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Joint Chiefs Chairman says Trump pardons won’t hurt military nor undermine military justice

Army Secretary Mark T. Esper and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley testify on the Army’s fiscal year 2019 funding request and budget justification at a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee, May 15, 2018. (Department of Defense/Released)
December 12, 2019

General Mark A. Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assured lawmakers that President Donald Trump’s recent actions to grant clemency to three military service members involved in high-profile military court cases would not undermine military discipline.

Gen. Milley, appearing before the House Armed Services Committee, said Trump was within his authority to pardon two U.S. Army officers Clint Lorance and Mathew Golsteyn convicted and accused of — respectively — murdering Taliban militants, and to reinstate the rank of U.S. Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who was exonerated of murder charges in the death of an ISIS fighter.

Former Marine Rep. Seth Moulton, D-MA, noted concerns raised by a fellow Marine Sgt. Major still in the service who warned Trump’s recent pardons had signaled that the “rule of law” does not apply to the military. Moulton said his fellow Marine warned that deployed troops can “start burning villages and pillaging like Genghis Khan”, under the belief Trump will protect them from seeing prison if they are caught.

“I understand where the sergeant major is coming from, and I know the advice that was given, which I am not going to share here,” Milley replied to Moulton’s assertion. “But the president of the United States is part of the process, and he has the legal authorities to do what he did. And he weighed the conditions and the situation as he saw fit.”

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“We will not turn into a gang, raping and pillaging throughout, as the sergeant major implies,” Milley added. “That is not going to happen because of this or anything else.”

Moulton, in response, said “this is a Sergeant Major of the Marines, we’ve got a Purple Heart and a Navy Cross and we’re defending the actions of a draft dodger.”

His comment appeared to reference reports Trump avoided being drafted in the Vietnam War over college and medical deferments.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper joined Milley to discuss foreign policy in Syria, Iran and a bill that would fund the military in 2020.

When pressed further about whether Gallagher should be labeled a “war criminals,” Esper did not provide a direct answer but noted Gallagher was not convicted of the main charge of murdering an ISIS prisoner, but rather was demoted for appearing in a photo with the ISIS fighter’s body.

“He was acquitted of the murder charge but convicted of holding up a corpse (for a photo). That would be a violation of the law of armed conflict as I understand it,” Esper said.

Rep. Michael Waltz, R-FL, himself an Army veteran, appeared to challenge the war criminal label. He distinguished between the cases of those pardoned military service members who made bad judgements in battle against the example of Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who deliberately walked into an Afghan village and killed 16 innocent civilians.

“I would submit to my colleagues, that’s a war criminal, and we need to be very careful about very loosely throwing around that term,” Waltz said.