Donald Trump is, quite simply, not a good person. His behavior both as a citizen and as the President, has been childish, narcissistic, and bullying. He has surrounded himself with sycophants and apologists, criminals, and a group of people who hate others, particularly a number of minorities. His policies and executive orders have undermined much of what is good about this country and he has placed himself above the law. While he has a base of supporters, many others believe he is the worst holder of the office in history and that he has damaged our democracy, possibly beyond repair.
Trump’s recent pardons of murderous American soldiers is beyond comprehension and may be the most troubling act of his time in office. Our military has its own justice system and there are many ways for soldiers to be court martialed, kicked out of the service, demoted, or in other ways punished for behavior that is not acceptable in the most powerful military in the world. In pardoning these men, Trump ignored advice from military leaders and by doing so he has opened the door to even worse behavior from others who have received the signal that the Commander-in-Chief not only condones but encourages murderous behavior from his front-line soldiers.
Being a soldier entails the very real possibility and likelihood of having to kill enemy combatants. Most soldiers are not comfortable with this because they are human beings with consciences, but they will do what is required in battle as it is the job they have been trained to do and they truly believe they are protecting their country from dangerous enemies. However, it is also understood that there are lines that should not be crossed and this includes killing unarmed citizens. The two soldiers he pardoned this past week have both been the subjects of publicity and pleas for leniency from those on the right who believe they had been railroaded and were just doing their jobs. Trump’s pardons could easily have been nothing more than a gift to his base, but they also set some dangerous precedents.
Major Mathew Golsteyn was accused of killing an unarmed prisoner of war he believed had killed a couple of his fellow soldiers with a bomb. He admitted in an interview with the Washington Post that he knew the man was unarmed. He had previously admitted that he had killed the man, after first trying to pin it on someone else.
First Lieutenant Clint Lorance was convicted of 2nd degree murder for ordering his men to fire at three Afghani men on a motorcycle. One of them survived. During the trial it was asserted that the motorcycle was in no position to reach his platoon even if the men on the motorcycle had been armed, which they were not. After his conviction, one of Lorance’s attorneys wrote a book about the case and had encouraged Trump to pardon his client.
In addition to these two cases, Trump also reversed a demotion of Edward Gallagher who had been demoted and convicted of posing with a human corpse, the body of a teenager he had been acquitted of killing even though he had texted the picture with the words, “Good story behind this. Got him with my hunting knife.” (BBC News, 7/4/19). He had also been accused and acquitted of a number of other crimes, including attempted murder of two Iraqi citizens.
While these are the newest cases, they are not the first pardons of military personnel accused of or convicted of murder. This past May, Trump pardoned First Lieutenant Michael Behenna. Behenna was found guilty of killing an Iraqi man who was thought to have killed two of Behenna’s men, but whom the U. S. military intelligence had released due to lack of evidence. According to USA Today (11/15/19), this was “the first presidential pardon of a convicted murderer in modern history.” That same month, Trump also pardoned Sergeant Derrick Miller, who had been convicted of premeditated murder of an interrogation subject.
These are not white collar crimes. They are not victimless crimes such as drug possession. These men were allegedly guilty of or were convicted of murder. While those in the military may kill others in the line of duty, these are cases outside of the line of duty and Trump has referred to some of these men as heroes who were doing their jobs.
A couple hundred nations, including the United States, have signed onto the Geneva Convention, which regulates what are commonly known as the rules of war. Among them are restrictions on killing prisoners, the sick and wounded, or civilians.
Pardoning those convicted of war crimes sends a signal to the international community that the United States does not care about international conventions and will do what we want without regard for any agreements. Like Trump, it says “America First” and it lets others know that we will not be bound by past treaties or accepted norms. It also tells those who are in the military and who have violent streaks that go beyond the bounds of normal combat that the Commander-in-Chief believes that killing prisoners and innocent civilians is part of the job and will be excused.
Finally, it opens the door to supporters of Trump being given the green light to engage in a civil war if he is impeached or the next election doesn’t go his way. As long as he stays in power, those who support him through whatever means have the possibility of a legal and Constitutional pardon in their back pockets. While this may seem like a paranoid scenario, the stage has been set for the possibility and with Trump’s history of ignoring all precedent and decorum, nothing is out of the realm of possibility.