Asked if his recent efforts to grant clemency to accused or convicted military criminals could be seen as hurting the military, President Donald Trump said he’s just “sticking up for our armed forces” and blasted his predecessor for how he handled controversial military figures.
“You have a Chelsea Manning, who stole classified information and did many, many things that were not good and gets pardoned, and you have a Sgt. (Bowe) Bergdahl who gets … a slap on the wrist,” Trump said during a press event with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov on Monday.
“And then they want to put these warriors in jail for 25 years. One of them, (Army 1st Lt. Clint) Lorance, served six years in jail, had many years left as a fighter. No, we're not going do that to our people.”
The comments came in response to a question about Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who testified at House impeachment hearings earlier this month that Trump had withheld foreign aid to Ukraine for political reasons, plus the weekend firing of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer.
Trump did not mention either man in his response.
Spencer’s dismissal came amid concerns over Trump’s mandate that Special Warfare Operator Chief Edward Gallagher be allowed to retain his anchors and status as a Navy SEAL after facing war crimes charges earlier this year.
Trump has taken to Twitter several times in recent days to defend Gallagher, who was acquitted of serious charges but found guilty of posing for a photo with a dead insurgent.
Lorance was convicted in 2013 of second degree murder in the deaths of two Afghans. He spent six years of a 20-year prison sentence before Trump pardoned him earlier this month.
Trump’s clemency efforts have drawn praise from conservative pundits who championed the troops’ cases as a miscarriage of justice, but strong opposition from critics who said Trump ignored the concerns of commanders and fellow service members who viewed the men as war criminals.
“You have a system where these warriors get put in jail for 25 years,” Trump said. “I'm going to stick up for our warriors.”
Bergdahl was held captive by Taliban forces for five years after he left his post in Afghanistan. Returned home as part of a prisoner exchange, he was convicted of desertion and misconduct, but spared any time behind bars.
Trump’s recent comments have portrayed the military justice system as “unfair” and said his role as commander of the armed forces is to correct errors.
He also stated at Monday’s press event that “there’s never been a president that’s going to stick up for (troops) like I have,” citing recent hikes in defense spending.
In an interview on CBS News Monday, however, Spencer said Trump doesn’t really understand "the full definition of a ‘warfighter,’” adding that it is “a profession of arms that has standards that they have to be held to, and they hold themselves to.”
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.