Reality Winner: Russia investigation a ‘little vindicating’

Reality Winner, who was sentenced in Augusta to more than five years in prison for leaking top-secret government documents about Russian meddling in the 2016 election, said in a televised interview Thursday that it has been a “little vindicating” watching Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation proceed.

The former National Security Agency contractor thanked President Trump for expressing sympathy for her on Twitter last week, called herself a “patriot” and discussed her plans for when she gets out of prison.

“It’s been a little vindicating but also frustrating,” she told “CBS This Morning” about Mueller’s probe during a telephone call from the Lincoln County Jail, where she is being held until she is transferred to the federal prison system.

“I know that had I been out and allowed some kind of opinion about it I would be doing my due diligence as a citizen, contacting my senators. But as it is I just have been behind bars, kind of as a spectator and kind of a sounding box to other people’s opinions. When I call people, they are so frustrated. Or the mail I get –- people are just venting to me about the state of the country.”

Winner, 26, pleaded guilty to mailing a copy of a NSA document to The Intercept, an online publication. The Intercept published an article 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.

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Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the nation’s election system as well as possible links between Russian officials and Trump’s presidential campaign, has issued charges against 32 people and three companies. Six people have pleaded guilty. Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manger, was convicted of unrelated financial fraud last week.

Asked on CBS whether she regretted her actions, Winner responded: “Yes, deeply.”

“I think that I was isolated at that time,” she said. “And, psychologically, you are not going to make the best decisions.”

Winner thanked Trump for questioning the fairness of her punishment. Trump also took a swipe at U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in his tweet, writing: “Ex-NSA contractor to spend 63 months in jail over ‘classified’ information. Gee, this is ‘small potatoes’ compared to what Hillary Clinton did! So unfair Jeff, Double Standard.”

Winner – who previously called Trump an “orange fascist” and “Tangerine in Chief” on Twitter – said his tweet about her Friday was a “breath of fresh air,” adding it made her laugh.

“I just can’t thank him enough for finally saying what everybody has been thinking for 16 months,” Winner said. “He really gave a whole a sense of humor to the thing because it is quite bizarre.”

Winner called the possibility of a presidential pardon “a wild hope.”

“I am not going to sit around and wait for blessings,” she said, adding about Trump: “I don’t like to assume what goes on in his head.”

Winner also pushed back against prosecutors’ negative portrayal of her in court, calling herself a patriot and saying she loves America. Winner, according to prosecutors, wrote in a notebook seized by authorities that she wanted to “burn the White House down” and flee overseas.

“I care about this country. I want to make it as good as it can get,” she said. “Taking little words or statements out of context – they were able to try to damage my character and it took everything I had not to kind of believe their narrative.

“Because when you are sitting there in that orange uniform and they are the ones telling you who are you are, it is surreal. You start to believe them. If I didn’t have the support of my family or people around the world saying: ‘We see through this,’ I would have been lost.”

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Winner said that when she gets out of prison she plans to move to South Texas and study sociology.

“I know we have a refugee situation on our border,” she said. “If I cannot change the system or the legislation, then I want to make sure I can start nonprofit programs for these children and parents and young adults to make sure that every day they spend counts and that they get to work toward their American dream, even if it is unsure if it will come to fruition or not.”