granted clemency on Tuesday to 20 people, including three former Republican members of Congress and two people who were convicted of crimes as part of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

He also pardoned four military contractors convicted of killing 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007, and extended clemency to several people convicted of drug offenses.

The pre-Christmas pardons and commutations came as the president has been exploring how to reward friends and allies in the waning days before leaving office next month, 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 comments.

The first batch released Tuesday night show 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.

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.

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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 Mueller III - allegations that echoed Trump’s own grievances against the Mueller probe.

Shortly after the pardon was announced, Papadoulos 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 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 withdrew 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 that 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.

Also 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 Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif. - who prosecutors alleged used hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds to pay for family vacations, 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.

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Former Rep. 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 then-attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for allowing the cases to move forward, according to White House officials and Trump advisers. Trump used to speak regularly to Collins. Both men had admitted their wrongdoing.

Former Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, 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.

The four private security contractors that 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.

The September 2007 shooting in which they 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 7 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.

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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 also 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.

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.

The White House statement about Trump’s actions carefully noted who had recommended or lobbied for each pardon and commutation issued Tuesday, a group that included Republican members of Congress and other Trump allies.

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