The U.S. military has long had its own system of justice, to ensure order and discipline among its troops. Authorized in the Constitution, it became the Uniform Code of Military Justice in 1950 and is updated continually.
The military knows, better than anyone outside it, the pressures on soldiers in a combat arena and is well-equipped to determine when actions stray into the territory of prosecutable war crimes.
It is rare for a president to intervene in the administration of military justice, but President Donald Trump has chosen to override his military leaders in three separate cases, sending shock waves through military culture and signaling loudly that his is the only decision that matters. Army First Lt. Clint Lorance was serving a 19-year sentence at Fort Leavenworth for second-degree murder for ordering his troops to fire on unarmed Afghans in 2012. Nine men from his platoon testified against him at his trial.
Army Maj. Matthew Golsteyn had been charged by the Army with murder for killing an Afghan man alleged to have been a bomb maker during a 2010 deployment, hiding the body and then burning it. Trump pardoned him as he awaited trial.
Navy Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, a SEAL, was in the brig awaiting trail for the alleged murder of an Islamic State detainee in Iraq in 2017 when Navy Secretary Richard Spencer got a personal phone call from Trump in March, ordering him to move Gallagher to less restrictive quarters with three words: "Get him out." Gallagher was later acquitted of murder charges, but demoted in rank for having posed for photos with the corpse splayed out on the ground.
Trump intervened again, ordering the restoration of Gallagher's rank. Earlier this week he blocked attempts to strip Gallagher of his Trident pin, worn only by SEALS. Trump tweeted: "The Navy will NOT be taking away Warfighter and Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher's Trident pin," and closed by admonishing leaders to "Get back to business."
It's not the Star Tribune Editorial Board's place to sit in judgment on whether punishment was justified for these men. But there are serious consequences from a commander-in-chief overriding military leaders in such humiliating fashion. It is notable that the military's top brass felt strongly enough about these three cases that Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy made a last-ditch attempt to dissuade Trump, armed with documents and evidence. Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued that the pardons would damage U.S. relationships around the world.
But Trump was listening to other voices, well outside his administration, who had made the cases a cause célèbre among conservatives. It's important to remember that it is rare for the military to go to such lengths to pursue justice against a service member. Rear Admiral Collin Green, who had acted against Gallagher, mindful of recent scandals, had said months earlier that he intended to restore stricter adherence across the Navy to its core values of "Honor, Courage and Commitment."
Now he and the entire military know that if they do so, they may be checkmated by the president. Gallagher's lawyer, confident in his client's powerful protector, recently bragged that if Green tried to come for Gallagher's Trident pin, he would expect Trump to dismiss Green from command. "The commander-in-chief's intent is crystal clear, that he wants Eddie left alone," lawyer Timothy Parlatore said in a recent interview.
That sends a poor message not only to service members who strive to observe rules of combat even in the most difficult circumstances. It also shakes the faith of other countries in this nation's commitment to justice here and abroad.