Why Obama commuted Chelsea Manning's sentence

His clemency for Chelsea Manning holds a message for Trump's America

A poster of Chelsea Manning's face in front of the White House
(Image credit: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images)

"The quality of mercy is not strained; it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven," Portia famously tells Shylock, who is demanding a pound of flesh from her friend Antonio in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. "It is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. 'Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes the throned monarch better than his crown."

That's one way of looking at President Obama's decision on Tuesday to commute the sentence of Chelsea Manning, the Army private serving 35 years for stealing classified U.S. military files and diplomatic cables and leaking them to WikiLeaks, throwing a wrench into Obama's first term. The drafters of the Constitution, after all, made clemency one of the president's few absolute powers, checked only by public opinion.

The commutation was met with a mix of praise and harsh condemnation. Human Rights Watch's Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno called Manning's sentence "grossly disproportionate," and said it had "a chilling effect" on "other whistleblowers who might have information about abuses, human rights violations, fraud, corruption to disclose." House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) blasted the shortening of Manning's sentence as "outrageous," arguing that "Obama now leaves in place a dangerous precedent that those who compromise our national security won't be held accountable for their crimes."

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Why, exactly, did Obama do it?

Maybe he decided that mercy was the appropriate response for a suicidal transgender woman stuck in a male military prison, and for the military justice system that would have to handle Manning's desire to medically transition from man to woman. With Tuesday's acts of clemency, Obama wanted to show that the U.S. is a "forgiving nation, where hard work and a commitment to rehabilitation can lead to a second chance," White House Counsel Neil Eggleston said in a statement. Last Friday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest noted that Manning had admitted to her actions, expressed remorse for them, and submitted herself to military justice.

Or perhaps Obama decided seven years in prison was punishment enough for embarrassing him and the United States, scrambling America's diplomatic ties, endangering foreign collaborators, exposing war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan, and raising the profile of WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange. Manning's lawyers, human rights groups, and even senior White House officials note that 35 years is a much more severe sentence that those doled out in comparable cases. "Manning's sentence was orders of magnitude greater than any sentence previously imposed for leaking classified information to the media," said Elizabeth Goitein at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Obama may have been "motivated by humanitarian considerations" or a debt of gratitude to his LGBT supporters, CNN's Stephen Collinson suggests, or "he may also have reasoned that with President-elect Donald Trump about to take office, the chances of Manning winning release for years to come were slim." Alternately, Obama may now believe that his strident campaign to prosecute Americans who leaked classified information was excessive, said Steven Aftergood at the Federation of American Scientists, and this "final set of actions" is "a signal to the system that prosecutors have gone too far."

Obama will give his own explanation for what CNN calls "one of the most controversial moments of his tenure" at his final presidential press conference on Wednesday. But, whatever reasons he gives, it would be a mistake to take the Manning commutation as an isolated event. And it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to see this as part of Obama's last-minute push to "baby-proof America before Trump takes over," in The Daily Show's arch phraseology.

Remember, Obama also commuted the sentences of 208 other people on Tuesday and granted full pardons to another 64. Obama has been stingy with his pardons — his total, 212, is historically low — though his 1,385 commutations have set a presidential record, beating Woodrow Wilson's 1,366. The commutations have mostly gone to nonviolent drug offenders and the pardons run the gamut, but Tuesday's most high-profile pardon was given to former Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright.

Cartwright, who was vice-chairman of Obama's Joint Chiefs of Staff until retiring in 2011, pleaded guilty in October to misleading the FBI about conversations with a journalist on a U.S.-Israeli cyber-warfare operation targeting Iran's nuclear reactors. He had been scheduled to be sentenced later this month. David Sanger, the New York Times reporter with whom Cartwright spoke about the Iran cyberattack, said that he'd had "many sources" on his story, and Cartwright had "showed concern that information damaging to U.S. interests not be made public." As a general rule, Sanger asserted, "leak investigations have the effect of making people less willing to talk, and the result is often a loss for our democracy."

Taken together, the Cartwright and Manning clemencies do appear to be sending a message.

By granting clemency to people who, at least in their own minds, tried to inform the public about what the government is doing in secret, Obama reminds America of sunlight's power to disinfect, right before a historically opaque president takes over. Did Obama live up to his vow to run the "most transparent administration in history"? Not exactly, or at least not on purpose. But the Trump administration promises to be something else entirely.

So maybe pardoning Cartwright and commuting Manning's sentence is Obama's way of encouraging civil servants and people with access to blow the whistle on Trump like their country depended on it, even as his own administration prosecuted those who leaked national security secrets.

Or, maybe Obama just agrees with Shakespeare on the merits of leaders raining clemency down on those to whom justice has been disproportionately rendered.

The quality of mercy is not strained,It droppeth as the gentle rain from heavenUpon the place beneath: it is twice blest;It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomesThe throned monarch better than his crown;His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,The attribute to awe and majesty,Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;But mercy is above this sceptred sway;It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,It is an attribute to God himself;And earthly power doth then show likest God'sWhen mercy seasons justice.[Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1]

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.