FORT BRAGG, N.C. – The military judge who will decide whether Bowe Bergdahl goes to prison for leaving his post in Afghanistan indicated Monday that President Donald Trump’s recent remarks about the case could raise doubts about the Army sergeant’s legal proceedings and whether they were fair.
Bergdahl, 31, faces life in prison. He said few words during the first day of his pre-sentencing hearing, having pleaded guilty to charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy in connection with his 2009 disappearance and five-year captivity by a Taliban affiliate.
But the court heard several sound bites from Trump as the judge, Army Col. Jeffrey Nance, sought to determine whether the president’s new comments affirmed his past statements about Bergdahl being a “dirty rotten traitor.”
Speaking to reporters last week, Trump declined to say whether his previous attacks on Bergdahl may have unfairly influenced the soldier’s decision to plead guilty. Yet his word choice — “But I think people have heard my comments in the past,” the president said — was the subject of debate between Nance and attorneys for the defense and prosecution.
Lead defense attorney Eugene Fidell filed a motion saying Trump’s latest comments build on his harsh campaign rhetoric and amount to unlawful command influence, thus compromising Bergdahl’s chances to receive a fair sentencing. The motion seeks to dismiss the case on those grounds.
Trump’s comments reconfirmed his past statements and produced a “chilling effect” on the military justice system, Fidell argued — to such a degree that Nance should not impose any jail time for Bergdahl, Fidell said.
“Words have meaning. And ‘but’ means what?” Nance asked prosecutor Maj. Justin Oshana, who disputed Fidell’s assertion that Trump continues to hold such views about Bergdahl.
Nance challenged Oshana for much of the pre-sentencing hearing, which lasted only an hour and concluded with a recess until Wednesday.
Nance had ruled in February that Trump’s campaign remarks, while “disturbing,” did not amount to unlawful command influence. But he appears to be reconsidering now.
“The reasons [to dismiss earlier accusations] tend to be eroded when the now-president of the United States apparently adopts those past statements,” Nance told the prosecutor. Nance added his interpretation of Trump’s meaning to be: “I shouldn’t comment on that, but I think everyone knows what I think on Bowe Bergdahl.”
Pressed further on Trump’s verbiage, Oshana offered that the president’s words were “not the best constructed,” a statement that elicited stifled chuckles in the courtroom.
Oshana pointed to a White House statement issued Friday that he characterized as evidence Trump has not sought to influence what punishment Bergdahl receives.
“The President expects all military personnel who are involved in any way in the military justice process to exercise their independent professional judgment, consistent with applicable laws and regulations,” the statement says. It does not mention Bergdahl by name, however.