SAVANNAH, Ga. — A former government contractor serving time in federal prison for leaking a classified document to a news organization is making an appeal for early release to President Donald Trump, who once tweeted that he considered her crime to be “small potatoes.”
Reality Winner, 28, is serving a sentence of five years and three months at a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas, after she pleaded guilty in 2018 to a single count of transmitting national security information when she worked at a National Security Agency office in Georgia. Prosecutors called it the longest sentence ever imposed for a federal crime involving leaks to the media.
Winner's parents and sister appeared with her attorney at a news conference Monday in Dallas to announce the filing of an application with the Justice Department seeking clemency for Winner. Attorney Alison Grinter Allen said the application included about 4,500 letters of support.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Grinter Allen said Winner's best bet may be direct intervention by Trump, who has demonstrated a willingness to become personally involved in criminal prosecutions that he considers unfair.
“I don’t know that we ever had our hopes pinned on the official channels of the pardon attorneys, because really that takes so long,” Grinter Allen said. "But this president has shown a willingness to ignore those conventions and to commute people’s sentences when he sees fit.
"That's what we're hoping for is to get the attention of the president," she said, "and get the attention of all the candidates vying to be president."
A former Air Force translator from Kingsville, Texas, Winner worked as a contractor for the NSA in Augusta, Georgia, when she printed a classified report and left the building with it tucked into her pantyhose. Winner told the FBI she mailed the document to an online news outlet.
Authorities never identified the news organization. But the Justice Department announced Winner’s June 2017 arrest the same day The Intercept reported on a secret NSA document. It detailed Russian government efforts to penetrate a Florida-based supplier of voting software and the accounts of election officials ahead of the 2016 presidential election. The NSA report was dated May 5, the same as the document Winner had leaked.
Winner’s sentence was part of a plea deal agreed to by her defense attorneys and prosecutors. U.S. Attorney Bobby Christine, whose office prosecuted the case, called Winner “the quintessential example of an insider threat” and said the document she leaked harmed national security.
Trump weighed in on Twitter the day after Winner was sentenced.
“Gee, this is `small potatoes’ compared to what Hillary Clinton did!” Trump tweeted on Aug. 24, 2018. “So unfair Jeff.”
Trump didn’t elaborate in his tweet on what he was alleging Clinton had done. Jeff Sessions was still serving as Trump’s attorney general at the time of the tweet.
Before her arrest and prison sentence, Winner had made it clear she was no fan of Trump’s. On Facebook she once called him a “soulless ginger orangutan.”
Winner struck a different tone after Trump’s supportive tweet in 2018. In a jailhouse phone call, she told “CBS This Morning”: “I just can’t thank him enough.”
Trump has worked outside the traditional pardon process usually overseen by the Justice Department, appearing to favor cases that catch his attention. Some have been championed by friends, celebrities or conservative media.
Trump’s latest clemency spree Tuesday included commuting the 14-year prison sentence of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was convicted of political corruption just months after he appeared on Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” reality TV show.
Last week, the Justice Department at the direction of Attorney General William Barr recommended a lighter sentence than federal prosecutors had initially sought for Trump confidant Roger Stone, who was convicted of witness tampering and lying to Congress. Trump had tweeted that Stone’s conviction “should be thrown out.”
Grinter Allen said seeking clemency is Winner’s only real chance for early release from prison. There is no parole in the federal prison system. And Winner gave up her right to appeal her sentence as part of her plea agreement.
“Reality has taken full accountability for what she did,” Grinter Allen said. “... She’s suffered enough and punishing her doesn’t serve any goals of a free people.”