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Senators challenge Trump on military pardons

Sens. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyBipartisan lawmakers want Biden to take tougher action on Nicaragua Biden budget expands government's role in economy House narrowly approves .9B Capitol security bill after 'squad' drama MORE (D-Vt.) and Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseThis week: Democrats face fractures in spending fight McConnell seeks to divide and conquer Democrats On The Money: Democrats wary of emerging bipartisan infrastructure deal, warn of time crunch MORE (D-R.I.), two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, are pressing the Department of Justice to answer questions about President TrumpDonald TrumpDOJ asks Supreme Court to revive Boston Marathon bomber death sentence, in break with Biden vow Biden looking to build momentum for Putin meeting DOJ tells media execs that reporters were not targets of investigations MORE’s pardons of U.S. soldiers accused of war crimes. 

The Democratic senators want to know whether the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney was involved in the decisions to pardon soldiers accused of unlawful military executions, including fatal shootings of unarmed civilians.

They also asked whether the Justice Department issued any advice or recommendations to the White House and whether it coordinated at all with the Department of Defense, where senior officials were initially opposed to the pardons. 

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“While the president possesses broad pardon powers, these pardons were issued in the face of strong opposition from senior military officials, who warned that such pardons would undermine the U.S. military justice system and shake faith in our military’s commitment to abide by the laws of war,” the senators wrote in a letter to Rosalind Sargent-Burns, the acting pardon attorney at the Justice Department.

The lawmakers sent their letter Tuesday after Secretary of Defense Mark EsperMark EsperCotton, Pentagon chief tangle over diversity training in military Navy denies NFL rookie Cameron Kinley's request to delay commission to play for Tampa Bay Overnight Defense: Pentagon keeps Trump-era ban on flying LGBT flags | NATO chief urges 'consequences' for Belarus MORE fired Navy Secretary Richard Spencer after Spencer attempted to negotiate a deal with the White House to keep the president from intervening in the controversy over Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher.

Gallagher was acquitted of shooting unarmed civilians and killing a captured teenage combatant with a knife but convicted of posing with a corpse. 

Trump announced last week that he would not let the Navy strip Gallagher of his Trident pin, which signifies membership in the elite SEALS combat force.

The president earlier this month also pardoned Army First Lt. Clint Lorance, who was serving a 19-year prison sentence at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas for killing two unarmed civilians, and Army Major Matt Golsteyn, who was charged with illegally executing a suspected bomb maker.

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“When President Trump’s plan to intervene in these cases was first reported in early November, the Department of Defense was so alarmed that Secretary of Defense Esper and other senior military officials reportedly orchestrated a lobbying effort to dissuade the President from doing so. The Pentagon’s concerns about President Trump’s pardons have been echoed by many respected U.S. military figures,” Leahy and Whitehouse wrote.

The senators want to know whether the White House reached out to Justice’s pardon attorney for advice, as well as the timing of such outreach if it occurred.

They also asked whether the pardon attorney provided any recommendations to the White House on the three cases and, if so, the details and rationales for those recommendations.

“The President’s pardon powers are virtually absolute. That is precisely why safeguards must be in place to ensure that they are wielded judiciously – institutional safeguards like your office, which exists to ensure that the President’s pardon powers are exercised fairly and in the interests of justice,” Leahy and Whitehouse wrote.

The senators have asked for answers to their questions no later than Dec. 13.