President Trump’s pardon fever began on May 7, with the absolution of Army First Lieutenant Michael Behenna, who was convicted of unpremeditated murder for stripping an Iraqi prisoner naked and shooting him in the desert. For the rest of the month, the president flirted with pardoning more military officers and a former Blackwater contractor, who were accused and convicted of various war crimes, reportedly making expedited requests for the paperwork so that it could all be wrapped up around Memorial Day — a questionable celebration of the federal holiday commemorating fallen soldiers.
But planning is a fickle thing in the Trump administration. According to a report in the Daily Beast, President Trump has cooled on pardoning the American soldiers after facing near-universal blowback in the press and among veterans’ advocacy groups. Though Trump hasn’t ruled out the possibility of bringing back such pardons at a later date in his presidency, the pressure convinced him to ease off the plan: He hasn’t tweeted about the idea or mentioned it in public since Memorial Day.
As Trump made his pardon plans known, veterans expressed concerns that the president’s acute leniency would undermine the rule of law. “Absent evidence of innocence or injustice the wholesale pardon of US service members accused of war crimes signals our troops and allies that we don’t take the Law of Armed Conflict seriously,” tweeted General Marty Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Charles Krulak, a former Marine Corps commandant, told the L.A. Times, “If President Trump issues indiscriminate pardons of individuals accused — or convicted by their fellow service members — of war crimes, he relinquishes the United States’ moral high ground and undermines the good order and discipline critical to winning on the battlefield.”
Showing again how vulnerable the president is to individual lobbying, much of Trump’s motivation for the pardons reportedly originated with Fox News host Pete Hegseth. The Bronze Star recipient spoke with Trump throughout the year in the hopes that he might spread his conviction that the rules of engagement aren’t lax enough. Prior to the pushback from the military community at large, it appeared to be working: Trump reportedly called the treatment of Navy SEAL platoon leader Edward Gallagher, whose trial for premeditated murder began on May 28, “total bullshit.”
Though the president has eased on the round of pardons for now, it’s unlikely that his underlying thoughts on the matter of extrajudicial violence on the battlefield have changed. Since as early as 2015, Trump has espoused such ideas in public, claiming that dipping bullets in pig’s blood was an effective, if imaginary, anti-insurgency tactic in the Philippine-American War, and that “you have to take out” the families of terrorists, a direct violation of the Geneva Conventions.