The defense secretary begged Trump not to pardon accused and convicted war criminals

Ellen Ioanes
esper trump

Alex Brandon / Associated Press


  • Pentagon officials were reportedly shocked by a "Fox & Friends" report Monday that President Donald Trump planned to intervene in three war crimes cases by Veteran's Day.
  • Secretary of Defense Mark Esper urged Trump Tuesday not to intervene.
  • Included in the information packet will be the details of each case, as well as arguments that in none of the cases were the accused troops acting out of patriotism, as Trump suggested.
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Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told reporters he has urged President Donald Trump not to intervene in the cases of three members of the military accused or convicted of war crimes.

"I had a robust discussion with the president yesterday and 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 told press Wednesday.

Three defense officials told CNN that the Pentagon would send an information package to the president explaining why he should not intervene in the cases of former Army Lt. Clint Lorance and Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, a Green Beret, and Navy SEAL Chief Eddie Gallagher. The officials told CNN that the information would be delivered as soon as possible; administration officials had told CNN that Esper planned to discuss his concerns with Trump before Veterans' Day on Nov. 11. 

Pentagon officials were reportedly shocked by a "Fox & Friends" report Monday that Trump planned to intervene in the cases. He has tweeted about the war crimes allegations, saying, "We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!" Gallagher was acquitted of premeditated murder charges, but found guilty of taking a photo with a slain ISIS fighter; Lorance is currently a 19-year sentence for murder; and Golsteyn is awaiting court-martial on murder charges.

Pentagon officials are concerned that Trump doesn't understand the gravity of the crimes Gallagher, Lorance, and Golsteyn were convicted or accused of, or the potential effects his intervention could have on military justice. 

Included in the information packet were the details of each case, as well as arguments that in none of the cases were the troops acting out of patriotism, as Trump appears to believe, and recommendations that Trump should follow the recommendations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice — with the acknowledgement that the final decision is up to the president. Esper also told reporters on Wednesday that he has "full confidence in the military justice system."

'Undermining the authority of command'

Trump has been heavily involved in the case of  Gallagher, who was accused of killing a teenage ISIS captive, as well as shooting at Iraqi civilians, both war crimes. He was acquitted of those charges in a military court, after the prosecution impugned its own witness and surveilled the defense without a warrant. Another SEAL testified to killing the young ISIS fighter; Gallagher was found guilty of posing for a photo with his body and demoted. 

Trump has also gotten involved in the cases of Lorance and Golsteyn. He has ordered that charges against both be reviewed; Lorance is serving a 19-year sentence at Ft. Leavenworth in Kansas for ordering an enlisted soldier in his platoon to fire at three Afghans on a motorcycle in 2012. Two of the men died, and Lorance was charged with murder, the Army Times reports. Lorance and his attorneys have maintained his innocence, arguing in an appeal that at least some of the men on the motorcycle had been linked to insurgent activity. 

Golsteyn's case has not yet gone to trial. He is accused of murdering an alleged Afghan bombmaker in 2010, and the Army maintains that, during a CIA polygraph test, he admitted to shooting the man, burying him, and later returning to burn the body. Golsteyn and his attorneys maintain his innocence, with one of his attorneys calling the alleged confession of Golsteyn killing an unarmed man "a fantasy." However, the Army Times reports Golsteyn did admit to a version of the events he allegedly told CIA interviewers during a Fox News interview. 

Golsteyn has pleaded not guilty, and his attorney, Phillip Stackhouse, has said that the death occurred during a mission that Golsteyn's superiors ordered. 

Should Trump intervene in the cases, the integrity of the UCMJ would be called into question, as well as the leadership of military authorities. Countries that host US troops could become more wary about the behavior of those troops, and of the military's ability to prosecute crimes, according to the officials CNN interviewed. 

"We all view this possibility as undermining the authority of command," one official told CNN.

Insider reached out to the White House and the Pentagon for comment, but did not receive a response from either by press time. 

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