Justice Department Stonewalls Senate Democrats on Trump’s War-Crimes Clemency

Spencer Ackerman, Asawin Suebsaeng
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty

More than a month after requesting information from the Department of Justice about the president’s decision to give clemency to convicted or accused war criminals, two Senate Democrats continue to be stonewalled by the administration, The Daily Beast has confirmed. 

In November, senior Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats Patrick Leahy (VT) and Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) wrote to acting Justice Department pardon attorney Rosalind Sargent-Burns inquiring about “what advice President Trump received—and from whom—in deciding to exercise his clemency powers” following his decision to pardon Army Lt. Clint Lorance; pardon and preempt the military trial of ex-Green Beret Maj. Matthew Golsteyn; and restore the rank of Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher.

Instead of an answer, they have been stonewalled, according to three sources familiar with the communication, only receiving a brief missive Tuesday that the DOJ intends to respond but providing no timeline as to when it will.

One of these sources with knowledge of the situation added that Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee are also considering introducing additional legislative recourse for addressing the lack of transparency regarding President Trump’s decisions on this matter.

The lack of answers from the Justice Department, which is supposed to play a key role in pardon reviews, is likely to fuel allegations that Trump recklessly decided on a round of clemency that has disgusted many in the military community. Eugene Fidell, a prominent military attorney, told Military.com that Trump’s actions may have “blown a hole in the prosecution of war crimes by this country.” At the same time, clemency for Lorance, Golsteyn, Gallagher, and others accused or convicted of war crimes has become a cause célèbre on Fox News, where top talent have for many months publicly urged and privately counseled the president on war crimes pardons. 

“Congress would be correct to engage in further oversight activity and explore legislative options that would help provide more transparency regarding President Trump’s unusual decisions,” said Benjamin Haas, advocacy counsel at Human Rights First and a former Army intelligence officer. “Trump’s decision to intervene in these war crimes cases, as well as his contemplated actions on the Blackwater case, are a flagrant snub to human rights and the ideals that the U.S. military seeks to uphold.”

The senators, in a Nov. 26 letter, asked Sargent-Burns if the White House “reach[ed] out to your office” about the clemency and, if so, what recommendation her office provided. They noted the strong opposition to the pardons from within the Pentagon—clemency to Gallagher led to Navy Secretary Richard Spencer losing his job—and asked if Sargent-Burns’ office coordinated any such recommendations with the Defense Department. 

The two senators cited a department manual instructing the pardon office to review “all petitions” for clemency and “in every case” prepare recommendations. They referred to the pardon office as an “institutional safeguard” against abuse of a broad presidential authority. “If your office did not provide recommendations in these three cases, why not?” their letter asked. 

Leahy and Whitehouse gave the Justice Department a deadline of Dec. 13 to respond, which came and went. The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment on this story on Wednesday.

Soon after pardoning Lorance and Golsteyn and restoring Gallagher’s rank, Trump mused to associates about the three joining him at 2020 campaign appearances. Early this month, The Daily Beast also reported that Trump is still quietly considering additional pardons for crimes committed in war, including one for Nicholas Slatten, a Blackwater contractor and ex-soldier convicted of murder in a prosecutorially tainted case stemming from the 2007 Nisour Square massacre of Iraqi civilians. 

But the Justice Department’s response, or lack thereof, to Senate Democrats’ pardons inquiries thus far fit with Team Trump’s broader pattern of telling liberal lawmakers on Capitol Hill to get lost.

The Trump administration and White House have a well-established track record of stiff-arming congressional investigators and Democratic lawmakers requesting documents and testimony, particularly on issues related to probes aimed at the president’s inner circle, Trump himself, and scandals and major catastrophes of the era such as Trump’s management of the response to the hurricanes that ravaged Puerto Rico. This tactic has even led to an article of impeachment for obstruction of Congress. 

And despite the domestic and international backlash to the president’s decision to grant clemency to alleged and convicted American war criminals, Trump is promoting his decision as a significant accomplishment of his administration. Indeed, he’s already firmly integrated the topic into his campaign-trail pitch to voters.

“I will always stick up for our great fighters,” the president assured the crowd at a Florida rally in November. “People can sit there in air-conditioned offices and complain, but you know what? It doesn’t matter to me whatsoever.” 

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