Home/Daniel Larison/Trump’s Embrace of War Criminals

Trump’s Embrace of War Criminals

President Donald Trump speaks to the media in the Rose Garden at the White House, Jan. 4, 2019. Michael Candelori/Shutterstock

The ugly story of Trump’s embrace of accused and convicted war criminals didn’t end with his disgraceful pardons. In the last week, the president has intervened again because he wanted to stop the Navy from stripping Eddie Gallagher of his status as a SEAL, and he ordered the Defense Secretary to make sure of it:

President Trump ordered U.S. defense officials to allow a Navy SEAL to remain a member of the elite group, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday, a move that ended a controversy that had pit military commanders against the White House and cost the Navy secretary his post.

Trump also had Esper fire the Secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer. The official story is that Spencer sought to strike a bargain with the White House over Gallagher and Esper fired him for going around him to arrange that. This seems like a pretext for removing him because he was opposed to Trump’s intervention. Spencer Ackerman reports that Esper’s story strikes many senior officers as false:

Esper’s account was in such stark opposition to Spencer’s positions in the case that several in military circles, while acknowledging the murkiness around the entire episode, consider it to be untrue.

Mark Perry reports on the story for TAC on the main page:

“It’s a bad, bad look,” a senior Pentagon civilian told TAC, “and it’s especially bad for Mark Esper. He looks like Trump’s hatchet man.”

But behind the now very public confrontation is a much larger matter. “The real issue here is whether the Navy will be successful in reining in its out-of-control and ill-disciplined special forces units,” the senior Pentagon official added.

In short, there has been a determined effort to restore discipline after it has broken down, and Trump stepped in to shield and salute some of the most egregious offenders.

David Ignatius describes how Spencer’s firing unfolded as Spencer sought to find a face-saving compromise and Trump wanted to get rid of him anyway:

“The president wants you to go,” Esper told Spencer on Sunday, according to this source. Esper then toed the White House line and announced Spencer’s dismissal.

For Pentagon officials who have wondered whether Esper would have the backbone to resist Trump, Sunday’s events were troubling. The Pentagon, like the State Department under Mike Pompeo, is now overseen by an official whose overriding priority seems to be accommodating an impetuous boss in the White House.

Whatever the full story turns out to be, it is clear that the president’s preoccupation with defending war criminals took precedence over everything else. The message this sends is that military personnel can get away with serious crimes as long as they have a cheering section that can get this president’s attention. War criminals will get a free pass and top officials will be thrown overboard in the president’s pursuit of defending men who dishonored their uniform and broke the law. It is extremely corrosive and damaging to the military, and it is an insult to everyone who has served honorably in uniform.

Perry’s report addresses the impact that Trump’s intervention earlier this month had:

While Trump’s actions in each of the three cases angered senior officers in each of the uniformed services (“this is a dumb and toxic intervention,” Professor Richard Kohn, a respected expert on civil-military relations at the University of North Carolina, told TAC), its most pernicious impact was felt by the Navy. Senior Navy officers were “stunned” by Trump’s decision on Gallagher, a career Pentagon official said, particularly since they believed that Defense Secretary Mark Esper had convinced the president during a White House meeting not to intervene in any of the cases.

“It’s been a bad couple of years for the Navy,” this official adds, “and the leadership is trying to tighten things up, especially when it comes to the elite units, like the Navy SEALS. Trump’s decision sends exactly the wrong message.”

Spencer’s letter that acknowledged his firing emphasizes the disagreement between himself and the president over their views on military discipline:

Spencer’s pointed criticism of Trump’s intervention echoes his letter to the President acknowledging his termination, where he said the President was undermining the “key principle of good order and discipline.”

“I cannot in good conscience obey an order that I believe violates the sacred oath I took in the presence of my family, my flag and my faith to support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” Spencer wrote.

Trump has defended his actions as proof that he “sticks up” for U.S. military personnel, but the truth is just the opposite. He is siding the worst elements in the military, and then he pretends that his act of disrespect is something laudable. He is pandering to his cable news acolytes, much to the disgust of the men still serving. Ignatius concludes:

While Gallagher is celebrated on Fox, current and former senior officers of the SEALs and other elite units told me this weekend that his case has little support within the community of Special Operations forces. One former SEAL commander noted that maintaining discipline among these elite units is so important that the SEAL peer-review panels have removed more than 150 Trident pins since 2011, or more than one a month.
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That’s the process of internal accountability that Spencer was trying to defend, and that Trump sabotaged.

Trump’s crude, cartoonish understanding of how the military works has led him into direct conflict with the officers responsible for discipline in the ranks. Perry’s report continues:

The military officers present during the discussion argued that Trump’s intervention could adversely affect troop morale. “The difficulty here is that Trump thinks he’s defending the military, when he’s not,” the senior civilian defense official with whom I spoke argued. “He’s actually undermining what they’re trying to do. He’s weakening them.”

As if all this weren’t bad enough, there are now reports that Trump wants the criminals he pardoned to campaign with him:

If Donald Trump gets his wish, he’ll soon take the three convicted or accused war criminals he spared from consequence on the road as special guests in his reelection campaign, according to two sources who have heard Trump discuss their potential roles for the 2020 effort.

Trump’s desire to campaign alongside war criminals is horrible, but it is at least clarifying. If his previous abuses haven’t made it obvious already, these latest moves make it plain that Trump has nothing but contempt for the law, he rewards and sides with lawbreakers, and he fires and attacks those who seek to honor their oaths. If Trump thinks that his embrace of war criminals will be a popular move, he has miscalculated, because he now runs the risk of alienating many of the people in the armed forces that have supported him until now. Perry concludes his report with this:

Army Col. Keven Benson suggests Trump may have overplayed his hand, considering all the wreckage he wrought playing to his base at the possible cost of his legitimacy among those in uniform. Benson charges, too, that the president’s decision to reverse the directives of senior Navy officers in disciplining one of their own might lose him support not only among senior officers, but among the rank and file—a constituency that voted overwhelmingly to put him in the White House. “You know, these guys, these three knuckleheads —Lorance, Golsteyn and Gallagher —might be welcome on Fox News,” Benson says, “but they wouldn’t be welcome in my platoon.”

A cartoon militarist like Trump doesn’t understand or respect the military, its traditions, or its code of conduct, and this ugly episode in embracing war criminals is proof of that.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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