President Donald Trump is reportedly planning to pardon numerous military members accused of various war crimes. The alleged crimes include premeditated murder, desecrating corpses and shooting unarmed civilians. The plan has caused intense backlash: The notoriously apolitical retired Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tweeted this week: “Bad message. Bad precedent. Abdication of moral responsibility. Risk to us.”
It’s still not clear exactly whom Trump may pardon, but several names have repeatedly come up, and the president has tweeted about at least two of the men. “Some of these soldiers are people that have fought hard, long,” Trump said on Friday. “We’re going to take a look at it.”
Here’s a look at the servicemen and contractors Trump may pardon ― and what they did and are alleged to have done. In the eyes of many top military officials and human rights experts, by pardoning these men, Trump is implicitly sanctioning those acts.
Conservative politicians and media outlets have championed the cause of Edward Gallagher, a Navy SEALs special operations chief with eight combat and overseas deployments. Trump has tweeted about his case. Gallagher faces some of the most serious charges of those who may receive pardons, including premeditated murder and threatening to kill fellow service members if they informed others of his actions.
Gallagher is set to face a military court and the exact details of his case are not public, but several publications, including The San Diego Union-Tribune and the Navy Times, have obtained court documents and judge’s rulings in the lead-up to the trial that give a substantial account of the charges he faces.
Prosecutors allege that in May 2017, Gallagher was accompanying Iraqi coalition partner forces during anti-Islamic State operations in northern Iraq. The Iraqi forces had captured a suspected militant who Navy SEALs estimated was between 15 and 22 years old, according to witness accounts. The suspected ISIS fighter was detained after a U.S. drone strike on a building, and a witness said he was awake and had sustained injuries that were not life-threatening. Members of the Navy SEAL platoon heard Gallagher say “Nobody touch him, he’s mine,” according to Navy Judge Capt. Aaron Rugh’s findings-of-fact statement, obtained by The San Diego Union-Tribune.
Gallagher allegedly approached the vehicle where the suspected ISIS fighter was held and brought him out onto the ground. Three Navy SEALs say they then witnessed Gallagher pull out a knife that he often carried and repeatedly stab the prisoner in the neck, killing him. During the next several days, Gallagher allegedly said he would kill anyone who blew the whistle on his actions, and demanded the names of any SEALs who disagreed with his conduct.
Prosecutors allege that Gallagher performed a reenlistment ceremony next to the person he killed, and took a photo of the body. They allege he sent the photo to a friend and texted: “Got him with my hunting knife.”
SEALs also claim that Gallagher repeatedly shot at and may have killed civilians. One incident involved Gallagher shooting an elderly man near a riverbank while on sniper duty, according to two SEAL witnesses. The man fell to the ground and appeared motionless. A witness also said they saw a young girl in a flower-print hijab walking along a path and suddenly clutching her stomach as though she’d been shot. Her companions looked up at a tower where Gallagher was in position and then carried the injured girl away. An officer in Gallagher’s chain of command is also prepared to testify that Gallagher called in false coordinates to target a mosque, according to documents reviewed by the Navy Times.
Gallagher has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him. The investigation has become a major point of controversy, and Gallagher has received the support of conservatives such as Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who claims to have viewed combat footage that exonerates Gallagher. The supposed footage has not been made public.
There was another turn in the case last week, when Gallagher’s defense attorneys found that prosecutors embedded tracking software in their emails to Gallagher’s team and a journalist at the Navy Times. His court date has been delayed until a decision is reached on whether that action compromised Gallagher’s right to a fair trial ― although Trump’s pardon would make those deliberations redundant.
Maj. Matthew Golsteyn, a former Green Beret, faces a premeditated murder charge for killing an unarmed man in Afghanistan who Golsteyn suspected of being a Taliban bombmaker. Golsteyn, like Gallagher, has conservatives calling for his release. Trump tweeted in December that Golsteyn is a “military hero.”
While Golsteyn was deployed to Afghanistan’s Helmand province in 2010, explosive booby traps killed two Marines and wounded three others during a battle against Taliban insurgents. Afghan forces detained a man afterward who allegedly had bomb-making materials on him, but Golsteyn told The Washington Post that U.S. troops were not allowed to hold any captives because of a lack of resources. The timeline of what happened next is contested and forms the focus of Golsteyn’s upcoming trial, but at some point after the suspected bombmaker’s release, Golsteyn recaptured the unarmed man and killed him.
Golsteyn admitted to killing the man during a 2011 job interview with the CIA, saying he shot the suspected bombmaker and burned his body. His admission to the CIA prompted an Army review that resulted in a formal reprimand and the rescinding of his Silver Star award, but no charges due to lack of evidence. Golsteyn also gave an interview to Fox News in 2016 where he admitted to killing the Afghan man, a statement he blames for attracting attention and resulting in his murder charge in 2018. He is now awaiting trial.
Nicholas Slatten is a former Blackwater private military contractor who was convicted of first-degree murder for the killing of an unarmed man during a massacre of Iraqi civilians in 2007.
In the incident, Slatten and other Blackwater contractors were operating in Baghdad in September 2007 when they set up a blockade at a traffic stop outside the city’s Green Zone. When a white Kia approached the blockade, federal prosecutors say, Slatten fired unprovoked on the vehicle and shot 19-year-old Ahmed Haithem Ahmed Al Rubia’y, an aspiring doctor who was driving his mother to an appointment. Two Iraqi police officers then approached the Kia, saw Al Rubia’y dead with a bullet hole in his forehead and waved at the Blackwater contractors to stop firing.
Al Rubia’y’s mother screamed for help as she held her son’s body. But the stopped Kia began to roll forward, which Blackwater contractors later claimed they took as a sign it was a car bomb. The contractors opened fire, killing Al Rubia’y’s mother and 15 other civilians at the busy traffic stop. Wounded civilians fled as Blackwater guards fired at random. One witness later described a dead man’s body shaking on the ground as guards fired bullets into the corpse. There was no car bomb, and two children ages 9 and 11 were among the dead.
Slatten was twice convicted of murder for the killing of Al Rubia’y, first in 2014 and again in 2018 after a federal appeals court called for a new trial. Three Blackwater contractors were convicted of other charges, including manslaughter, for their roles in the massacre.
Marine Sniper Group
Trump is also reportedly considering pardons for a group of Marine snipers who were filmed in 2011 urinating on the corpses of Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan and mocking the dead. The video was widely viewed after it emerged online, and brought international condemnation of the U.S. military.
Multiple Marines in the video received court-martials. Staff Sgt. Joseph Chamblin pleaded guilty to wrongful desecration and other charges, receiving 30 days’ confinement, a fine and a reduction in rank. But Chamblin had his conviction thrown out in 2017 after a court found that a top general had exerted improper influence in pushing his case. Capt. James Clement was forcibly discharged after the incident, while Staff Sgt. Edward Deptola pleaded guilty to several charges in 2013 and admitted that he also posed for photos next to the corpses. Deptola was demoted one rank as a punishment.
A fourth Marine, Sgt. Robert Richards, pleaded guilty to a pair of charges in a 2013 court-martial before receiving medical retirement. He died in 2014 of an accidental overdose of prescription painkillers, and his lawyer has since sought for his record to be wiped clean via presidential pardon.