A pardon for Assange and Snowden, issued in the dying hours of his presidency, would have secured for Trump fame as a president who had indeed taken seriously his pledge to drain the swamp and to bring to the light of day the dark machinations of the deep state, as a president who had taken seriously his commitment to end Washington’s addiction to endless wars and ceaseless interference in the internal affairs of other nations. It would have been Trump’s lasting legacy. Instead of an undignified exit following the debacle of the January 6, 2021, Capitol protests, and the subsequent tawdry impeachment and trial, Trump would have left office as a heroic figure, a true populist who took the side of the people against the governments that spy on them and embroil them in wars on the basis of lies.
Without such a final act, Trump’s accomplishments, such as they are, will prove to be evanescent. His one legislative success, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, will almost certainly be overturned by the Biden administration. While the 234 federal judges (including three Supreme Court justices) that he nominated will remain on the bench for years to come, it is striking that not one of them came to his aid in his time of need. Trump appointees to a man or woman refused to entertain his claims that he had been the victim of electoral malfeasance.
His other domestic feats will also take up little space in the history books: He failed to repeal and replace Obamacare, and he failed to propose, let alone pass, any major immigration legislation. To be sure, he did succeed in reducing the flow of migrants across the US-Mexico border. However, he did that through executive actions and diplomatic pressure on Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador. They will not last more than a few hours into the Biden administration. Biden has pledged to undo the entirety of Trump’s immigration agenda, including the building of a wall on the border.
The same goes for Trump’s deregulation agenda. While Trump has indeed eliminated many regulations, many of them, particularly those pertaining to the environment, will return under Biden. The same applies to Trump’s tariffs. While Trump imposed extensive tariffs in order to help US manufacturing thrive, the incoming Biden team will, in their eagerness to improve relations with China and the European Union, dispense with many of them.
Trump’s foreign-policy legacy is also unlikely to survive. It is true that he has started no new wars, but he failed to pursue a lasting detente with Russia that might have endured despite the coming to power of Biden administration Russophobes such as Victoria Nuland and Jake Sullivan. Instead of improving relations with Russia, Trump expelled Russian diplomats, closed Russian consulates and sent lethal weaponry to Ukraine. He walked away from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty, and failed to extend the New START Treaty. The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula went nowhere, and the withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action failed to force Iran to renegotiate a new, less advantageous, treaty. As the Trump administration comes to an end, US troops are still in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. By failing to follow through on a consistently anti-interventionist agenda, Trump has eased the path back to power for the interventionists around Biden.
It is, of course, unfair to place all of the blame on Trump. It is not every president who is threatened by impeachment the moment he takes his oath of office. Democrats and their allies in the national security state hoped that the Mueller investigation would find evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and thereby force Trump from office. When Mueller failed to come up with anything, the Democrats, once again with their allies in the national security state, moved within a matter of days onto a new allegation and new grounds for impeachment. Trump was now colluding not with Russia, but with Ukraine, in order to defeat his political opponents at home. Though there was as little evidence to substantiate this claim as there was the earlier claim, this time the impeachment materialized, but not the Senate conviction and the removal from office.
This naturally all took a toll on Trump. We will never know whether he ever seriously desired the rapprochement with Russia that he promised in 2016. It is quite likely that he did. Given his identification of China as the US’ chief adversary, it would not have made very much sense for him to confront China and Russia at the same time. Nonetheless, the toxic Russia-collusion accusations precluded him from launching a single-minded policy of improving relations with Russia. It also prevented him from pursuing with determination a policy of withdrawing US forces from Syria and Afghanistan.
His final hours in office offered Trump an opportunity to leave a lasting legacy. A pardon for Assange would have been a defeat for the warmongers and the national security people who had plotted against him from the moment he took the oath of office. The very people who did the most to undermine the Trump administration, the people who spied on his campaign; the people who accused him of working on behalf of Russia; the people who went on TV every night to accuse him of treason; the people stepped out of the shadows during the impeachment proceedings to claim that Trump was a threat to US national security because he was insufficiently eager to send weapons to Ukraine; the people who resisted every attempt by Trump to withdraw US forces from Syria, Afghanistan and even Germany – these were the very people who were the most fiercely opposed to a pardon for Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.
It is the bipartisan pro-war, pro-interventionist, pro-military-spending consensus in Washington that is most insistent on seeing Assange and Snowden behind bars for the rest of their lives. And it was this very bipartisan consensus that Trump had promised to confront.
Why didn’t Trump pardon Assange and Snowden? Media report that Republicans sent word to the White House that should Trump pardon the two men, they, the Senate Republicans, would vote to convict Trump in his upcoming trial.
These media reports may or may not be true, the threats may or may not have materialized, the likelihood of a Senate conviction may or may not have been genuine. The point is that the only people who are rejoicing today at Trump’s apparent capitulation are Trump’s enemies who not only want to see him convicted and banished from public life but sent to prison for the rest of his life, in the cell next to that of Julian Assange.