Chelsea Manning is safe from Donald Trump, legal experts say
Chelsea Manning, it would seem, does not have a friend in the new president — nor in the many senior Republicans outraged over Obama’s decision to reduce her sentence by 28 years in his last days in office. In a tweet Wednesday morning, Trump called Manning a “TRAITOR … who should never have been released.”
Ungrateful TRAITOR Chelsea Manning, who should never have been released from prison, is now calling President Obama a weak leader. Terrible!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 26, 2017
But even though plenty of lawmakers would like to see the imprisoned whistleblower — set to be released in May — serve out her original 35-year sentence, Trump can’t interfere, according to legal experts.
“The president’s pardon and commutation power is absolute,” said Stephen Presser, the emeritus law professor at Northwestern University. “A successive president doesn’t have the authority to change anything.”
Manning, a former Army soldier who was charged with espionage, among other crimes, for giving thousands of sensitive military documents to WikiLeaks, published her first column since her commutation in The Guardian on Wednesday. In it, she reflected on Obama’s presidency and some of the partisan hurdles he was forced to navigate. “The one simple lesson to draw from President Obama’s legacy: Do not start off with a compromise,” Manning wrote. “They won’t meet you in the middle. Instead, what we need is an unapologetic progressive leader.”
Manning does not call out Trump by name, but she makes pointed observations. “Our lives are at risk,” she wrote. “Especially for immigrants, Muslim people, and black people.”
It’s worth noting that in his tweet, Trump scolded Manning for calling Obama “weak” in the column. In reality, Manning was criticizing others for using the label. “[T]hey would ceaselessly criticize him for being too weak, or too soft, or too sympathetic. After months of comprise [sic] on his end, they never cooperated a single time,” she wrote.
Something about Manning’s column seemed to get under the president’s skin. The tweet was Trump’s first acknowledgement that Obama had commuted her sentence. Others, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Arizona Sen. John McCain, released statements condemning Obama’s decision almost immediately following the news last Tuesday.
If the new administration is hell-bent on keeping Manning locked up, however, there is one avenue they could take, albeit an unlikely one. Just because Obama has commutation power “does not mean that [Trump] wouldn’t be able to have the Justice Department find something else to go after Manning for,” said Brian Kant, a law professor at Michigan University. But, Kant noted, the statute of limitations means that a person can only be charged within a certain number of years after a crime is committed.
Unless Trump’s Department of Justice could find a federal crime committed by Manning before her imprisonment, where the crime was sufficiently egregious that its statute of limitations had not yet expired — like arson (10 years) or theft of a major artwork (20 years) — she should be safe.
“No matter what is permissible within the bounds of the law, we are staying vigilant in our monitoring of Chelsea’s conditions of confinement and ability to be released,” said Chase Strangio, Manning’s lawyer and a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT and AIDS Project.