President Donald Trump’s decision to grant clemency to three service members accused of war crimes amounts to “an insult to our entire system of military justice” and military order, according to the Senate’s top Democrat on defense issues.
In a scathing floor speech Thursday, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I., blasted the moves as sending a “damaging” message not just to the troops involved in those judicial proceedings, but to the rest of the armed forces as well.
“(His) disregard risks undermining the confidence of our service members in the rule of law, especially those courageous enough to bring allegations of war crimes to light and testify against their teammates,” said Reed, an Army veteran who served as an infantry officer in the 1970s.
Numerous Democrats on Capitol Hill have cited their displeasure with Trump’s decision, announced late last week.
Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, convicted of second degree murder in the death of two Afghans, was given a full pardon from the president for the crimes. Army Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, who faced murder charges next year for a similar crime, was also given a full pardon for those alleged offenses.
Special Warfare Operator Chief Edward Gallagher, who earlier this fall was acquitted of a string of alleged war crimes, had his rank restored to Chief Petty Officer by the president. Trump took to Twitter on Thursday to say he would also stop service officials from removing Gallaher from the Navy SEALs.
All three of the cases have been trumpeted by conservative activists as unfair overlitigation of war zone decisions. In announcing the decisions (which had been rumored for months), Trump framed the moves as giving “second chances to deserving individuals.”
Reed disagreed. He said while the president’s authority to grant pardons is unquestioned, it has traditionally been used in military cases only for non-violent infractions like desertion or draft dodging.
“I'm aware of no other instances where a president has intervened to grant clemency for violent crimes committed while in uniform, especially for war crimes including murder,” he said.
The senator also dismissed assertions that the chaos of the battlefield was to blame for the crimes, or that the military justice system was biased under previous administrations against certain military members.
“The United States military does not prosecute its own for carrying out lawful missions in service to our nation, and we do not train our troops to kill indiscriminately,” he said. “We do not train them to attack noncombatants, we do not train them to violate the rule of law and Geneva Convention, because we want our troops to be protected by those same standards.
“To think or say otherwise goes against discipline, the selfless service of so many and the history of our military.”
Military officials privately had expressed concerns to Trump ahead of the moves, but have publicly said they will carry out the president’s orders.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.