Every morning, Americans wake up to news of additional Trump efforts to roll back rational regulations, to insult long-time allies, or attack and undermine the rule of law.
And then there’s misuse of the Presidential pardon power.
I’m not talking about his documented efforts to suborn perjury by dangling the promise of a pardon to people like Michael Cohen. I’m not even referring to the shameful pardon of racist lawbreaker Sheriff Joe Arpaio. I’m talking about his recent pardon of a soldier convicted of a war crime, and his publicized intent to pardon others who have committed such crimes.
Senior U.S. officials have reported that Trump has been examining high-profile war crimes cases from Iraq and Afghanistan, and that he has had aides preparing paperwork so that he can issue pardons.
Not only would such pardons encourage horrific behaviors, they would put American soldiers at risk.
The possibility that Trump could issue pardons has brought a flood of opposition from current and former high-ranking officers, who say it would encourage misconduct by showing that violations of laws prohibiting attacks on civilians and prisoners of war will be treated with leniency.
“Absent evidence of innocence or injustice, the wholesale pardon of U.S. service members accused of war crimes signals our troops and allies that we don’t take the law of armed conflict seriously,” retired Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a tweet Tuesday. He added: “Bad message. Bad precedent. Abdication of moral responsibility. Risk to us.”
Time Magazine ran a column by retired Admiral James Stavridis in which he reminded readers that service members convicted of these crimes had received more than adequate due process:
The circumstances, motivations, outcomes and punishments all differ. But [the cases] share one crucial element: the military members went through, or still face, the military judicial system, which includes a strong presumption of innocence by fellow military members; a very high bar for conviction; a set of judges, prosecutors and defense teams composed of military personnel, most with real combat experience themselves; and a fully engaged appellate system that likewise was composed of military judges. While there may be a very atypical case wherein a Presidential pardon could right an obvious wrong, such a situation is extremely rare — the punishments meted out take fully into account the circumstances.
These individuals have been convicted by their peers of violating both the laws of war and the code of military conduct.
It appears that President Trump is considering pardoning those men, as well as other military members credibly charged with a variety of crimes, including murdering an enemy captive or killing unarmed civilians. (The President is also reportedly considering pardoning a security contractor twice convicted by a federal court.) All of these actions are gross violations of the laws of war and the U.S. code of military conduct. They are extreme ethical and moral failures.
The Admiral also warned of the consequences of issuing such pardons: it would undermine American military standards, be a gift to enemy propagandists, and further undercut our relations with allies (who have strong systems in place to prevent these kinds of actions).
Worst of all, such an action would encourage our enemies to engage in barbaric behavior.
This kind of pardon disrespects every single one of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who follow the strict standards of the Code of Conduct. They do not abuse captives who have surrendered, use torture to interrogate, cause needless casualties to civilians through collateral damage or desecrate corpses.
In the New York Times, columnist Jamelle Bouie described the conduct for which these men had been convicted.
Last year, a federal jury in Washington convicted Nicholas Slatten, a former security contractor, of first-degree murder for his role in killing one of 14 Iraqi civilians who died in 2007 in a shooting that also injured more than a dozen others. Matthew Golsteyn, an Army Green Beret, was charged late last year with the murder of an unarmed Afghan man during a 2010 deployment. Edward Gallagher, a Navy SEAL who served in Iraq, was reported to authorities by his own men, who witnessed him “stabbing a defenseless teenage captive to death,” “picking off a school-age girl and an old man from a sniper’s roost” and “indiscriminately spraying neighborhoods with rockets and machine-gun fire.”
Why would any President–even Trump–want to pardon such behavior?
For Trump, this toughness — this willingness to act cruelly and brutally — is a virtue. That’s especially true when the targets are racial others.
We saw this 30 years ago when he called for the return of the death penalty in the wake of accusations against the Central Park Five. We saw it during his presidential campaign, when he called for American soldiers to commit war crimes in the fight against the Islamic State. “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” Trump infamously said during a 2015 interview on “Fox & Friends.”
This is the moral code of a caveman. Or a Nazi.