On Nov. 15, President Trump intervened in the cases of three U.S. service members accused of war crimes.
Trump signed an Executive Grant of Clemency (Full Pardon) for Army First Lieutenant Clint Lorance, an Executive Grant of Clemency (Full Pardon) for Army Major Mathew Golsteyn, both of whom were accused of murder in Afghanistan, and an order directing the promotion of Special Warfare Operator First Class Edward R. Gallagher to the grade of E-7, the rank he held before he was tried and found not guilty of nearly all of the charges against him.
In taking this action, Trump incurred the wrath of politicians, pundits and many in the general public.
A U.S. defense official told CNN that there’s concern among the department’s leadership that Trump’s pardons could undermine the military’s justice system. CNN and the New York Times also reported that senior Pentagon leadership, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper, urged Trump not to intervene in the three cases.
According to Task & Purpose, a news site covering the military, several former military leaders echoed the same concerns.
“As President Trump intervenes in war crimes cases on behalf of individuals accused or convicted of war crimes, he … undermines decades of precedent in American military justice that has contributed to making our country’s fighting forces the envy of the world,” Gen. Charles Krulak, former commandant of the Marine Corps, said in a statement.
“I can honestly say I have not talked to a single military officer who would be in favor of pardoning any one of these three,” Gary Solis, a combat veteran and former military attorney who now teaches the laws of war at the Georgetown University Law Center and the George Washington University Law School, told Military.com.
But as contemptible and unwise as Trump’s actions are to many, he is hardly the first president to take such questionable actions.
Barack Obama issued 212 pardons and 1,715 commutations, including one of a 35-year prison sentence given to former U.S. Army soldier Bradley/Chelsea Manning for the largest leak of classified data in U.S. history to WikiLeaks.
President Bill Clinton, never one to be embarrassed by his actions, pardoned his brother Roger Clinton after Roger served a year in prison after pleading guilty to cocaine distribution charges.
In August 1999, President Bill Clinton also commuted the sentences of 16 members of FALN, a Puerto Rican paramilitary organization that had set off 120 bombs in the United States, mostly in New York City and Chicago. The commutation was opposed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the FBI, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons and Congress condemned Clinton’s action by votes of 95–2 in the Senate and 311–41 in the House.
But Clinton’s most egregious pardon was one he issued on his last day in office, January 20, 2001, when, against the advice of White House aides he pardoned Marc Rich, a former hedge-fund manager. Rich had fled the U.S. during his prosecution and was living in Switzerland at the time. Rich owed $48 million in taxes and had been charged with 51 counts of tax fraud.
At the time of the pardon, Rich was No. 6 on the government’s list of most wanted fugitives and had been on the lam, albeit a luxurious one, for 16 years, ever since his 1983 indictment by a grand jury.
Rich’s ex-wife had donated to the Democratic National Committee, the Clinton Presidential Library and Hillary Clinton’s New York Senate campaign, raising considerable suspicion about the pardon and leading former President Jimmy Carter to call the pardon “disgraceful.”
A New York Times editorial called the pardon “a shocking abuse of presidential power.” The liberal New Republic said it “is often mentioned as Exhibit A of Clintonian sliminess.” Not that such allegations ever seemed to bother the Clintons.
And the Clintons reaped benefits from the pardon even after Rich’s death in 2013, as Rich’s former business partners, lawyers, advisers and friends continued to shower millions of dollars on the Clintons.
Of course, Clinton isn’t the only “last day in office” pardoner. Remember Peter, Paul and Mary? In 1970, Peter Yarrow was convicted of taking “improper liberties” with a 14-year-old fan, for which he spent three months in jail. On his last day in office, President Jimmy Carter granted Yarrow a pardon.
President George H.W. Bush was roundly condemned for pardoning, commuting the sentences and rescinding the convictions of six people convicted in the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal during Reagan’s presidency,
Reagan stepped up, too, pardoning New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner after he pleaded guilty to illegally contributing to Nixon’s campaign.
Then there’s Nixon. In 1974, President Gerald Ford granted a “full, free and absolute pardon” to his predecessor Richard Nixon “for all offenses against the United States.” This broadly unpopular action was the only time a president has received a pardon. It caused a huge firestorm because Nixon was so unpopular and because there was suspicion that Ford secretly promised to pardon Nixon in exchange for him resigning and allowing Vice President Ford to succeed him.
So much for punishing bad behavior.