Trump's ghoulish pardons
Despite posing as a peacemaker, the president keeps tying his legacy to war criminals
There is a lot to despise about the list of pardons and commutations issued Tuesday night by the White House, a "Who's Who" of disgraced GOP congressmen and presidential cronies who ran afoul of the law in recent years. No doubt we will see a lot more of this kind of thing over the next few weeks before Donald Trump leaves office.
But all of that was expected, wasn't it?
It is Trump's pardon of four convicted war criminals, however, that nags at the conscience — and connects this president to the legacy of the Iraq War he has often falsely claimed to have opposed.
Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, and Dustin Heard are the four veterans who were pardoned on Tuesday. They were found guilty in 2014 for their roles in a notorious 2007 massacre in Baghdad's Nisour Square during the war. The men — who were working as private contractors for Blackwater Worldwide at the time — were convicted on federal murder, manslaughter, and weapons charges for the incident that killed 17 Iraqis civilians and injured many others while escorting a U.S. embassy convoy. In separate reviews, both the military and the FBI determined the shootings were reckless and unjustified.
Tuesday's pardons are particularly notable because Trump defined himself in 2016 as an opponent of the war, drawing a contrast against then-frontrunner Jeb Bush — whose brother ordered the invasion of Iraq — and discovering along the way that there are a lot of Republican voters who prize nationalism but don't love long, drawn-out wars where a satisfyingly clear victory proves elusive.
In office, Trump has tried — and mostly failed — to offer himself as a peacemaker. He initiated high-level talks with North Korea, which fell short of ending that country's nuclear program. He promised various troop withdrawals in places like Afghanistan and Syria that never fully materialized. During the recent presidential campaign, his surrogates argued that (rare among U.S. presidents) he had not started any new wars.
At the same time, Trump has often seemed to celebrate the violence committed in the wars he publicly disdained. He has endorsed torture and "much worse" against terrorism suspects. He fantasized about stealing the oil of Middle Eastern countries where U.S. troops are stationed. And last year, he pardoned two Army officers convicted of murder in Afghanistan, and reversed the demotion of a Navy SEAL who had been acquitted in the stabbing death of an unarmed Islamic State fighter in 2017.
There are those who argue that the Blackwater contractors deserve the mercy of a presidential pardon. At this stage of events, though, it seems naive to expect that Trump does the plausibly right thing for plausibly right reasons. He simply has no credibility. In that context, the pardons look less like an act of mercy and more an endorsement of brutality — a reward for having done something horrific and appalling.
That impression is heightened by other developments. Trump on Tuesday also pardoned to a pair of former Border Patrol agents who shot a fleeing immigrant from behind — and then covered it up. CNN reported Tuesday night the White House is considering granting legal immunity to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman against a lawsuit alleging he ordered the assassination of an official who shared information with the United States. Meanwhile, the government is racing through an unprecedented series of last-minute federal executions before Joe Biden takes office.
Taken together, those items suggest Trump's vision of justice means accountability for the little people and impunity for the powerful and well-connected.
More than that, it reveals the hollowness of his pose as a peacemaker. This president claims to hate America's forever wars, yet his pardons routinely excuse the abuses of American troops in those conflicts — and, perhaps, encourage more such horrors in the future. Trump may or may not have opposed the Iraq War, but he has now legitimized one of its worst legacies. The massacre at Nisour Square is now tied irrevocably to his name.