This story has been updated to include interview with Reality Winner's mother
Donald Trump’s election so incensed Reality Winner that she took actions that ultimately cost the Air Force veteran her freedom. Now the former Augusta-area resident is asking Trump for mercy.
Winner, who pleaded guilty to leaking top-secret government documents about Russian meddling in the 2016 election, is asking for her record-setting 63-month prison sentence to be reduced. She has served nearly 33 months of that sentence and wants to be freed.
The White House and Justice Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
On Tuesday, Trump announced clemency and pardons for 11 convicts, including financier Michael Milken, former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik and former San Francisco 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo Jr.
Trump also said he would commute the sentence of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat convicted of attempting to sell Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat.
But for more than a year, attorneys have been telling Winner’s mother, Billie Winner-Davis, to not expect such leniency from the president.
Before she was arrested, Winner, 28, spent months unleashing a tirade of social media posts calling Trump, among other things, an “orange fascist” and “Tangerine in Chief.” Winner has said she voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. She also wrote in a notebook seized by authorities that she wanted to “burn the White House down” and then flee overseas, according to federal prosecutors.
Winner-Davis said she spoke to several lawyers about drawing up her daughter’s clemency petition, but they kept telling her, “Now is not a good time,” because Trump is still the president.
“It’s just like, well when is a good time?” Winner-Davis said. “There’s not going to be a good time. She’s already served half of her sentence.”
Winner is being held at Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas. A fellow inmate there, Crystal Mason — convicted of casting an illegal ballot in Texas in a case that ignited debate about voter suppression — pointed Winner to Dallas-area attorney Alison Grinter Allen, who agreed to file the petition now, Winner-Davis said.
“All I know is that if you do nothing, you get nothing,” Winner’s mother said. “If we file for it, and it’s there, it’s going to be there for this president and the next president.”
The government prosecuted Winner under the Espionage Act, a World War I-era law aimed at spies.
Her clemency petition, filed last week along with 4,500 letters of support, says she had no previous criminal record, did not conspire with foreigners against America and “only acted to inform the public.” Winner adds that she has been diagnosed with depression, anxiety and bulimia, and that she is enduring “substantial suffering,” for which she needs therapy.
A former military linguist, she also highlights the Air Force Commendation Medal she received in 2016 for meritorious service. The citation for the medal says she aided in “650 enemy captures, 600 enemies killed in action and identifying 900 high value targets.”
At the time of her arrest, she was working as a National Security Agency contractor.
“The continued imprisonment of Reality Leigh Winner serves no social or preventative purpose,” her petition says. “Her continued incarceration is costly, unnecessary to protect the public, burdensome to her health and well-being and not commensurate with the severity of her offense.”
Winner also mentions a 2018 tweet from Trump in which the president calls her punishment “unfair” and “small potatoes compared to what Hillary Clinton did!”
For a while, Winner and her family pinned hopes on that tweet. But Winner-Davis said attorneys told her the president was just lashing out at Clinton and then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, not weighing in on her daughter’s legal plight.
In an interview Tuesday, Winner’s attorney called her prison sentence “outlandish” and an “overreaction.”
“Forgiving our truth-tellers is going to be absolutely key to beginning the national healing process after our country was attacked,” Allen said, referring to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. “We are embarking on an election process, and we need to know that our government prizes the truth and our republic by and for the people over anything else. To start that, we need to know that the people who tell us the truth will be protected or at least forgiven.”
In a telephone interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in August 2018, Winner said she was not the leftist activist portrayed by her critics. She expressed regret for her actions, saying she was young, naive and frustrated at the two-party election system.
“I’m not sort of this bleeding-heart liberal Bernie (Sanders) supporter, either,” Winner told the AJC. “I’m so in the middle. I don’t even like to associate with either party. So it’s just so surreal to see this being polarized in such a way.
“To anybody that would say I’m a traitor, I would just welcome them to have a conversation with me,” she said.
Winner-Davis said her daughter has mostly given up hope of getting out of prison before her sentence ends, when she’ll be 30 years old.
As an inmate, she is taking college courses in sociology and criminology and is reading Michelle Obama’s memoir, her mother said.
She also teaches spin and yoga classes in prison, much as she did at local gyms in her old life in Augusta.
“I don’t know if we have a shot or not,” Winner-Davis said. “Her policies probably don’t agree with (Trump’s), and then her being young like that, she’s reactive. So I would hope that he would understand that, and he would maybe remember himself as a 24-year-old, and think about where you’re at at that point in your life.”
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