Lawyers defending Bowe Bergdahl, the Army sergeant charged with desertion, argued in court Monday that the charges should be dismissed because Donald Trump’s repeated campaign attacks on him as a “traitor” make a fair trial impossible.
Military Judge Jeffery Nance conceded during a pretrial hearing at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, that Trump’s comments were “disturbing,” The Associated Press reported. He didn’t immediately rule on the motion to dismiss the charges.
Bergdahl walked away from his base in Afghanistan in 2009 and was captured by the Taliban and held for five years. In a controversial barter, the Obama administration traded five Taliban prisoners to secure his freedom. Bergdahl’s complicated story, including torture during his captivity, were the focus of a “Serial” podcast last year. He has said he walked away from his post to call attention to problems at the base.
The motion to dismiss the charges, filed by Bergdahl’s defense team last month, lists dozens of times Trump spoke publicly about the Army sergeant. In a campaign appearance in Iowa in 2015, Trump said Bergdahl should be “thrown out of an airplane without a parachute,” according to the motion.
The motion argues that the charges should be dismissed because “President Trump’s statements are prejudicial to Sergeant Bergdahl’s right to a fair trial and inimical to public confidence in the administration of military justice.”
Lawyers played a video of Trump at campaign rallies in court on Monday. Trump referred to Bergdahl as a “traitor” or a similar insult at least 45 times at rallies or in media interviews, according to defense lawyers. The slurs included calling Bergdahl a “no-good, dirty, rotten traitor,” a “horrible, terrible, dirty, rotten traitor,” a “dirty rotten deserter,” a “whack job,” a “son of a bitch” and a “bum.” He said Bergdahl “should be shot,” and in the “good old days” would have been executed.
Trump told campaign crowds that “at least six soldiers” were killed trying to rescue Bergdahl. In fact, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testified before Congress in 2014 that there was no evidence linking any U.S. combat deaths to the search for Bergdahl. The sergeant was heavily criticized at the time for placing colleagues searching for him at risk.
Critics attacked Obama’s prisoner exchange as a compromise with terrorists. Hagel said that none of the detainees released by the U.S. had been linked to any terror attack.
Bergdahl appealed in vain for a pardon from then-President Barack Obama in December.
The case isn’t the first time Trump’s words have complicated a court action. In upholding an order blocking Trump’s travel ban last week, a U.S. Court of Appeals panel said Trump’s campaign promise of a “Muslim ban” may be “considered in evaluating ... Equal Protection Clause claims,” even though the president didn’t use the phrase in his executive order.
Trump’s criticism of military personnel is a sensitive subject, because he received four student deferments during the Vietnam War and never served in the military. He has said he suffered through his own “personal Vietnam” dodging sexually transmitted diseases during war-era frolicking.
During his campaign, Trump attacked war hero Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Trump claimed McCain “wasn’t a war hero” because he was captured. “I like people that weren’t captured,” Trump added.