The Trouble With Trump’s Pardons For War Criminals

Donald Trump's pardons of soldiers convicted of war crimes sends the wrong message to the military, to our allies, and to the world.

Former Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer is speaking up about the circumstances that led to his dismissal, and it now seems clear that it was rooted in his objections to President Trump’s decision to intervene in the discipline being imposed on a Navy SEAL accused of what amounted to war crimes:

In an interview with CBS Evening News‘ David Martin, Gallagher, [Spencer] unpoetically, claimed that Trump’s action sends a message to members of the Armed Forces “that you can get away with things.”

Martin: What were the ramifications of intervening in that review process?

Spencer: Right now, we’re not going to [demote Gallagher] is what Secretary Esper says. What message does that send to the troops?

Martin: Well, what message does it send?

Spencer: That you can get away with things. We have to have good order and discipline. It’s the backbone of what we do. 

Here’s the video of Spencer’s comments:

At the very least this would confirm the reports that the reason that Spencer walked away was due to the fact that he rightfully objected to the President’s decision to intervene in the Gallagher case as well as the other cases involving special forces operators who were convicted of war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Daniel Larison notes in his post on this, that puts Spencer in the same league with several top Pentagon officials, active duty and civilian, who were opposed to the President’s intervention. The primary reasons for this opposition, of course, is because it sends precisely the wrong signal to members of the military, to American allies, and to potential adversaries on the battlefield.

Faced with the facts in these cases, any other President would likely have denied the pardons that President Trump issued in these cases. Pardoning men who have been convicted of war crimes while wearing an American uniform sends precisely the wrong message to the world. To our adversaries, it sends the message that our rhetoric about a commitment to the Rule of Law and justice are mere words without any meaning. It sends the same message to the general population around the world who may have once looked to the United States as a beacon of human rights and justice in a grim world where the violation of rights and the commission of what amount to war crimes is a common occurrence. What the President has done sends the message that these are mere words, and makes it far more difficult for the United States to criticize any other nation that lets its military get away with similar actions.

Any other President would also consider the impact that a decision like this might have on nations currently hosting American troops, or that might be asked to do so in the future, and on our alliances generally, There have already been situations over the years regarding the treatment of Americans who commit crimes in allied nations hosting American troops, most notably in Japan where a case involving a U.S. Navy sailor and two Marines stationed on Okinawa where charged with raping a 12-year-old female civilian. The incident itself led to widespread protests even though the servicemen were tried and convicted in a Japanese court pursuant to the agreement between the U.S. and Japan. While an incident such as that would not be within the power of a U.S. President to pardon, pardoning these war criminals sends a message to our allies that wrongdoing by American forces may be seen as excusable by the civilians in Washington in charge of the military.

Of course, it’s clear that these types of concerns don’t matter to President Trump. He has abandoned even the pretense of a foreign policy based on the promotion of human rights and has looked the other way as allegations have been leveled against nations such as Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, China, North Korea, and The Philippines. Additionally, the fact that pardons such as this could damage our alliances doesn’t matter to him either given the fact that he has done everything he can to drive a wedge between America and our closest allies, as I have documented herehere, and here among other places.

Indeed, the main reason that the President did this is because it plays well with his base, a fact made clear by the fact that he apparently wants at least one of the men to campaign with him. As if to prove that assertion, Trump went on an extended riff about these cases at a political rally in Florida last night:

President Donald Trump touted his move to intervene in the cases of three service members accused of war crimes at a campaign rally on Tuesday, framing the objections he faced from senior Pentagon officials as coming from the “deep state.”

“Just this week I stuck up for three great warriors against the deep state. You know what I’m talking about,” Trump said. “And so many people said, ‘Sir, I don’t think you should do that.’ ”


The move — along with Trump’s pardons of Lt. Clint Lorance and Maj. Matthew Golsteyn, who had also faced war crimes allegations — came despite objections from the Pentagon. Military leaders, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper, had warned Trump that intervening in the cases could potentially damage the integrity of the military justice system.

But during his rally in Florida on Tuesday, Trump argued that “people have to be able to fight.”

“They can’t think, ‘Gee whiz, if I make a mistake’ … they wanted to put them in jail for 25 years,” the President said.”I will always stick up for our great fighters. People can sit there in air conditioned offices and complain, but it doesn’t matter to me whatsoever,” he said.

Here’s the video:

The first thing that stands out about these comments is that the President of the United States is calling the uniformed and civilian leadership of the military to be part of the “deep state,” a moniker he has used for the F.B.I., the intelligence community, and other segments of government that dare to voice objections to his policies. Given his supposed love for the military, this is an extraordinary but not surprising statement given the fact that we’re talking about Donald Trump.

As Greg Sargent notes, this tells us more about Donald Trump:

It’s eerie how perfectly these Spencer quotes overlap, in reverse, on top of the message that Trump has blared about his whole presidency from Day One. In every conceivable way, Trump has proclaimed that he and his loyalists will not be held to any standards of any kind in public service — and will not hold themselves to any such standards, either.

In a narrow sense, Trump is quite explicitly declaring that the standards for “our war fighters” should be far more lax than they are. This is exactly what makes his decision so destructive.


The Daily Beast reports that Trump hopes to campaign with Gallagher and two other service members he recently pardoned, including one convicted of murdering two civilians. Trump has apparently mused about appearing with them at rallies.

In so doing, Trump would be proclaiming to his supporters that these men are his people, or their people, and that he used his power to absolve them from accepted standards and procedures designed to impose accountability for severe, murderous misconduct.

It’s often said Trump is making himself into the “ultimate arbiter of military justice.” But this gets it subtly wrong: There is no chance Trump is operating out of any meaningful sense of justice that would dictate to him that these men were treated unfairly.

Instead, the whole point is to declare the power to obliterate obligation to any meaningful codes or standards — and to do so arbitrarily, and not on the basis of any set of values, on behalf of whomever has been designated as one of his people.

As Sargent goes on to note, this is yet another example of Trump acting with impunity and contrary to established norms. It’s also an example of how the “respect” for the military we see from many on the right is actually part of a perverse bloodlust that has nothing to do with the actual mission of the U.S. military or the manner in which American soldiers are supposed to act. Going forward, of course, the danger in the President’s actions here is the signal it sends to rank-and-file members of the military, a message that is far different from the manner in which they’ve been trained. The President’s actions also undermine the chain of command and the effort to maintain order and discipline in the ranks. What impact all of this has on the field of battle in the future is unclear, but I don’t think it will be positive.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Law and the Courts, Military Affairs, National Security, Politicians, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    The Daily Beast reports that Trump hopes to campaign with Gallagher and two other service members he recently pardoned, including one convicted of murdering two civilians. Trump has apparently mused about appearing with them at rallies.

    These men will serve as Generals in Trump’s Militia, as he makes good on his promise to the Red Hats to stay in office indefinitely, and to wage civil war if that position is threatened in anyway.

  2. Joe says:

    @Doug: I think there is either a word missing or a typo in your opening:

    In an interview with CBS Evening News‘ David Martin, Gallagher, unpoetically, claimed. . .

    I don’t think Gallagher was involved in the interview, other than as a topic.

  3. KM says:

    Trump called the military the “deep state”. I really want to know what his MAGA members of the military, especially those of the Navy persuasion, feel about now being lumped in with the Enemy. Notice Trump never specified the leadership was the “deep state” – that was left for you to infer. After all it was his own SEAL teammates who reported him and gave evidence at trial. Wouldn’t they count as “deep state” persecution as well? He made up another “Sir” story (surefire sign of a lie) and then just broadly painted the entire Navy as “deep state”, leaving the listener to determine how far that taint goes and who’s still a “good guy”.

    Also, “warfighter” is an absolutely disgusting term. It glorifies the whole “War is Hell” thing and pretends killing is the point of military service. The VAST majority of our service men and women do not see combat and are never going to. Folks in supply and logistics are just doing their job and are every bit as patriotic as some boneheaded ex-jock who thinks riding a Humvee around Afghanistan makes him Captain America….. or possibly Rorschach. Anyone who uses it is actively promoting the kind of sick mindset that let Gallagher do what he did and Trump to come along and give it Presidential blessing.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Why would anyone expect anything else from a man at the head of a party that thinks and acts as tho the laws don’t apply to him or his family, or even them. The GOP is a crime cartel in service to a hatred of “liberal elites”.

  5. Kit says:

    The President’s actions also undermine the chain of command and the effort to maintain order and discipline in the ranks. What impact all of this has on the field of battle in the future is unclear, but I don’t think it will be positive.

    Another win for Russia?

  6. @Joe:

    The typo is in the original article at The Daily Beast, which is why it’s inside the blockquote. I nonetheless made a parenthetical edit to make it clear who was speaking.

  7. de stijl says:

    We also decided not to prosecute Cheney, Bush and some of the associated parties with war crimes.

    Torture is a war crime. Has been for ages.

  8. de stijl says:


    Until recently, those folks preferred The Punisher iconography. The skull.

    Which is stupid as The Punisher killed crooked cops as well as criminals with equal glee. Glee is totally the wrong word. Equal … punishing.

    With the new version of Watchmen, we might start seeing some of Rorschach again.

  9. Hal_10000 says:

    I’m just remembering how the Right Wing went bananas when Obama commuted Chelsea Manning’s sentence. And wondering how they would have reacted had he pardoned Bergdahl.

    Actually, I’m not really wondering.

  10. LB1901 says:

    ‘War crimes.’ That word doesn’t mean what you think it means. Under the UCMJ there is no offense termed ‘war crimes.’ That’s Geneva Convention language which typically applies to gross violence against humanity – particularly as orchestrated by military or political leaders.

    And speaking of political leaders, the apparent insubordination of the civilian Navy Secretary, Richard V. Spencer, toward his chain of command is the real issue, not Commander in Chief intervention.

    According to the Washington Post, “Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper on Monday explained why he ousted his Navy secretary, saying he was “flabbergasted” to learn that Richard V. Spencer tried to make a secret deal with the White House involving a Navy SEAL accused of war crimes.

    …“First, we have a chain of command that should be followed, and that chain of command must be kept informed,” he said. “Second, once we agree on a position, we stick to it and support it both in private and public.”

    It appears it’s Navy Secretary Spencer who “sends the wrong message to the military, to our allies, and to the world” – with his insubordination toward his immediate boss.

    Third, Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher was found not guilty by a court-martial of murdering a wounded Islamic State captive (and other serious crimes), but was convicted of ‘the dereliction of improperly posing with the dead body.’

    That is not a ‘war crime.’ It is misconduct & breach of military discipline during wartime on the battle field. Any breach can be serious, yet, ‘kill him, but no pictures, please!’ doesn’t keep most people up at night with outrage toward our soldiers, sailors, and airmen who risk their lives and limbs on our behalf every day.

    But after his court-martial, Gallagher was scheduled to face a Navy review to decide whether he should forfeit his status as a SEAL. Navy Seal Gallagher has a long record of courageous service in combat, and this Navy review to strip him of his Trident pin was one more tribunal for this otherwise exemplary war fighter to endure. Trump said enough. Whether that was prudent or a campaign stunt is immaterial. As CiC, the president has legal authority to intervene in these matters, and it’s not the Navy Secretary’s job to micro-manage presidential decisions.

    The chain of command is there for the Navy Seal and the Navy Secretary. Trump is at the top of that chain, Spencer is not. Spencer’s insubordination toward that command “sends the wrong message to the military, to our allies, and to the world;” so Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper showed Spencer the door.

    And the years-long prosecution of Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher is closed.

  11. de stijl says:

    The Snyder Watchmen movie is so bizarre. Great opening, really solid acting, it hit all the plot points, sorta nailed the visual style, and also totally missed the mark.

    Gugino was quite good. Jeffrey Dean Morgan was having a blast like he always does, Jackie Earle Haley was intense. Everything was one note though. Patrick Wilson had it best, I guess. Some pathos there.

    I dislike most of his movies (a few of them a whole lot), but Zach Snyder is very talented. Just not at diecting. Were he a cinematographer, he’d have found his niche.

  12. Jay L Gischer says:

    @LB1901: It’s funny how you ignore Trump’s remarks completely. You’ve changed the subject. I’d like to know what you think of Gallagher’s behavior. Do you think it’s ok? Do you think that his willingness to ignore rules such as the UCMJ makes him a better fighter, better able to protect America?

    To me, that’s the core issue. Trump appears to believe that rules are for weaklings, and he will ignore any and all rules that get in his way. It is a common belief among criminals. I do not agree with this. But what do you think?

  13. Paul L. says:

    As Greg Sargent notes

    Greg Sargent is one of the most dishonest Democrat hacks out there.
    I remember the hatred that Doug has for U.S. Army lieutenant colonel Allen Bernard West and Doug used these same “respect” for the military talking points against him.

  14. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:


    As CiC, the president has legal authority to intervene in these matters

    Just because he can, doesn’t mean he should. People who are obviously a lot smarter than you, have made it abundantly clear that he shouldn’t have.
    What Gallagher did was abominable.
    Let me guess…you supported Cheney’s torture regimen, too.

  15. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Paul L.:

    Greg Sargent is one of the most dishonest Democrat hacks out there.

    Pot, meet kettle.
    What a moron.

  16. Michael Reynolds says:

    Gallagher is a stone cold murderer. A psychopath. His own squaddies turned against him because they are not murderers and don’t want to be equated with murderers by misguided, morally-depraved people like you and the pig in the White House.

    And before you decide I’m some namby pamby libtard, I grew up on military bases, my dad was a 20 year man, US Army. Real soldiers do not countenance murder. Real soldiers have no use for clowns who defend murderers. You no doubt think you’re standing up for the military, you aree not. You are an enemy of the military.

  17. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Paul L.:
    You have never in your life read even a single Greg Sargent column. You have no opinion except what you regurgitate from Fox News and conspiracy nut sites.

  18. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Paul L.:

    Allen Bernard West

    is a moron, and so are you.

  19. mattbernius says:

    I think the craziest aspect of this thread is someone who constantly rails against the system protecting bad cops and the cops who refuse to testify against them suddenly defending soldiers whose own platoons turned them in (and testified under oath against them) for their crimes.

    Regardless of the utter crap show that was the prosecutions many abuses in Galleghers case (the entire thing should have been declared a mistrial, full stop), the fact remains that he was turned in by his own men.

    (That’s before we get to the rather will established military to police pipeline…)

  20. Paul L. says:

    I must be under the disillusion that cops who are all dicks have the legal authority to abuse my rights.
    As opposed to career military who in my experience (6 years Navy) are all dicks that do not have the legal authority to abuse my rights.

    Yep, @paulwaldman1 gets this exactly right. Trump, Limbaugh, and the conservative grift-outrage machine are absolutely overjoyed about the Covington student controversy:

    an initial liberal outrage;
    a conservative backlash premised on the idea that the initial reaction was based on a misreading of the situation;
    a media mea culpa that itself seems based on little to no evidence that they actually got anything wrong in the first place

    No mention of the later video showing Nathan Phillips walking up and confronting Nick Sandmann by banging a drum in his face.

  21. gVOR08 says:

    Re LB1901 – It appears we have another one, just like the other one. (Did Andros get banned while I wasn’t looking?) Please, downvote and move on.

  22. mattbernius says:

    @Paul L.:
    Got it. So your objection to police has no sort of moral basis against systemic abuses. It’s purely out of selfishness.*

    So, if i am reading that right, you are fine with people committing atrocities, just so long as there is no chance they could be committed against you.

    Man, you are a high quality human being and a testament to Trump supporters.

    (* Again you also seem to pretend there is no connection between this type of behavior and the militarization of the police aka “warrior cops”… But making those connections has never been your strong suit).

  23. JKB says:

    Except that none of the military members in this instance were indicted for war crimes, tried for war crimes nor convicted of war crimes. The pardons were for the regular run of the mill variety of the crimes for which they had been convicted regardless of the rhetoric.

  24. Teve says:

    @Paul L.: you know who really committed the war crime? Mike Nifong.

  25. Mikey says:

    @JKB: This is probably the lamest, dumbest shit-tier take on this I’ve read yet. You made Paul look like a genius. Congratulations, I guess?

  26. Mikey says:

    @Teve: He couldn’t do it all himself, though. He had Sabrina Erdely helping him.

  27. David M says:


    I almost can’t believe that it needs pointing out that intentionally killing civilians is a war crime, but here we are. Way to go Trump defenders, hell of a side to choose, but when you say what you are, we should believe you I guess.

  28. Paul L. says:

    Just a biological machine.
    Austin officers suspended without pay after blocking activist recording them

    pretend there is no connection between this type of behavior and the militarization of the police aka “warrior cops

    An Austin police officer has been suspended without pay for 20 days after a video from November showed him blocking an activist from recording the scene of a traffic stop.

    Officer James Maufrais has been with the department for 4 years, according to his attorney Brad Heilman, who thinks his client’s punishment is too harsh.

    “He completely admitted to it, I think [there are] some mitigating factors that should’ve been taken into consideration and probably weren’t,” Heilman says, citing his recent history. “He was only on the streets for less than eight months after getting back from Afghanistan and being put on the streets… he’s just not used to someone recording him in such a short vicinity.”

    Nope, PTSD and returning from a war zone is not an excuse for police misconduct.

  29. LB1901 says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    “Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher was found not guilty by a court-martial of murdering a wounded Islamic State captive (and other serious crimes), but was convicted of ‘the dereliction of improperly posing with the dead body.’”

    What his squaddies, you, me or others think or feel is immaterial in light of the court’s verdict.

    Pig in the WH? Ad hominem is bad form and boring. What else ya got?

  30. LB1901 says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    “People who are obviously a lot smarter than you…”

    No, they’re not. Nor do they have more authority to override the decisions of their CiC. Navy Sec. Spenser was insubordinate. Def Sec Esper booted his foolish ass out the door. That’s the issue. Not Trump as CiC.

  31. Gustopher says:

    @Paul L.:

    “He was only on the streets for less than eight months after getting back from Afghanistan and being put on the streets… he’s just not used to someone recording him in such a short vicinity.”

    He shouldn’t be a police officer that soon after getting back from active duty. The people who put him in that situation were doing him no favors. Military to police is a bad idea.

    I’m not going to excuse his behavior, but I am willing to accept that as a partial explanation, and have some compassion for him.

    I would be happy to have my tax dollars go to providing military folks coming off service with good paying jobs at food banks or somewhere for a year, to reconnect with humanity.

  32. Gustopher says:

    @LB1901: Perhaps his squaddies should have just shot him in the back if they really objected to him murdering people…

    Friendly fire, mistakes happen, etc. If there is no other way to remove the bad apples… We had a legal process, but Trump has overruled it.

  33. Scott O says:

    @LB1901: @LB1901:
    Are you, a Trump fan, seriously complaining about ad hominems? If he described Trump as human scum or horrible or no good or a bad person would that be OK with you?

  34. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @LB1901: If he looks like a pig, sounds like a pig, smells like a pig, and behaves like a pig, quibbling over a few sequences of DNA is really pretty stupid.

  35. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Paul L.: If your experience after 6 years in the Navy was that “Career” military are “all dicks”, that’s generally an indictment that you weren’t a quality sailor your leadership saw fit to invest time grooming to stay in the Navy. I know, I know, it’s all Them…not YOU.

    Frankly, your story is bullshit because with only 6 years in, your wouldn’t have have very much direct work experience with anyone over 10-12 years service…which is still a point quite a few people get out and go to civilian life.

    Very few people that come into the military retire from it.

    Thanks for telling on yourself. And thank your for your service.

  36. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @LB1901: Actually idiot…what his brothers in arms think is everything..and the only thing. So Trump gets to campaign and benefit from Gallagher…but Gallagher has no where to go in the community he built an identity in. Except for the right wing entertainment complex…which I’m sure will make him want to frag himself when compared to the circle of high quality of persons he’s used to moving in.

  37. Jim Brown 32 says:

    In some Sense, Esper is right. This is all about Chain of Command. The CINC intervening in the case of punishment of an E7 (the lowest Senior Non Commissioned Officer rank) is embarrassing. In the normal military world, this would be an action carried out by an Lieutenant Colonel or Colonel. It happened that way 1000s of times per year with no issues. But for the Right Wing entertainment complex, that’s the way this would have went down. The SEALs have a problem and their brand is wanning. An entire Squad was sent home before their scheduled deployment was up earlier this year…which is the highest vote of no confidence and humiliation.

    Navy leaders know they have to clean up the Brand in order gain the trust of deployed Commanders not to cause an international incident or some other outrage that raises the risk for troops operating in theater. Shunning Gallagher and those like him from the brand is part of that process.

  38. Michael Reynolds says:


    Ad hominem is bad form and boring.

    From a Trumpie? Ah hah hah hah hah hah hah. (Pause.) Hah hah hah hah hah hah.

    Ad hominem. Moron.

  39. Catherine Todd says:

    @LB1901: you must be a paid Russian bot or a completely crazy person. Your portrait image must be correct. I would not want to live in your horrible world and God help us, we won’t have to much longer.