rule of law

Trump Wants to Make War Criminals Great Again

The Pardoner in Chief. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Trump may pardon several U.S. service members who have been accused or convicted of serious war crimes, including the mass murder of civilians, the New York Times reported Saturday. On Friday, the Trump administration filed expedited requests for the necessary paperwork to issue the pardons on or just after Memorial Day — condensing what is normally a months-long process into a little more than a week. The typical “Trump may change his mind” caveat applies, but if not, the pardons would provide yet another striking demonstration of how little the president understands or cares about the rule of law or the nature of service.

The potential pardons involve some very high-profile cases, per the Times:

One request is for Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher of the Navy SEALs, who is scheduled to stand trial in the coming weeks on charges of shooting unarmed civilians and killing an enemy captive with a knife while deployed in Iraq. The others are believed to include the case of a former Blackwater security contractor recently found guilty in the deadly 2007 shooting of dozens of unarmed Iraqis; the case of Maj. Mathew L. Golsteyn, the Army Green Beret accused of killing an unarmed Afghan in 2010; and the case of a group of Marine Corps snipers charged with urinating on the corpses of dead Taliban fighters.

Trump has already publicly signaled his support for both Gallagher and Golsteyn, at least in part owing to the advocacy of Fox & Friends co-anchor Pete Hegseth, who has been lobbying the president on behalf of the men both on and off the air. In March, Trump announced that he would be transferring Gallagher to “less restrictive confinement” while he awaits his upcoming trial, and back in December, Trump tweeted that he would be reviewing Golsteyn’s case. He referred to Golsteyn as a “U.S. military hero.”

Trump has not mentioned the Marine Scout Snipers who were court-martialed for urinating on dead Taliban fighters, but Task and Purpose reports that Trump’s former attorney, John Dowd, had worked to clear the Marines’ records in 2017, and a lawyer for one of the Marines said he had requested a pardon from Trump after he took office but never heard back. The president has also never mentioned Slatten, the Blackwater contractor, but Trump has well-known links to Blackwater via its founder, the Trump-boosting, truth-challenged Erik Prince, and his sister, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

The paperwork requests also come less than two weeks after President Trump pardoned another convicted war criminal, former Army First Lieutenant Michael Behenna, who, while deployed in Iraq in 2008, disobeyed orders, drove an Iraqi prisoner into the desert, stripped him naked, and shot him in the chest and the head. Behenna was convicted of unpremeditated murder a year later and was already serving a reduced sentence when Trump pardoned him.

Trump is (or has been) convinced that these men are victims of injustice, rather than perpetrators of it. And it’s not hard to imagine how war criminals could seem like war heroes to a president who fetishizes strength and power over the powerless. It should also be emphasized that all of the victims of these war crimes lived in Muslim-majority countries. Granted, there haven’t been any U.S. wars in countries that didn’t have Muslim majorities over the past few decades, but the potential pardons must also be seen in the context of President Trump’s rarely veiled Islamophobia and how well that has played with his base.

Whatever Trump believes, he has already made it clear that when it comes to helping his friends and perceived allies, he has no problem wielding pardons and revoking justice at an unprecedented scale. Considering all these factors, there should be little doubt that Trump will proceed with the pardons, as well as think that Memorial Day would be the best day to grant them, rather than the absolute worst day imaginable — since it would malign the honorable service and sacrifice of countless other Americans.

The pardons would also go against core principles that form the foundation of the armed services, as well as military justice, former Army JAG Glenn Kirschner explained in a Twitter thread on Saturday:

Our military criminal justice system protects the rights of soldiers accused of crimes as well as, if not better than, many civilian systems. It’s rarely an easy decision to prosecute a soldier, particularly for crimes committed during a time of war or otherwise in a hostile environment. But we expect, indeed demand, that our soldiers not commit murder/war crimes/atrocities while in military service. Indeed, the need to maintain good order and a cohesive fighting force requires that soldiers act in a law-abiding way even under the most difficult circumstances. Military commanders and prosecutors often agonize over decisions whether to charge a soldier with a criminal offense.

This is, in part, because we recognize the sacrifices soldiers make for their country, putting their lives on the line to protect our people & our freedoms. But when a decision ultimately is made to court martial a soldier, the system takes great pains to ensure that soldiers receive excellent legal representation and fair trials. Enormous time [and] effort goes into investigations, prosecutions and, in the event of conviction, appeals. I know this first hand, having handled, as an Army prosecutor (in both the trial courts & appellate courts), cases including murder during Operation Just Cause, espionage during Operation Desert Storm, death penalty litigation, and many others.

Kirschner, who said Trump’s proposed plan “makes me sick,” also highlighted how, in the case of Slatten, his fellow Blackwater soldiers helped bring him to justice. Gallagher, also, faces justice because his conduct appalled his fellow SEALs. They then put their careers at risk to report him, and may now see their commander-in-chief recklessly invalidate that courage so that he can hear how great he is on Fox News.

These were not situations in which good soldiers were caught up in some unjust system; they were situations in which good soldiers exposed bad soldiers.

Pardoning a series of war criminals would set a precedent for what is and is not acceptable behavior on the battlefield and within the chain of command, all thanks to a draft dodger who attacked a prisoner of war and a gold-star family on his way to becoming president. Trump is an avowed proponent of torture, a fan of fantasies about executing Muslims with bullets dipped in pig’s blood, and someone who has joked that he could get away with killing someone if he wanted to — and he wants to remake the military in his image.

Trump Wants to Make War Criminals Great Again