President Obama decided to drop the mic.
by Luis Gómez
Co-editor in Chief
President Obama’s farewell was capped by a huge rally and speech in Chicago, an interview with Pod Save America that you should definitely listen to, and commuting a whole lot of prison sentences.
On January 19th, Obama commuted or pardoned over 300 people, mostly for nonviolent drug offenses. Among those commuted was Chelsea Manning, the imprisoned army officer who leaked a trove of classified documents to Wikileaks in 2010, among which was the now-infamous “Collateral Murder” video. Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison. The day after sentencing, Manning’s lawyer announced that Manning was a trans-woman, having spent the last few years of service struggling to manage her gender dysphoria.
The move is also seen as a shoring-up of the Obama Administration’s positive record on LGBTQ+ rights. While the administration can obviously take some credit for its support of marriage equality, some activists had criticized the administration for not doing enough for queer causes in the US. The decision to commute Manning clearly acknowledges her struggle with gender dysphoria while in prison and of the Army’s relative indifference or unwillingness to help her. Manning’s freedom was long called for at Pride events and by human rights organizations.
Manning’s lawyers, the ACLU, and many trans-activists had long been pressuring the Obama administration to commute her sentence to time served, pointing to the Army’s lack of understanding and willingness to accommodate Chelsea’s gender dysphoria as evidence of inhumane treatment. Manning also spent time in solitary confinement, once as punishment for a suicide attempt. She also began a hunger strike after what she described as inhumane treatment by prison officials, as well as to protest the Army’s refusal to aid in treating her gender dysphoria.
Throughout these moments, Manning petitioned for her release. A 2014 request for clemency was brought before an Army general but was ultimately denied. Before this request, Manning’s lawyers had formally applied for a presidential pardon, because presidential pardons are applied for (which I just straight up didn’t know).
The election of Donald Trump significantly hastened Manning’s efforts to receive a commutation, as the President had indicated on the campaign trail that she has gotten off too easily, and he had a nearly-nonexistent record on transgender rights. In a formal petition to President Obama on November 13, Manning asked for commutation. One day later, a petition appeared on whitehouse.gov. Driven largely by a twitter campaign, the petition acquired the required 100,000 signatures for a White House response. However, the White House did not comment on Manning’s sentence until Obama’s last-minute commutation.
Manning’s sentence was heavily reduced from its initial thirty-five year duration, which was the longest prison term ever delivered to any whistleblower. Manning now has about four months left in prison, and will be released in May.
When asked at one of his last press conferences about his decision, Obama pointed to her treatment while in confinement, saying first and foremost, “Chelsea Manning has served a tough prison sentence.” The President also highlighted the fact that Manning had, essentially, done her time. With Chelsea’s sentence commuted, many wondered if Edward Snowden would also receive a last-hour pardon. However, in his press conference, Obama made sure to stress the fact that Manning’s sentence was commuted – not pardoned. The President’s logic seemed evident – that because Manning had gone through the judicial process in determining that sentence, he would commute the rest of her time, as opposed to Edward Snowden, who fled to Hong Kong and then Russia after leaking NSA documents.
Manning’s pardon also comes at a time when people are taking stock of the Obama information legacy, one that began with a first-term promise to remain one of the most open and transparent presidencies of the modern era. While some aspects of this promise were kept, the legacy Obama leaves behind on information leaks is a mixed one – certain whistleblower protections were made stronger while others, especially those for members of the intelligence community, were weakened or remained untouched.
Last-minute presidential commutations are a hallmark of any administration, as the outgoing president will find a moment to reduce or eliminate the sentences of those they find deserve some sort of reprieve from their sentence. Perhaps the most famous of these was Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon after Nixon’s resignation, and Bill Clinton when he pardoned his brother after he was convicted of cocaine possession. Among the many people, including low-level drug offenders, that President Obama pardoned, Manning’s commutation stands out as the most consequential.
Ultimately, the commutation of Chelsea Manning was a final act of outreach by a president with a strong record of caring about people, and actually looking at nuance in situations, then coming to reasonable conclusions. Chelsea Manning was living in hell; now she has a chance to live her life.