Donald Trump’s willingness to consider pardons for US soldiers accused or convicted of war crimes “undermines the very foundations, legal and moral, of this country”, Democratic candidate for president Pete Buttigieg said.
Amid reports that such pardons could come over the Memorial Day weekend, the president told reporters at the White House on Friday he was “looking” at the issue.
“I haven’t done anything yet,” he said. “I haven’t made any decisions. There’s two or three of them right now. It’s a little bit controversial. It’s very possible that I’ll let the trials go on, and I’ll make my decision after the trial.”
Trump is now in Japan. The Memorial Day holiday falls on Monday.
Trump has already pardoned Michael Behenna, a soldier convicted in 2009 of killing a prisoner in Iraq. According to multiple reports, among cases now being considered is that of Edward Gallagher, a Navy Seal set for trial on charges of murdering a prisoner in Iraq and shooting unarmed civilians.
Fox News hosts known to influence Trump have taken up Gallagher’s cause. It has also been reported that a lawyer who works for the Trump Organization has worked on the case.
Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, spoke to ABC’s This Week in an interview broadcast on Sunday. He is a military veteran, having served in Afghanistan with the navy reserve.
“Today,” he said, “one of the things that protects our troops morally and physically is the knowledge that if anybody in uniform does commit a crime, they will be held accountable by military justice.
“For a president, especially a president who never served, to say he’s going to come in and overrule that system of military justice undermines the very foundations, legal and moral, of this country.”
Buttigieg found a cautious ally in Joni Ernst, a Republican senator from Iowa who served in the national guard, deploying to Kuwait, and is a member of the armed services committee. She told CNN’s State of the Union she “would advise the president to be very careful”, because “it is not OK to perpetrate war crimes”.
“We need our young men and women in uniform to understand that we operate under a code of ethics,” she said.
Trump, Ernst said, should “scrutinise of course each case individually, and if it’s warranted, grant a pardon. If it is not, if someone has committed a war crime, then a sentence should be served.”
Buttigieg, who has surged in the polls, has not been shy of attacking Trump. On Thursday, at an event hosted by the Washington Post, he discussed Trump’s own brush with military service.
“I have a pretty dim view of his decision to use his privileged status to fake a disability in order to avoid serving in Vietnam,” he said.
Trump received five draft deferments, four academic and one medical: bone spurs in a foot. The veracity of that claim has been extensively questioned.
Buttigieg continued: “I mean, if he were a conscientious objector, I’d admire that, but this is somebody who, I think it is fairly obvious to most of us, took advantage of the fact that he was a child of a multimillionaire in order to pretend to be disabled so that somebody could go to war in his place.
“I know that dredges up old wounds from a complicated time during a complicated war, but I am also old enough to remember when conservatives talked about character as something that mattered in the presidency, and so I think it deserves to be talked about.”
Buttigieg also discussed Vietnam in his ABC interview, in the context of remarks made by Trump about the treatment of soldiers accused of war crimes.
At the White House on Friday, Trump told reporters: “Some of these soldiers are people that have fought hard and long. You know, we teach them how to be great fighters, and then when they fight, sometimes they get really treated very unfairly.”
Buttigieg said: “The idea that being sent to war makes you a murderer is exactly the kind of thing that those of us who have served have been trying to beat back for more than a generation.
“One of the reasons Vietnam war veterans were treated so horribly when they came home, at least some of them, was an attitude that found it very hard to separate policies from the people sent to carry out those policies.”
He added: “When you serve, you are agreeing to serve the constitution and to uphold the law. And frankly [Trump’s] idea that being sent to fight makes you automatically into some sort of war criminal is a slander against veterans that could only come from someone who never served.”