President Donald Trump has exercised his authority to intervene in three cases involving war crimes, on the side of the alleged war criminals. He pardoned one serviceman who was convicted of heinous crimes, and another awaiting trial for heinous crimes. He also reversed the demotion of a Navy SEAL convicted of taking trophy pictures with an enemy corpse. All were brought to justice by their fellow servicemen and women; each prosecution relied on testimony from servicemen in the same units who witnessed the war crimes and reported them to military superiors.
This makes Trump the first commander in chief in memory to pardon American servicemen for violent crimes committed in uniform. The justification can be found in a statement Trump made to NBC News in 2016: “You have to play the game the way they are playing the game.” That is, the U.S. should operate the way terrorists operate.
Being no different from or better than our enemies has not been the aspiration of previous presidents, nor of our military. The United States has accrued numerous advantages by being better, more principled, and more trustworthy than its enemies. Among those advantages are allies willing to have American bases on their territory and to participate in the wars we fight. Being a principled and disciplined military that operates with clear ethical norms also serves the crucial purpose of helping veterans to reintegrate into civilian society and make their individual peace with the violence they have committed on America’s behalf.
Perhaps the president was seeking to shore up military support, or remind civilians of his popularity with the military at a trying political moment. Except that both the civilian and military leadership of the Department of Defense opposed the pardons. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy, and senior military leaders advised against the pardons, worrying they would “damage the integrity of the military judicial system, the ability of military leaders to ensure good order and discipline, and the confidence of U.S. allies and partners who host U.S. troops.” The secretary of defense described “a robust discussion” with the president, wanting to clearly convey the department’s and his own personal disapproval of the pardons.
That the military services were unhappy was made clear by the crispness of the way they emphasized that the president had the authority to take these actions and they would comply. The Navy chief of information tweeted: “We acknowledge the order and are implementing it.”
Perhaps, then, the president was aiming for the rank-and-file military rather than leadership. He does have significant support here; servicewomen and men have been known to sport Trump’s distinctive MAGA hats. And the commander in chief has previously challenged the advice of DOD leaders by asserting that he understands better than they what the military wants. Notably, he told former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and H. R. McMaster, the former national security adviser and retired lieutenant general, that soldiers agreed with his position that the U.S. should no longer be fighting in Afghanistan.
CNN reported that military officials worried the president would seek to foment rank-and-file support for the pardons, to the detriment of military leaders. Civilians, too, should worry about a commander in chief who seeks to undermine the military chain of command to instill in soldiers a more personal loyalty, especially when the basis for that loyalty is free rein to behave unethically and in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
The president chose to pardon the three on the second day of televised impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives, where career diplomats have been showcasing the integrity with which they carry out the public trust. The day the pardons were issued was also the day that one of the president’s closest campaign aides, Roger Stone, was convicted on seven counts of witness tampering and lying to Congress.
Perhaps the president was hoping the pardons would distract attention from other news. Overruling the strong preferences of the civilian and military leadership would be a nontrivial price to pay for such a political benefit, but Trump wouldn’t be the first president to use our military to political advantage.
Or perhaps the president hoped the scent of pardons in the air might affect the choices of those being called to testify or who are facing charges for activities done to advance the cause of Donald Trump.
In any case, the president has yet again willingly used the military as a political tool to the detriment of the military as an institution. Whatever political value these pardons serve for the president, they are bad for the American military and bad for its relationship with broader civilian society.