Less than two months after granting clemency to three convicted or accused war criminals, Donald Trump is considering pardoning a man convicted of murder in one of the worst atrocities of the Iraq war—someone who served under the command of an infamous for-profit army.
In recent weeks, the president has asked close advisers what they think of additional clemency, according to a source close to the president and a senior administration official. “He’s said he wants to do more,” said the administration official, who discussed this case, as well as others, with the president. “There are more warriors out there who he believes have been treated unfairly and whose [cases] need another look.”
Not all of those “warriors” are U.S. servicemembers, however.
The Daily Beast has learned that Trump is still quietly weighing pardoning at least one employee of the private army Blackwater, Nicholas Slatten. Convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, Slatten, a former U.S. Army sniper, took part in the contractor’s infamous 2007 massacre at the Nisour Square traffic circle in Baghdad. Blackwater was founded by Trump ally Erik Prince, who has insisted for over a decade that the company was railroaded after Nisour Square by an American left gone insane.
The White House declined comment on this story on Thursday afternoon.
Should Trump go through with the Blackwater pardon, it would be a stunning denouement to a wrenching episode in which Iraqis watched 10 men, two women and two pre-teen boys die violently despite being unarmed commuters. Ever since, U.S. diplomats have counseled the Iraqis to trust in the American justice system–which turned Nisour Square into a prolonged legal fiasco. And any clemency for Slatten would happen in the aftermath of angry Iraqis storming the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, which has raised questions about the Iraqi government’s willingness to continue the U.S. military presence.
“Nick is innocent, and recent revelations of government misconduct prove that prosecutors lied to the court, lied to Nick's jury, and have been lying to the American public for over a decade to obtain Nick's wrongful conviction,” Slatten’s sister, Jessica Slatten, said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “Without a pardon, Nick may die in prison for a war-zone shooting he did not commit.”
But Gary Solis, a retired Marine judge advocate, ex-West Point law professor and Vietnam combat veteran, said there “can be no good reason, legal or humanitarian, for exercising clemency in a case like Nisour Square and those who were involved in it.” Solis said Trump “knows nothing about these individuals, or what goes on on the battlefield. We’re talking about a multiple 4F-er,” referencing Trump’s Vietnam draft deferments, “and yet he wants to play the general and the Fox News hero.”
In November, President Trump pardoned or restored in rank Clint Lorance, Matthew Golsteyn, and Edward Gallagher, three convicted or accused war criminals. Their cases had become causes célèbres for MAGA diehards and several prominent figures in Trump-aligned conservative media. Trump’s Nov. 15 actions came despite an abundance of evidence for the grisly crimes and prompted anger from veterans who believe the three disgraced their uniform. Fallout from Trump’s decision resulted in the noisy firing of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer.
Still, the president has remained proud and publicly boastful of the move, declaring it as a victory for America’s “warriors” and as a loss for those who desire a more “politically correct” United States Armed Forces. As The Daily Beast has reported, Trump had recently discussed with confidants the possibility of bringing some, if not all, of the servicemen to 2020 campaign events, even potentially bringing them on-stage for a big moment at the Republican National Convention in Charlotte.
It only took until early December for the president to welcome Golsteyn and Lorance on stage with him during a Republican fundraiser in Florida.
According to two sources familiar with the conversations, Pete Hegseth, a Fox News host and informal Trump adviser who was instrumental in pushing the president on his previous round of clemency, and Lorance have already raised Slatten and others’ situations with the president, with Trump expressing interest in “taking a look at” these additional cases, as well.
Lorance’s attorney and Hegseth did not respond to inquiries seeking comment.
Some conservative allies of the president have attempted to rebrand Slatten and three other Blackwater contractors convicted of manslaughter as “the Biden Four.” The entirety of their connection to Biden is a January 2010 press conference in Baghdad where the former vice president pledged to appeal a judge’s unexpected dismissal of the contractors’ indictment due to prosecutorial misconduct. “Joe Biden sided with Iraqi politicians over America’s own. This is why I am calling these veterans ‘The Biden Four,” Duncan Hunter, a soon-to-be former congressman since convicted of campaign finance violations, explained in a June Fox News op-ed.
Blackwater, the most infamous private security contractor of the 21st century, held lucrative contracts to protect U.S. diplomats in war zones during much of the war on terrorism. While many of the firm’s contractors came from the U.S. military, discipline often did not follow, and Blackwater earned a reputation for trigger happiness. In September 2007, a Blackwater tactical support team known as Raven 23 acted in what the Justice Department later called “disregard of an order from Blackwater’s command” and blockaded the bustling traffic circle of Nisour Square hours after a car bomb detonated nearby. When a white Kia sedan moved forward in a traffic jam, Blackwater contractors opened fire with machine guns and even grenades out of fear the Kia was another bomb.
The carnage left over a dozen unarmed Iraqis dead and another 17 injured. Nisour Square became a signature atrocity of the Iraq war, representing to Iraqis the impunity with which they saw Americans operate. Blackwater presented Nisour Square as a tragic example of the confusion present in an insurgent war, not a crime. The U.S. refused to permit Iraq to prosecute the Blackwater guards and confronted a swell of protest by assuring Iraq that its own justice system could handle the case. But a subsequent indictment of five Raven 23 guards, including Slatten, relied on statements they provided the State Department soon after the shooting, without protections against self-incrimination. It prompted Judge Ricardo Urbina to dismiss the case in 2009, sparking another international furor.
A subsequent trial, however, saw several Iraqi witnesses travel to the U.S. to testify. They disputed the Blackwater guards’ claim to have taken fire from insurgents at Nisour Square, and presented instead a scene of unprovoked horror that escalated as panicked motorists tried to flee. Mohammed Kinani, whose 9-year old son Ali was shot dead in the head, compared Blackwater to Saddam Hussein. Majed Salman Abdel Kareem al-Gharbawi, who survived a gunshot wound to the abdomen, testified that he watched his friend Osama Abbas die from a hail of Blackwater bullets as Abbas attempted to run away.
Three Blackwater contractors were charged with manslaughter, and another pleaded guilty and testified against the others. But prosecutors charged Slatten with first-degree murder for being the first Blackwater guard to fire, sparking the incident and killing Ahmed Haithem Ahmed al-Rubia’y, the 19-year old behind the Kia’s wheel. Slatten has for years denied being the first to open fire. When federal judge Royce Lamberth sentenced Slatten to life imprisonment in 2015, Slatten replied, “You know I am innocent, sir.” One of Slatten’s attorneys nevertheless apologized to al-Rubai’y’s family.
But it was far from an end to the case. To secure the convictions of the Blackwater guards, federal prosecutors brought machine-gun charges dubiously applicable to a warzone. An appeals court voided the conviction in 2017 and ordered a new trial, which resulted in a hung jury and mistrial the following year over the question of who shot first. A third trial before Lamberth ended in Slatten’s conviction in December 2018. Slatten had rejected an offer to plead guilty to manslaughter and received a life sentence in August amidst rumors that Trump would pardon him.
Lawyers for Slatten last month sought a fourth trial for the ex-contractor, calling him a “wrongly convicted, innocent man whose constitutional rights were violated” by repeated prosecutorial misconduct. The defense team claims one of the other Raven 23 contractors, Paul Slough, confessed to being the first to open fire and charged the government with withholding evidence that exonerates Slatten. Lamberth denied Slatten’s motion on Dec. 23, according to court records.
Slatten’s lead attorney, Amy Mason Saharia of the Williams and Connolly law firm, declined to comment on Thursday. Slatten’s relatives and advocates have urged Trump to pardon him, even writing the White House counsel in August.
“Think about how this looks to Iraqi civilians who’ve been asked to trust U.S. forces, including contractors, to protect them,” said Sarah Holewinski, a former human-rights adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a board member of the humanitarian group CIVIC. “If they can’t rely on a U.S. court decision, where can they turn?”
Tim Parlatore, an attorney for Edward Gallagher, said on Thursday, “I have spoken with one of [the former Blackwater employees’] lawyers. It is one of those cases where they did make a tough decision in combat, and I think they should be given the benefit of the doubt.”
Parlatore added, “It’s not the sort of thing you should be in jail for for the rest of your life. Whether it’s through a pardon or clemency, I think releasing them from prison would be an appropriate thing for President Trump to do.”
It is unclear if the president will follow through after “taking a look at” these cases and grant Slatten and others’ wish. However, he’s insisted publicly that he will “always” have the backs of convicted American war criminals who he believes have fallen victim to a supposed squishiness in the military. Indeed, the president has made such promises a part of his reelection campaign.
“I will always stick up for our great fighters,” Trump said at a Florida rally in late November. “People can sit there in air-conditioned offices and complain, but you know what? It doesn’t matter to me whatsoever.”
—with additional reporting by Max Tani