U.S. President Donald Trump has issued pardons to two U.S. Army officers accused of war crimes in Afghanistan, action that critics say undermines the country’s military justice system.
Trump on November 15 also restored the rank of a Navy SEAL platoon commander who was demoted for actions in Iraq, including allegedly posing with the corpse of a slain Islamic State extremist.
The Washington Post reported that Pentagon leaders have expressed concerns that presidential intervention could damage military discipline and morale.
The Washington Post and The New York Times reported that Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the Army secretary, Ryan McCarthy, reached out to Trump in recent days to request he not interfere in the high-profile cases.
Trump earlier tweeted that, "We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!"
Stephanie Grisham, the White House press spokeswoman, said on November 15 in a statement that a president is responsible for ensuring the law is enforced and, when appropriate, that “mercy is granted.”
“For more than 200 years, presidents have used their authority to offer second chances to deserving individuals, including those in uniform who have served our country. These actions are in keeping with this long history," she said.
Army Major Mathew Golsteyn, accused of murder in the 2010 killing of a suspected bomb maker in Afghanistan, received one of the full pardons. A court-martial is scheduled for February.
Golsteyn was leading a team of Army Special Forces troops at the time of the killing. He said he believed the man was a bomb maker responsible for a blast that killed two U.S. Marines.
Golsteyn has said the Afghan was a legal target because of his behavior at the time of the shooting.
An initial investigation in 2014 was closed without any charges. But the Army reopened the investigation in 2016 after Golsteyn allegedly described in an interview how he and another soldier led the detained man off base, shot him, and buried his remains.
His attorney, Phillip Stackhouse, wrote in a tweet following the new charges that Golsteyn is accused with "premeditated murder, a death-penalty offense for allegedly killing a Taliban bomb maker during combat operations in Marjah, Afghanistan."
Stackhouse denied "a narrative...put out" by military authorities that said Golsteyn "released this Taliban bomb maker, walked him back to the house...and assassinated him in his house."
Trump previously had said on Twitter that Golsteyn is a “U.S. Military hero” who could face the death penalty “from our own government.”
"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," Trump wrote on Twitter on December 16.
“He could face the death penalty from our own government after he admitted to killing a Terrorist bomb maker while overseas,” the president added.
Trump also issued a full pardon for Army First Lieutenant Clint Lorance, who in 2013 was convicted of second-degree murder ordering his soldiers to open fire on three men in Afghanistan.
He was sentenced to 19 years in prison after members of his unit testified against him.
His backers claim that Army prosecutors hid details, including that biometrics showed the men were affiliated with the Taliban.
Trump also ordered a restoration of rank for Special Warfare Operator First Class Edward R. Gallagher, a former chief petty officer and Navy SEAL who was acquitted of murder but convicted of posing with the corpse of an Islamic State fighter.