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Reality Winner, imprisoned for leaking classified report, calls case against Trump 'incredibly ironic'

The former intelligence contractor spent more than 4 years in prison after pleading guilty to leaking classified information under the Espionage Act.
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KINGSVILLE, Texas — Reality Winner, a former intelligence contractor who served more than four years in prison for leaking a classified report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, says she finds the allegations that former President Donald Trump mishandled secret government documents as an "incredibly ironic" predicament given that it was his administration that sought to aggressively prosecute her.

But on whether Trump should be charged under the Espionage Act or face punishment as she did, Winner told NBC News that she doesn't think he should go to prison based on the evidence made public so far.

"What I did when I broke the law was a political act at a very politically charged time," Winner, 30, said from her home near Corpus Christi, Texas.

She added that it "wasn't hard to believe" Trump might have had a cache of classified documents stored at his Mar-a-Lago estate, as the Department of Justice is now investigating.

"It is incredibly ironic, and I would just let the Justice Department sort it out," she said.

Her more restrained view surrounding the former president, whose administration took a hard line on going after people accused of national security leaks, comes almost 15 months since she was released from prison in June 2021 to a halfway house due to good behavior. Winner was sentenced in 2018 to more than five years on a single count of transmitting national security information — then the longest federal prison sentence imposed for leaks to the news media.

Reality Winner.
Reality Winner.NBC News

Winner had been working for national security contractor Pluribus International at Fort Gordon in Georgia when prosecutors say she smuggled out a classified report in her pantyhose detailing the Russian government's efforts to pierce a Florida-based voting software supplier ahead of the 2016 presidential election. That information was later reported by The Intercept news outlet.

Winner said she was motivated to act on a belief that the American public wasn't getting the full truth.

When Trump was still in office, Winner's lawyers sought to get her sentence commuted. He had tweeted that her punishment was "so unfair," and was "'small potatoes' compared to what Hillary Clinton did," referencing a federal investigation into her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. (The FBI in 2016 ultimately determined Clinton had committed no crime in her handling of classified information.)

Winner said she is on probation until November 2024, and remains prohibited from traveling out of southern Texas, must adhere to a nightly curfew and report any interaction with the media.

She says her experience in and out of prison has allowed her to reflect on her actions. On one hand, she believes she was a scapegoat, citing how the FBI director under Trump, James Comey, recalled in a memo that he told the president "about the value of putting a head on a pike as a message" to leakers of classified information. Prosecutors at the time also tried to paint Winner as somebody who may have been sympathetic to anti-American sentiments after they said they found handwritten notes in her home, including one saying, "I want to burn the White House down."

"I was a very introspective individual," Winner said. “I wrote down my thoughts. I didn't act on my thoughts and I would read them later and laugh at them."

But Winner also recognizes that she broke the law and said she wouldn't do what she did again. Instead, she said, she would have gone through "proper channels" to raise her concerns as a whistleblower.

"I have apologized and I'm currently serving that sentence. However, I was treated very harshly and I don't wish that on anybody," she said, adding, "When we see this investigation going on, and the search warrant executed out of the former president's home or his estate, it's a lot of speculation, and I would sit back and let the Department of Justice do what it needs to do."

Winner said she considers the application of the Espionage Act inconsistent and vague, and that it leaves too much leeway for the federal district that has jurisdiction over a case to determine if "national defense information" was truly jeopardized.

Derek Bambauer, a University of Arizona law professor focusing on intellectual property, agreed that the World War I-era law is "badly in need of updating."

"The concern is that the current, rather broad language confers far too much discretion upon prosecutors," he said.

The law, he added, should be clearer about what is considered prohibited conduct while building in free speech safeguards for people engaged in whistleblower activities.

"There's clearly an important difference between showing a redacted version of a document or an assessment of a situation to a journalist or an attorney versus selling technical details of, say, submarine propulsion systems to a foreign country," Bambauer said.

The law also doesn't require that a document be technically considered "classified" to fall under its scope — the information only needs to be related to national defense and be retained or disclosed without authorization.

In July, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Rep. Ro Khanna of California, and Republican Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky reintroduced a bill under the Espionage Act to reaffirm First Amendment protections for journalists who publish classified information provided by whistleblowers.

Some of the recent high-profile cases of Espionage Act violations have involved people accused of leaking information, and not spying, which Winner points to as examples for why she says the law is "flawed."

Since leaving prison, Winner said, she has worked on her mental and spiritual health, become a CrossFit coach and advocates for transforming the carceral system so that prison is not the default for those who commit crimes. For a person of power, such as a former president, the ability to house them in prison safely becomes especially tricky, she added.

"This is not a case where I expect to see any prison time," Winner said of the accusations involving Trump, "and I'm just fine with that."

Gabe Gutierrez and Kayla McCormick reported from Kingsville, and Erik Ortiz from New York.