Donald Trump—who once demanded that former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden be executed for leaking classified intel on dystopian surveillance of U.S. citizens—has mused that Snowden has “not been treated fairly,” spurring a call from GOP Rep. Thomas Massie to finally pardon him.
Snowden, who leaked massive numbers of internal NSA documents on secret privacy-invading mass surveillance programs, including PRISM, collaboration with other intel agencies, data harvesting, and the NSA’s “black budget,” now lives in Russia under fear of extradition to the U.S. and prosecution. In an interview with the New York Post on Thursday, Trump cited Snowden as a similar martyr to himself, repeating baseless claims that Barack Obama’s administration wiretapped Trump Tower and illegally spied on his 2016 presidential campaign.
“There are a lot of people that think that he is not being treated fairly,” Trump told the Post. “I mean, I hear that.”
Trump then rambled on with typically vague allusions to Snowden being among people “they” talk about and having “heard it both ways,” before—rather confusingly—taking the opportunity to deny that he and Snowden had ever met. Per the Post:
“Snowden is one of the people they talk about. They talk about numerous people, but he is certainly one of the people that they do talk about,” Trump said on Thursday, before turning to his aides. “I guess the DOJ is looking to extradite him right now? … It’s certainly something I could look at. Many people are on his side, I will say that. I don’t know him, never met him. But many people are on his side.”
The president then asked his staff: “How do you feel about that, Snowden? Haven’t heard the name in a long time.”
After polling the room, Trump added: “I’ve heard it both ways. From traitor to he’s being, you know, persecuted. I’ve heard it both ways.”
This isn’t the talk of a man who seems to really remember who Snowden is, what he did, or why (as a huge coalition, including the ACLU, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, tech CEOs, former Obama administration and national security officials, members of the media, and human rights activists agree) he deserves a pardon. It’s also not clear from the tone of the conversation whether Trump is seriously considering a pardon or merely entertaining the idea as a way to paint himself as another hapless target of the U.S. intelligence community.
Last year, Trump’s Department of Justice successfully sued to prevent Snowden from profiting off the release of his book Permanent Record because it wasn’t cleared by the NSA or Central Intelligence Agency. The DOJ and intelligence agencies remain broadly hostile to Snowden.
But to be absolutely clear, Mr. President: I am antifa and I will be so triggered if you pardon Edward Snowden. Leftists will be outraged if you pardon Edward Snowden! If you pardon Edward Snowden, it will expose the whole Russia-Comey-Antifa Hoax as the Lying Mainstream Media treason it is, etc.
On Twitter, Snowden responded to the Post report by pointing out he had been considered for a pardon in 2016, when former Attorney General Eric Holder said the leaks were a “public service.” At the time, Holder said that Snowden should still be punished for not going through Congress to report his concerns. Obama later claimed that he couldn’t pardon Snowden, as he never appeared before a U.S. court (which is not actually how pardons work).
Snowden has generally been more unpopular among conservatives than among liberals and libertarians. But the issue doesn’t fall neatly along partisan lines, and many Democrats have been reluctant to call for his pardoning; in 2016, members of both parties on the House Intelligence Committee branded him a liar. Massie has been one of several Republicans, including Rep. Justin Amash and Sen. Rand Paul, who have sided with Snowden as a civil liberties whistleblower. On the Democratic side, supporters of a pardon have included Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Tulsi Gabbard, as well as former President Jimmy Carter, while general support for the disclosures—if not Snowden himself—has come from many Democratic members of Congress.
An earlier version of this story mistakenly referred to Tulsi Gabbard as a senator when her title is Representative. The copy has been amended and Gizmodo regrets the error.