Trump defends intervening in war-crimes cases

President TrumpDonald John TrumpHealth insurers Cigna, Humana waive out-of-pocket costs for coronavirus treatment Puerto Rico needs more federal help to combat COVID-19 Fauci says April 30 extension is 'a wise and prudent decision' MORE on Monday defended his intervention in cases involving U.S. service members accused of war crimes, telling reporters he needed to “protect our warfighters.”

“A lot of warfighters and people in the military have thanked us very much. It’s about time,” Trump said during an Oval Office meeting with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov.

“They wanted to get his pin away and I said no you’re not going to take it away,” Trump continued, particularly referring to his order that Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher be allowed to keep his Trident pin and Navy SEAL status. 

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“These are not weak people. These are tough people and we’re going to protect our warfighters,” Trump said.

Trump has faced scrutiny in recent days for intervening in the case of Gallagher, a Navy SEAL accused of war crimes, in order to ensure he could retire with his elite status. Gallagher was acquitted of murder in the death of an ISIS prisoner in Iraq but convicted of posing with the corpse in 2017.

Earlier this month, Trump restored Gallagher’s rank and also pardoned Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance and Army Major Mathew Golsteyn. Lorance had been serving a 19-year prison sentence for ordering his men to fire on a group of three Afghan men on motorcycles in Afghanistan. Golsteyn had pleaded not guilty to murdering an Afghan man and was facing trial.   

"One of them, Lorance, served 6 years in jail had many years left, as a fighter,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office on Monday. “No, we’re not going to do that to our people."

Trump also said his administration had been “thinking about that for a long time” when asked about the firing of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, who was ousted on Sunday amid the controversy surrounding Gallagher’s case.

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Trump went on to criticize pardons issued by then-President Obama during the previous administration, at one point suggesting wrongly that Obama had issued a pardon for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

“You let Sgt. Berghdal go. You let others go. Including a young gentleman, now a person who President Obama let go who stole tremendous amounts of classified information,” Trump said, referring to Army Pvt. Chelsea ManningChelsea Elizabeth ManningOvernight Defense: National Guard activated to fight coronavirus | Pentagon 'fairly certain' North Korea has cases | General says Iran threat remains 'very high' after US strikes The Hill's Morning Report — Coronavirus tests a partisan Washington Judge orders Chelsea Manning's release from jail MORE, whose 35-year prison sentence Obama commuted in early 2017 shortly before leaving office.

"When you have a system that allows Sgt. Berghdal to go ... and he gets a slap on the wrist if that, and the you have a system where these warriors get put in jail for 25 years, I’m going to stick up for the warriors,” Trump continued. 

Manning was convicted of stealing thousands of pages of classified material and transmitting it to WikiLeaks. Bergdahl was spared prison time after pleading guilty to desertion and misbehavior charges, but Obama did not grant a request to issue him a pardon to spare him a court martial.

The Pentagon had objected to Trump’s intervention in the cases out of concern it could harm the integrity of the military justice system.

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Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperDefense industrial base workers belong at home during this public health crisis An insecure America and an assertive China Overnight Defense: Pentagon grapples with coronavirus outbreak | Aircraft carrier docks in Guam after more sailors test positive | Army hospitals to reach NY on Friday MORE told reporters earlier Monday that Trump had ordered him to allow Gallagher to retire without losing his status as a SEAL.

The controversy culminated in Spencer’s firing on Sunday, which was marred by confusion. Trump wrote on Twitter that he was unhappy with the Navy’s handling of Gallagher’s trial and also suggested Spencer did not adequately address cost overruns and contracting issues persisting from the past administration.   

Esper on Monday accused Spencer of secretly proposing a “deal” to the White House “whereby if the president allowed the Navy to handle the case, he would guarantee that Eddie Gallagher would be restored to rank, allowed to retain his trident and permitted to retire.” 

“This proposal was completely contrary to what we agreed to, and contrary to Secretary Spencer's public position,” Esper continued. 

Esper said that Spencer broke protocol and that he lost confidence in him as a result.

Spencer’s resignation letter released Sunday evening, however, made no mention of such an agreement. He wrote that he and Trump did not share the understanding of “the key principle of good order and discipline” and that he would resign effectively immediately

“I cannot in good conscience obey an order that I believe violates the sacred oath I took in the presence of my family, my flag, and my faith to support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” Spencer wrote.