As he prepares to leave the White House, outgoing President Donald Trump is on something of a pardoning and execution spree. Recently, Trump and the Department of Justice carried out the first lame-duck execution in 130 years with the government-sanctioned killing of Branden Bernard. And most recently, the president pardoned his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. So in the wake of the Electoral College solidifying the 2020 election results, people are publicly postulating as to who will be next on Trump’s pardoning list. Among the president’s children, attorneys, and cabinet members are well-known whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning.
But Reality Winner, the 29-year-old government contractor who, in 2017, provided the first bit of tangible evidence that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election, is noticeably missing from many people's dream pardon list. She shouldn’t be.
At a time when fact is treated as fiction and conspiracy theories are legitimized by the president of the United States and his Republican cohorts, Winner was the only reason the public had access to actual proof of election interference in 2016. After printing out classified U.S intelligence documents and hiding them in her panty hose, the former National Security Agency linguist allegedly sent the documents to The Intercept, which later published a report that included the evidence provided by Winner, despite the NSA requesting they forego publication. According to NBC, the government immediately traced the leak back to Winner, though spokespeople for The Intercept claim the publication does not know who sent the information.
Winner was arrested and charged with leaking classified U.S. government information. She was denied bail, pled guilty, and was sentenced to five years and three months in federal prison.
Unlike Snowden, who recently became a permanent resident of Russia, Winner is actually incarcerated. And unlike Snowden — who has published a memoir and, in 2016, had a movie made about him, directed by Oliver Stone — the reasons behind her decision to leak classified intelligence documents appear to be more duty-bound than self-aggrandizing. As Kerry Howley wrote for The Intelligencer in 2017, “Those who criticize whistle-blowers often suggest that the offender ought to have followed a more ‘responsible’ course." And of course, there are a number of reasons why they don’t. Those who report via the proper channels stand to lose their jobs, their pensions, their relationships, their freedom — even their lives. Upon her sentencing, Winner became one of those people, while Snowden has been able to subvert the consequential efforts of the U.S. government for years.
Winner also didn’t put any service members or American citizens in danger as a direct result of her whistleblowing — a common argument made by those who would like to see Snowden and other whistleblowers imprisoned (or a justification for why people like Chelsea Manning are incarcerated). Instead, Winner provided detailed evidence that a foreign country attempted to circumvent the will of the American people via direct and carefully calculated attacks on US voting systems.
Voters should know whether or not their right to elect their officials is being tinkered with, especially at a time when the president and those who support him are working so hard to overturn an election. What Winner provided the public paved the way for congressional hearings, articles of impeachment, and the indictments of 34 people and three companies.
But will Trump pardon Reality Winner? Likely not. He has consistently called the investigation into Russian interference a “hoax,” despite evidence that Russian intelligence did in fact tamper with the 2016 election. On a number of occasions, he has used the Mueller investigation, report, and subsequent impeachment in the House as a justification for his current 2020 presidential election tantrum and justification for why he should be handed another four (or more) years in office.
Given his history of pardons and executions, it is clear that this lame duck president is interested in only pardoning people if they fall into one of two categories: they’re a friend who has helped him in some way, or they have a high-profiled celebrity or advocate who can elevate the president’s conflated sense of self if he decides to actually do the right thing. And so sadly, Trump doing the right thing is the exception — not the rule.