President Donald J. Trump plans to “take action” in the cases of two soldiers accused of war crimes, one of whom was already convicted, Fox News hosts said Monday morning.
“I was able to confirm yesterday — from the president of the United States himself, the commander in chief — that action is imminent, especially on the two case of Clint Lorance and Matt Golsteyn," Fox News host Pete Hegseth first said. “The president, as the command-in-chief, has a lot of latitude under the Uniformed Code of Military Justice to dismiss a case or change a sentence, and from what I understand, that is what will happen shortly."
It remains unclear what exactly the president’s actions in the cases will be. Lawyers for the two soldiers told Army Times that they asked the president to disapprove the findings in one case and dismiss the charges in the other.
The secretary of the Army’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment Monday morning.
Former 1st Lt. Clint Lorance is serving a 19-year sentence for murder in military prison on Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He ordered an enlisted soldier to fire on unarmed Afghan motorcyclists in 2012 — an incident that earned Lorance few supporters within his own platoon.
John N. Maher, an attorney representing Lorance, said that he has yet to hear definitively what actions the president would take. Maher is also chairman of the United American Patriot’s advisory board, which has supported both men as they face trial and file appeals.
“In the case of Lorance, we’re asking the president to disapprove the findings and the sentence,” Maher told Army Times. “This would be to return the status quo: to wipe the slate clean, no convictions and no sentence.”
A simple pardon would not suffice, Maher said, as it does not reinstate Lorance’s VA benefits and doesn’t reverse guilt. “Those all stand as obstacles that Clint has for later life,” Maher added.
Disapproving a sentence is something that happens regularly at the convening authority-level in the military justice system, typically by a senior uniformed military officer.
“We believe the president has this ability as well,” Maher said.
To Maher’s knowledge, disapproving of findings hasn’t been used at the presidential level in modern times, though there is historical precedent from the Civil War-era by then-President Abraham Lincoln, he said.
If the president takes this action in Lorance’s case, the soldier would be entitled to all back pay, promotions and years that he would have gained for the purposes of an active-duty retirement.
Golsteyn’s civilian attorney, Phillip Stackhouse, told Army Times on Monday that it is time for his client to “regain his life.”
“We are very grateful the President is taking action in Major Golsteyn’s case,” Stackhouse wrote in an email to Army Times. “As the most senior Court-martial Convening Authority under the Code, the President has many options available to him — including assuming jurisdiction of this case and dismissing the charge with prejudice."
“Major Golsteyn has been under the cloud of these allegations for almost 10 years — the impact has been destructive to him, his family, and the Special Forces community. It’s time to close this down and allow him to regain his life.”
Maher said that he doesn’t expect any legal challenge to a disapproval in Lorance’s case, but he does expect controversy.
“We expect that members within the Pentagon will push back against the president, saying the same arguments we’ve heard in the past, that you should let the process do its thing," Maher said. "But I believe the president is of a different type of mind, that he is part of the process as the commander-in-chief.”
Also reportedly on the president’s agenda is to restore the rank of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, according to Fox News. The decision would raise Gallagher back to the pay grade of chief petty officer, overriding a decision last week by the Navy’s top admiral.
The issue of pardons was a controversial topic in May, when Trump said he was considering the measure for U.S. service members charged with war crimes. The president said such a stance was justified because those troops had been treated “unfairly.”
On July 2, 2012, near Strong Point Payenzai in Zharay district, Kandahar province, Lorance gave orders to his soldiers to fire on three unarmed Afghan men on a motorcycle near their patrol.
One soldier initially fired two shots and watched as the Afghan men came to a stop, dismounted their bike and walked towards the Afghan National Army soldiers who were at the front of the U.S.-Afghan patrol, according to court records. The Afghan soldiers gestured for the motorcyclists to leave.
At that point, Lorance ordered over the radio for the platoon’s gun truck to engage the Afghan motorcyclists using an M240B machine gun, killing two of the riders and wounding the third, who then managed to flee.
Lorance had only been with the platoon briefly, as he was replacing another lieutenant wounded by an IED days earlier.
Several of Lorance’s soldiers testified at his court-martial that the riders posed no imminent hostile threat at the time of the shooting, which helped secure a conviction. He was also convicted of threatening a local Afghan; firing an M14 rifle into a village, trying to have one of his soldiers lie about receiving incoming fire and obstructing justice by making a false radio report after the two men on the motorcycle were killed.
In a 2017 petition to the Army Court of Criminal Appeals, attorneys representing Lorance argued that biometric evidence showed that at least one of the men on the motorcycle had been linked to an IED incident prior to the shootings.
The other slain rider knew someone who was linked to hostile action against U.S. forces. And the victim who fled the scene was also allegedly involved in an insurgent attack after he was wounded.
Regardless, the appeal was ultimately denied by Army judges, who wrote in their opinion that Lorance knew none of that information and the victims posed no threat at the time.
Some of the soldiers under Lorance’s command spoke with Army Times in 2015, including Todd Fitzgerald, a former specialist and infantryman in Lorance’s platoon, who testified during the original court-martial.
“Us testifying against him, it wasn’t a matter of not liking him, it wasn’t a matter of any type of grudge or coercion,” Fitzgerald said. “It was simply we knew that his actions, based on our experience, having operated in that area for months, were going to breed further insurgency. If you kill local citizens, they’re no longer willing to help you.”
Golsteyn was a captain with 3rd Special Forces Group during a 2010 deployment to Afghanistan’s Helmand province. He later earned a Silver Star Medal for his actions on the rotation.
However, in 2015, Army documents surfaced, showing that Golsteyn allegedly told CIA interviewers during a polygraph test that he had killed an alleged Afghan IED-maker out of fear that releasing him would lead to the death of the Afghan tribal leader who identified him. After shooting the alleged IED-maker and burying the body, Golsteyn and two other soldiers returned to burn the corpse, he allegedly told the CIA.
An attorney for Golsteyn called the alleged murder a “fantasy,” however, Golsteyn admitted to a version of the incidents involving the killing of the alleged Afghan bomb-maker during a Fox News interview and the Army opened a second investigation near the end of 2016.
Golsteyn was charged last winter and has been stationed at Fort Bragg since that time, awaiting a murder trial scheduled for Dec. 2.
Shortly after his charging, President Donald Trump tweeted that he would review Golsteyn’s case:
“At the request of many, I will be reviewing the case of a ‘U.S. Military hero,’ Major Matt Golsteyn, who is charged with murder. He could face the death penalty from our own government after he admitted to killing a Terrorist bomb maker while overseas,” Trump tweeted.
At the time attorneys noted that the president getting involved in a case before it was adjudicated, may under his powers, but it would circumvent the military justice process.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.