Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, at Ramona Town Hall in 2019, was prosecuted by Phillip Halpern, who said: “His political career is over and his family life is in tatters.” Photo by Ken Stone

By Ken Stone

President Trump granted a full pardon Tuesday to former Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, who pleaded guilty a year ago to a single count of conspiring to convert campaign funds to personal use.

The six-term Alpine Republican thus was spared an 11-month sentence at a federal prison near El Paso, Texas — set to begin in two weeks.

Ammar Campa-Najjar, who challenged Hunter for the 50th Congressional District seat in 2018 and lost a 2020 bid to former Rep. Darrell Issa, told Times of San Diego that he was disappointed, “but not surprised in the slightest. Trump’s disregard for the rule of law is absolute. Glad the nightmare will soon be over.”

He added via text: “Goodbye 2020. Let’s build back better in 2021.”

Noah Bookbinder of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington was among those outraged by the clemency.

“There have been many shameful, craven displays of Donald Trump using the presidency to benefit himself and his cronies, but there may not be any worse than these pardons,” said Bookbinder, CREW’s executive director.

“In Duncan Hunter, Chris Collins and Steve Stockman, you have three of the most corrupt members of Congress in recent history, including the first two members to endorse Trump. They are prime examples of politicians using their positions to benefit themselves rather than look out for their constituents.”

He added: “Pardons are traditionally used to try to right injustices; that couldn’t be further from the case tonight. The message Trump has sent tonight is clear: No matter how awful your crime was, justice does not apply to you if you are loyal to him.”

Retired Hunter prosecutor Phillip Halpern said he was “not in the least” personally troubled by the pardon.

“I’ve never really cared about how much time he served,” he said via email. “Hunter was forced to resign from Congress in disgrace and admit the full range of his corruption. His political career is now over and his family life is regrettably in tatters,” with his wife suing for divorce. “His actual jail sentence has always been secondary to my personal calculations.

But as a private citizen, Halpern said he was appalled by Trump rewarding Hunter and “other assorted political cronies while simply ignoring or excusing their brazen corruption. I’m not surprised, though, as this is just business as usual in this White House.”

Further: “As a person who cares about equality, I’m disgusted by Trump’s apparent failure to pardon Hunter’s former wife, Margaret — who admitted her guilt and cooperated with the United States to bring Hunter to justice.”

Halpern, the former assistant U.S. attorney, saw the pardon coming.

A week ago, he said he’d be surprised if Hunter and his father, former Rep. Duncan Lee Hunter, weren’t using their “substantial political connections” to seek a pardon in this case.

“Whether Trump would give him one turns on the simple question of whether he believes that doing so would benefit him either personally or politically,” he said. “As can be seen from Trump’s prior pardons, his actions are entirely motivated by what’s best for him and not what’s best for the country. It’s that simple.”

Former California GOP Chairman Ron Nehring said: “Put me down as opposed to all of these. Especially Hunter, who was my Congressman. Our elected officials should be held to a higher, not lower, standard than the average citizen, who would never have been pardoned for similar crimes.”

Former San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio, who ran against Hunter in the 2020 primary, said the pardon “sends absolutely the wrong message that politicians can break the law but can easily avoid any punishment when they do so.”

In a statement posted on Twitter, the radio talk-show host added: “Politicians should be held accountable for following the laws that all of us citizens have to follow – no exemptions. Today’s decision will simply reinforce the clear impression that ordinary citizens have that the Washington DC Swamp Creatures protect themselves, receive special exemptions, and enjoy double standards.”

Also pardoned was George Papadopoulos, a former campaign aide who pleaded guilty as part of the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Trump also pardoned Alex van der Zwaan, 36, the Dutch son-in-law of Russian billionaire German Khan. Van der Zwaan was sentenced to 30 days in prison and fined $20,000 for lying to U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators about contacts with an official in Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Their names were included in a wave of pre-Christmas pardons announced by the White House. Trump granted full pardons to 15 people, including three former Republican lawmakers, and commuted all or part of the sentences of five others.

Papadopoulos, 33, was an adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign. He pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to FBI agents about the timing and significance of his contacts with people who claimed to have ties to top Russian officials.

“The defendant’s crime was serious and caused damage to the government’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election,” a sentencing recommendation memo from then-U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller had said.

He served 12 days of a 14-day sentence in federal prison, then was placed on a 12-month supervised release.

The White House said Papadopoulos was charged with “a process-related crime, one count of making false statements,” as part of the Mueller probe, which Trump had denounced as a witch hunt.

“Today’s pardon helps correct the wrong that Mueller’s team inflicted on so many people,” the White House said.

The pardons were part of a flurry of such actions expected by the outgoing Republican president before Democratic President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20. Trump, who has refused to concede, has made unsubstantiated claims of widespread voting fraud and pursued a series of unsuccessful lawsuits to overturn the result.

Last month, Trump pardoned his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI during the Russia investigation. The Flynn pardon drew condemnation from Democrats and other critics.

Other former Republican lawmakers were pardoned, including former Rep. Collins of New York.

Collins, 70, had been the first sitting member of Congress to endorse Trump’s candidacy in 2016 and was a strong defender of the president. He won re-election in 2018 but resigned the next year.

“In 2019, Collins pled guilty to the charges of conspiring to commit securities fraud and making false statements to the FBI. Mr. Collins is currently serving his 26-month sentence,” the White House said.

Also pardoned was former Republican Rep. Stockman of Texas, 64, who was convicted in 2018 of misuse of charitable funds.

The White House said he had served more than two years of his 10-year sentence and would remain subject to a period of supervised release and an order requiring that he pay more than $1 million in restitution.

Trump also commuted the remaining term of the supervised release of Crystal Munoz, who was convicted of conspiracy to distribute marijuana.

Munoz spent years in a federal prison in Fort Worth, with Alice Johnson, who was granted clemency by Trump in 2018 in a case championed by reality TV star Kim Kardashian West.

Updated at 12:30 a.m. Dec. 23, 2020

Reuters contributed to this report.

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