President Donald Trump pardoned Marine Corps veteran turned U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter and four other Iraq War veterans in a flurry of clemency moves Tuesday evening, the latest in a line of controversial acts of executive power by the commander in chief.
Hunter, 44, was once seen as a rising star within the Republican party but was sentenced to 11 months in federal prison for misuse of campaign funds.
Hunter’s infractions included fraudulently reporting personal golf equipment purchases as donations to wounded warriors and spending thousands of dollars on overseas family trips where he attempted to arrange meetings with defense officials as cover for the travel.
The other four veterans on Trump’s list of 20 pardons and commutations were four former Blackwater security personnel: Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, and Dustin Heard. The men all served in the U.S. military in separate tours in Iraq, but were sent to prison for their role in a controversial 2007 attack in Baghdad which left 14 people dead, including several minors.
All five men were given full pardons for their crimes. In a statement, Trump said that the decision stemmed from an outpouring of support from Republican members of Congress and his own concerns about judicial overreach.
The pardons, which come less than a month before Trump is scheduled to leave office, are likely to ignite debate again about what critics call an abuse of executive clemency power by Trump.
In a statement to the Associated Press, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, accused Trump of “doling out pardons not on the basis of repentance, restitution or the interests of justice, but to reward his friends and political allies, to protect those who lie to cover up him, to shelter those guilty of killing civilians, and to undermine an investigation that uncovered massive wrongdoing.”
On Nov. 25, Trump pardoned his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, despite his past guilty plea to charges he lied to FBI investigators about his interaction with Russian contacts during Trump’s 2016 transition to the White House.
Both Flynn and Hunter were close political allies of Trump, and their pardons have been characterized by critics as political favoritism rather than a correction of judicial mistakes.
In a statement Tuesday, White House officials said that Hunter’s misdeeds “could have been handled as a civil case” and lauded his past military service, which included tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Trump’s statement on the four contractors, who were working for Blackwater at the time of the killings, notes that the 2007 incident “resulted in the unfortunate deaths and injuries of Iraqi civilians” but suggested that missing evidence may have hurt the men’s chances for a fair trial, and that Iraqi investigators may have had ties to insurgent fighters.
The president also lauded the men for their “a long history of service to the nation” as service members before their work as contractors.
Like several other veterans convicted of war crimes, the four men have become a focus of conservative activists lobbying for less scrutiny of battlefield decisions after the fact. Last year, Trump pardoned three other high-profile veterans convicted of or charged with similar offenses.
Among the other pardons and commutations issued by Trump Tuesday were for former Republican Rep. Chris Collins of New York, who was sentenced to prison for his role in an insider trading stock scheme; George Papadopoulos, Trump’s 2016 campaign adviser who plead guilty to charges similar to that of Flynn; and former Texas Rep. Steve Stockman, also convicted of misuse of campaign funds.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.