Before she leaked a top-secret document on Russian election meddling, Reality Winner had become so livid at President Donald Trump that she called him an “orange fascist” and “Tangerine in Chief” on Twitter. Then she became the first person prosecuted by his administration for leaking.
But the day after a federal judge handed Winner a record-setting prison sentence, an embattled Trump offered her a glimmer of hope: sympathy, and a declaration that her treatment by his administration has been “so unfair.”
In yet another Twitter hammering of his own appointee, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Trump opined Friday morning that Winner’s sentence of five years and three months in federal prison is relatively harsh, seeing as how Sessions will not similarly prosecute Hillary Clinton. He also seemed to throw shade on the assertion that Winner leaked anything sensitive to national security.
“Ex-NSA contractor to spend 63 months in jail over ‘classified’ information,” Trump tweeted about Winner, a former U.S. Air Force linguist who was working as a National Security Agency contractor in Augusta before her arrest. “Gee, this is ‘small potatoes’ compared to what Hillary Clinton did! So unfair Jeff, Double Standard.”
The tweet had Winner’s family, which spent more than a year publicly campaigning for her release, considering a shift in strategy. Her mother, Billie Winner-Davis, had a blunt reply for the president on Twitter: “Please pardon my daughter Reality Winner.”
“If he feels like this is a double standard, if he feels that this is unfair, maybe he’ll take a look at it,” Winner-Davis told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday. “Because he’s the one with the power. He’s the one that has the power to change this for her — to either time served, commute her sentence or pardon her.”
The White House had no comment about the possibility of clemency.
Prosecutors say Winner, 26, copied pages from a top secret report, folded them into her pantyhose, walked out of her building, then mailed the documents to The Intercept, an online publication. Two days after Winner’s arrest, The Intercept published a story based on the report, saying Russian military intelligence sent spear-phishing emails to more than 100 local election officials and launched a cyberattack against a Florida-based voting software supplier that contracts in eight states.
After Winner’s sentencing, Bobby Christine, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, told reporters that her actions “caused exceptionally grave damage to U.S. national security,” including “impairing the ability of the United States to acquire foreign intelligence information.”
Winner’s defense attorney, Titus Nichols, called the president’s tweet “bizarre,” but said it won’t affect Winner’s current legal strategy, which is to stick to the plea deal. Her family or her network of supporters can take up the clemency cause, Nichols said, but her defense team remains focused on convincing federal officials to house her at the Federal Medical Center Carswell near Fort Worth, Texas, where she would be close to her family in Kingsville and could get treatment for bulimia.
Chief U.S. District Court Judge J. Randal Hall said he would recommend that placement to the Bureau of Prisons, and Nichols didn’t express much hope for a pardon.
“This is just him taking aim at Sessions,” Nichols said of Trump. “I would be surprised if the president himself is keeping track of this case.”
If Trump is keeping track, he might know that Winner is no fan of his. She was clear about her dislike of him on social media, once tweeting at him, after comments he made about refugees being a danger, that “the most dangerous entry to this country was the orange fascist we let into the white house (sic).”
Winner’s disillusionment about Trump was part of her reason for leaving the Air Force, her mother told the AJC in an interview last year.
“Something she said, she didn’t like her new boss,” Winner-Davis said in June 2017. “She was not going to serve in his military.”
Another factor that would complicate any appeal for mercy to Trump — the document Winner leaked contradicted his doubt-casting about election meddling. The president has intermittently asserted that “nobody really knows for sure” if Russians interfered with the election, called the investigation a hoax, or most infamously, brushed the notion off altogether while standing beside Russian President Vladmir Putin.
Winner smuggled out a record that revealed the depth of Russian interference — that it went well beyond fake profiles and fake news on Facebook.
“I know that Reality had very strong feelings about (Trump), and I know that she leaked this document,” her mother said. “I don’t know what her motives were, but she probably leaked this document at a time when he was trying to make the Russian investigation go away. But the fact is that her leak wasn’t against Trump; her leak was to tell us that the Russians had interfered, had attempted to hack in.”
Winner-Davis said she spoke to her daughter Thursday night, and she expects to serve her full sentence. She also said she’s grateful to Judge Hall for accepting the plea deal and for sparing her a public scolding for her actions.
Though she’s not sure how seriously to take Trump’s tweet, Winner-Davis said she will start researching the process for requesting clemency. Historically, it’s involved a lengthy and bureaucratic application process through the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney. In the Trump era, strategies have shifted to celebrity appeal and who knows who. A woman serving life in prison for a drug conviction had her sentence commuted after Kim Kardashian West talked to Trump about the case in the Oval Office.
Winner-Davis said she also can’t gauge whether the president was merely using her daughter to further harangue Sessions as the Mueller investigation closes in.
Mocking Sessions’ statement that the Justice Department will “not be improperly influenced by political considerations,” Trump also tweeted on Thursday, “Jeff, this is GREAT, what everyone wants, so look into all of the corruption on the ‘other side’ including deleted Emails, Comey lies & leaks, Mueller conflicts, McCabe, Strzok, Page, Ohr … FISA abuse, Christopher Steele & his phony and corrupt Dossier, the Clinton Foundation, illegal surveillance of Trump Campaign, Russian collusion by Dems — and so much more.”
The Justice Department declined to comment on the Twitter flurry.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.