In brief

  • President Trump has issued several pardons on his last day in office.
  • Some of the high profile names to have received a pardon include Steve Bannon and Lil Wayne.
  • Other high profile cases, however, did not receive a pardon, including Julian Assange, Ross Ulbricht, and Edward Snowden.

President Trump has issued a flurry of pardons on the last full day of his term. The list of those pardoned include co-founder of Breitbart News Steve Bannon and rapper Lil Wayne. 

Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Ross Ulbricht—all three of whom many hoped would be on the president’s list—were not pardoned. 

The President’s pardons

President Trump has issued 73 pardons and commuted the sentences of 70 others today, including former campaign advisor and co-founder of Breitbart News Steve Bannon. 

Steve Bannon was charged with lying about how donor contributions would be used amidst a campaign to build a wall along the US-Mexico border. 

In addition to Steve Bannon, Lil Wayne has been pardoned after pleading guilty to gun charges in Miami that would have seen him face reportedly up to 10 years in prison. Lil Wayne was also said to have backed President Trump’s reelection bid in 2020. 

Presidential pardon
The President issued several pardons today. Image: Shutterstock

Trump also pardoned Ken Kurson, a former Ripple Board member who was charged with cyberstalking his wife. Kurson founded crypto publication Modern Consensus and ran several political websites. Kurson previously worked with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani on a book.

What is a presidential pardon? 

The presidential pardon is a power granted to the President to pardon any federal crime at any time during their term. 

Pardons have a long and storied history in the United States. One of the most controversial pardons came in 1974, when President Gerald Ford pardoned former president Richard Nixon, after he resigned amidst the Watergate scandal. 

Richard Nixon
Former President Richard Nixon received a presidential pardon in 1974. Image: Shutterstock

President Trump has already pardoned over 80 individuals during his time in the White House, including former campaign advisor Roger Stone, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and former campaign manager Paul Manafort. 

Usually presidential pardons generate plenty of debate, but today, some of the names that were left off the pardon list are causing the most controversy.

Among those names are Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, former CIA employee Edward Snowden, and Ross Ulbricht, creator of the famous darknet drug marketplace Silk Road. 

Julian Assange: Not pardoned

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is accused of conspiring with former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning to breach the US Espionage Act. He has not received a presidential pardon. 

According to Assange’s lawyers, he faces charges because Wikileaks exposed evidence of war crimes. 

Earlier this month, Assange avoided extradition to the United States after a British judge cited concerns over the state of his mental health. 

“I find that the mental condition of Mr. Assange is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America,” District Judge Baraitser said on January 4, 2021. 

The judge also added that special administrative measures—which can be applied in US facilities when inmates are judged to be a risk to national security—would deteriorate his mental health even further. 

“I am satisfied that, in these harsh conditions, Mr. Assange’s mental health would deteriorate causing him to commit suicide,” Baraitser said. 

Just days after what was a big win for Assange’s legal team however, judge Baraitser denied Assange bail, saying he still has a case to answer for in the United States.

Edward Snowden—who also leaked classified documents relating to national security in 2013—tweeted that he hoped Assange’s case would end once he avoided extradition. 

“Let this be the end of it,” Snowden tweeted

But much like Assange, the former CIA employee’s case is far from over, as he also missed out on a presidential pardon today. 

Edward Snowden: Not pardoned

Former CIA employee and NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked classified intelligence documents to journalists in 2013. Like Assange, Snowden was also charged with violating the US Espionage Act, and he has also not received a presidential pardon. 

No presidential pardon
Some high profile cases were not granted a pardon by the president. Image: Shutterstock

The leak showed that the NSA was accessing and collecting data from US citizens by using a backdoor into companies like Facebook and Google. 

Among other findings, the leaked documents provided evidence that the NSA was spying on citizens of allied nations, and that the NSA was breaking privacy regulations thousands of times a year. 

The leak sparked a mass debate about the relationship between security and privacy. On one hand, Snowden was—and still is—criticized for dealing immense damage to the United States’ national security interests. 

On the other hand, Snowden’s supporters argue that the former CIA employee exposed illegal surveillance methods. Senator Rand Paul recently tweeted that he was in favour of Snowden receiving a presidential pardon. 

Momentum for clemency seemed to grow last October, when the president said he would consider pardoning Snowden. 

“Many people think that he should somehow be treated differently and other people think he did very bad things,” President Trump said, adding, “I’m going to take a very good look at it.”

Previously, however, Trump has been one of Snowden’s most impassioned critics, describing the former CIA employee as a traitor and calling for his execution.

Ross Ulbricht, founder and former administrator of the infamous darknet drug market Silk Road, was also potentially in line for a pardon today. 

Ross Ulbricht: Not pardoned

Ross Ulbricht created the infamous Silk Road website, and despite calls to the contrary, President Trump did not grant him a pardon today. 

According to The Daily Beast, the president “expressed sympathy” for Ulbricht, who is currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. 

Ulbricht’s case garnered some support online, with a Change.Org petition having received over 383,000 signatures to date calling on the president to pardon him. 

“My son, Ross Ulbricht, is a first-time offender serving a double life sentence without parole, plus 40 years, for a website he made when he was 26 years old and passionate about free markets and privacy,” the website says, adding, “This is a sentence that shocks the conscience.” 

Ulbricht’s Silk Road website made use of the Tor network to hide users’ identities as they used cryptocurrencies to purchase illegal goods. The website is considered to be the first large scale darknet drug market of its kind, but many others have followed since. 

After Ulbricht was identified as the site administrator, he was sentenced to life imprisonment in May 2015. 

Ulbricht reportedly begged the judge to “leave a light at the end of the tunnel” at his sentencing. 

A light at the end of the tunnel may still lie ahead for Ulbricht, but it did not arrive today in the form of a pardon from President Trump.