In one of his final acts as President, Donald Trump early on Wednesday morning suddenly pardoned the engineer at the center of an iconic, litigious, and years-long conflict between Uber, Google, and federal prosecutors over the technology for self-driving cars.
Encouraged by some of his highest-profile backers in Silicon Valley, such as venture capitalist Peter Thiel, Trump issued the surprise full pardon to Anthony Levandowski, a former Google executive who had decamped to work for Uber. Levandowski was last year sentenced to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to stealing trade secrets from Google that he then used to help Uber in the self-driving race.
The announcement came as a shock for several reasons: One was that the news that Levandowski was seeking a pardon had not previously been reported. Another was that it was yet another twist in a legal saga that went on for years — in addition to the federal conviction, Google’s self-driving arm, Waymo, at one point sued Uber in a messy legal case before reaching a settlement. Finally, the thinking was, the matter was basically resolved.
And the final reason making the news so surprising was the cast of characters that the White House said pushed for Levandowski’s full pardon. In addition to Thiel — who was once Trump’s most prominent backer in Silicon Valley — Levandowski’s supporters in his pardon quest included Palmer Luckey, the founder of the virtual-reality company Oculus and a major Trump campaign donor; Michael Ovitz, the legendary founder of the Hollywood talent giant CAA; and other investors and executives tied to Thiel, such as one of his top aides, Blake Masters.
“Mr. Levandowski is an American entrepreneur who led Google’s efforts to create self-driving technology. Mr. Levandowski pled guilty to a single criminal count arising from civil litigation,” the White House said in its statement. “Notably, his sentencing judge called him a “brilliant, groundbreaking engineer that our country needs.” Mr. Levandowski has paid a significant price for his actions and plans to devote his talents to advance the public good.”