Trump Is Considering Clemency for Silk Road Founder

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Asawin Suebsaeng, Adam Rawnsley
·5 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Handout
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Handout

In his final weeks in office before Joe Biden’s inauguration, President Donald Trump is weighing granting clemency to Ross Ulbricht, the founder and former administrator of the world’s most famous darknet drug market, Silk Road, The Daily Beast has learned.

According to three people familiar with the matter, the White House counsel’s office has had documents related to Ulbricht’s case under review, and Trump was recently made aware of the situation and the pleas of the Silk Road founder’s allies. Two of these sources say the president has at times privately expressed some sympathy for Ulbricht’s situation and has been considering his name, among others, for his next round of commutations and pardons before the Jan. 20 inauguration of his 2020 Democratic opponent.

It is unclear if Trump has arrived at a final decision yet, but Ulbricht has gained some influential backers in the president’s political and social orbit. Behind the scenes, he has the support of some presidential advisers, as well as criminal justice reform advocates with close ties to the administration and Trump family, including Alice Johnson, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

“I’ve had documents forwarded to my contacts in the White House as early as February,” activist Weldon Angelos, a former music producer and ex-federal inmate, said in a brief interview on Tuesday evening. “In the beginning of the year, [Ulbricht’s] family had reached out to us for our support, and my organization and I have endorsed his full commutation, and I am hopeful that President Trump will commute his sentence in its entirety. This case has perhaps more support than I’ve seen in any case of this kind.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on this story Tuesday.

“We’re very grateful for and admire all President Trump has done for criminal justice reform, especially passing the First Step Act, because that has freed thousands of desperate and deserving people, some of whom I know. We’re praying and remain hopeful that he will show mercy on Ross, as he has others, and commute his sentence to time served and give my son a second chance at life,” Lyn Ulbricht, Ross’ mother, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday night.

Ulbricht was the founder and administrator of the Silk Road darknet drug market, which used the Tor anonymity network to hide the location of servers and cryptocurrencies like bitcoin to allow users to purchase drugs anonymously. The website was the first large scale darknet drug market and spawned a host of imitators over the years, many of which have since closed down or been raided by law enforcement.

Ulbricht founded Silk Road after graduating with a master’s degree in materials science from Penn State and continued to administer the site from his home in San Francisco.

As the site gained in popularity and drew media scrutiny, law enforcement officials from the DEA, FBI, ICE, Homeland Security Investigations, and the Secret Service mounted a lengthy effort to uncover the identity of the Dread Pirate Roberts, the handle Ulbricht used while running the market.

Ulbricht made a series of errors in attempting to disguise his role in administering the site, including leaving a trail of personal information like email addresses and nicknames on web forum posts asking for help with cryptocurrency and darknet sites.

After investigators finally unmasked Ulbricht as the Dread Pirate Roberts, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara charged him with computer fraud, money laundering, and drug charges. In 2015 Ulbricht received a life sentence without the possibility of parole, in what many criminal justice reform activists called an excessive sentence for nonviolent offenses.

Prosecutors introduced chat logs at trial which they claimed showed Ulbricht commissioning the murder of five Silk Road users for stealing from the site and allegedly attempting to blackmail Ulbricht with his true identity. No murders ever took place, and while federal prosecutors in Maryland briefly charged Ulbricht with attempting to commission a single murder for hire, they dismissed the murder charges with prejudice.

His attorneys launched two unsuccessful attempts to appeal his sentence in federal courts, and his supporters have focused on freeing him via a pardon or commutation in the years since.

Those supporters have pointed to the disparity in sentencing among Silk Road vendors and participants. Silk Road’s largest drug seller, Jan Slomp, received the second stiffest punishment after Ulbricht with a sentence of 10 years in prison. Others site administrators and moderators received sentences varying from 17 months to six and a half years.

The movement to grant clemency to Ulbricht has picked up support from celebrities, like British rapper M.I.A. and a handful of prominent Trumpworld and Republican Party figures, including Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) and TPUSA founder Charlie Kirk, who recently tweeted that Ulbricht had received “insane over-sentencing” and that the post-election period would be “the perfect time to grant mercy to a family and young man who has become a victim of our aggressive DOJ.”

On Tuesday, GOP strategist Andrew Surabian, formerly an official in the Trump White House, posted to Twitter that “Ross got screwed by the feds with an insanely harsh sentence… Few people deserve clemency from @realDonaldTrump more [in my opinion].” A movie about the online drug market and the Ulbricht saga is set for release in February 2021. Ulbricht was also the subject of Nick Bilton’s bestselling book, American Kingpin.

Support for Ulbricht’s cause is strongest in the overlapping worlds of libertarian activism and cryptocurrency fans, both of which counted Ulbricht as an enthusiastic member prior to his arrest.

Libertarian Party 2020 presidential candidate Jo Jorgensen campaigned on a platform that included pardoning Ulbricht alongside whistleblowers Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Got a tip? Send it to The Daily Beast here

Get our top stories in your inbox every day. Sign up now!

Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside goes deeper on the stories that matter to you. Learn more.