Pentagon leader appeals to Trump to allow military justice cases to proceed unfettered
By MISSY RYAN AND JOSH DAWSEY | The Washington Post | Published: November 6, 2019
WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Mark Esper appealed to President Donald Trump this week to allow the military justice system to proceed unfettered in a number of high-profile cases, officials said, as concern intensifies among Pentagon leaders that presidential intervention could damage military discipline and morale.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, Esper said he had a "robust discussion" with Trump on Tuesday about the cases of three current or former service members charged with war crimes or other wrongdoing. Earlier in the week, Fox News reported that the president was likely to issue pardons or take other actions to assist them.
"I offered, as I do in all matters, the facts, the options, my advice, the recommendations, and we'll see how things play out," Esper said.
Officials said the meeting with Trump came a day after Esper convened military service leaders to discuss the cases, which include that of a Navy SEAL acquitted of killing an Islamic State prisoner but convicted on lesser charges. Esper asked his staff to prepare a presentation he could use to lay out the history and details of the cases to Trump.
A defense official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said that Pentagon leaders were "acutely" concerned that action by Trump circumventing the military justice system would have "second and third order effects on good order and discipline."
Earlier this year, the president pardoned a former Army lieutenant serving time for killing an Iraqi prisoner in 2008. He has also made comments about ongoing cases that critics have said could constitute undue command influence, possibly leading to the dismissal of cases by military judges.
Any further intervention, the defense official said, also could undermine the authority of commanders who have overseen those cases, which most military leaders see as clear instances in which service members had to be prosecuted.
The issue constitutes a potential point of friction between Trump and the Pentagon at a time when defense leaders are scrambling to publicly align themselves with the president's evolving policy on Syria, which some military officials have privately criticized, and shore up alliances frayed by the administration's erratic decision-making.
Some of the cases in which Fox reported that Trump is considering interceding have been the subject of lobbying by advocacy groups and politicians who want to see the service members cleared, according to Fox News.
Pentagon officials have voiced worry that Trump may be getting erroneous information, in part from TV personalities. "He needed to know all the facts," the official said.
CNN first reported that Esper was preparing to discuss the cases with Trump.
They include the prosecutions of Eddie Gallagher, a Navy SEAL who was acquitted this year on serious charges including killing an Islamic State detainee but was convicted of posing for a photo with the man's corpse; Clint Lorance, a former Army lieutenant who was convicted of murder in 2013 in relation to U.S. troops' opening fire on Afghan elders; and Army Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, who is charged with killing a detained Taliban militant in 2010.
Last month. Trump said the prosecution of Golsteyn, who has pleaded not guilty, was under review. "We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!" he said on Twitter.
This spring, Trump intervened to move Gallagher out of solitary confinement. After the SEAL was acquitted of the majority of charges against him, Trump criticized the military lawyers who prosecuted the case. According to Fox, Trump now intends to act to reverse Gallagher's demotion.
Esper declined to discuss the cases in detail. "As you know, I'm in the chain of command, and I'm very conscious of my remarks," he said. "But I do have full confidence in the military justice system, and we'll let things play out as they play out."