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Who Actually Wants War Criminals Pardoned?

Trump's plan to free white service members accused of overseas atrocities both typifies and strengthens his Fox News feedback loop.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

On first glance, it’s hard to see who would support pardons for these men.

Chief Petty Officer Eddie Gallagher was reported to his commanders by seven of the Navy SEALs who served under him in Iraq, where they witnessed him “[s]tabbing a defenseless teenage captive to death. Picking off a school-age girl and an old man from a sniper’s roost. Indiscriminately spraying neighborhoods with rockets and machine-gun fire.” A search of Gallagher’s cell phone found exactly what his SEALs said it would: grisly photos of Gallagher posing with the prone body of a 15-year-old suspected ISIS fighter that Gallagher had stabbed to death, after the boy had been captured and given medical aid. Gallagher’s superiors warned those reporting him that they would be endangering their careers, but they pressed on. His court-martial is set to begin on May 28.

Nicholas Slatten, a former Blackwater security contractor, was convicted of murder—twice—for his leading role in the private security company’s 2007 fatal shooting of 10 women, two children, and two men in Baghdad’s Nisour Square. The massacre, which injured more than a dozen other bystanders, endangered U.S. efforts to build trust with the nascent Iraqi government, and highlighted private security contractors’ impunity and lack of accountability in U.S. war zones.

Matthew Golsteyn, a decorated Green Beret, narrowly avoided being charged when he admitted in a 2011 CIA job interview that he’d killed a captured man in Afghanistan whom he suspected of being a Taliban bombmaker. Five years later, Golsteyn got on Fox News and told Bret Baier that he had shot the man. The Army reopened an investigation, recalled Golsteyn to active duty, and charged Golsteyn with premeditated murder.

In 2012, a video went viral on YouTube showing a group of Marines gleefully urinating on the corpses of suspected enemy fighters in Afghanistan. “Have a great day, buddy,” one Marine could be heard saying as the desecration went on. The video inflamed international opinion against the United States. Eight Marines were ultimately reprimanded; three pleaded guilty in a special court-martial and were demoted.

These are some, but possibly not all, of the suspected and confirmed war criminals that President Donald Trump reportedly now seeks to pardon, a week after pardoning Matthew Behenna, who had been serving 15 years in prison for killing an Iraqi prisoner. (Behenna had been ordered to return the man home, but instead took him to a culvert, stripped his clothes, interrogated him, and then shot the naked man dead “in self defense.”) Two U.S. officials confirmed to The New York Times Sunday that Trump requested the paperwork for these men with an eye to pardoning them by Memorial Day, a day of remembrance for American service members who died in war.

The vetting process for prospective pardonees normally takes months, not a week; it normally originates in the Justice Department, not the White House; it normally pardons convicts, not accused criminals awaiting trial. It does not normally fast-track military operators who are accused of murder by seven of their shipmates and who also keep photographs of murdered prisoners in their phones.

What is the constituency in the United States that celebrates war crimes? How big is it, and who speaks for it? Is there some faction of active-duty military brass pushing for this? Is there an adviser telling Trump that the people demand it?

As with so many national security decisions in the past 851 days, this folksy push to make war crimes great again is largely between Trump, his Twitter fan club, and the producers of Fox News. Reporters should of course be looking for voices in the Pentagon and White House who might be telling Trump that pardoning a bunch of goonish caricatures is good policy, but this is not the sort of position one would generally expect from the defense establishment, which has been saddled in recent years with making sense of Trump’s fantastical and ever-increasing list of edicts: his insistence on a Space Force; his Twitter-announced ban on transgender service members; his purging of foreign-born enlistees and refusal to extend citizenship to more of them; his mobilization of U.S. troops to the U.S.-Mexico border (and his musings that the military could build the wall); his demand to end joint military exercises with South Korea after meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un; his insistence on honoring mostly unidentified “verbal agreements” on security with Russian president Vladimir Putin; his refusal to nominate a permanent secretary of defense to replace the one that departed, or to fill the still-depleted ranks of his Pentagon and State Department; and his burning desire for a national military parade, tanks and all, that celebrates his presidency.

It has been nearly a year since a Pentagon spokesperson held a televised, on-record press conference with reporters, if you don’t count Gerard Butler and Gene Simmons. Even the Department of Defense has trouble defending the indefensible.

There is no natural constituency demanding the exoneration of a motley series of heavily armed white men who killed or desecrated the bodies of foreigners overseas in the name of the United States. What these cases have in common is that they have become hobby-horses for a sclerotic part of the conservative media-industrial complex.

Eddie Gallagher’s wife and brother have become fixtures on Fox and Friends, insisting the chief is a “modern-day war hero” caught in a frame-up. The hunger in right-wing swamps for pro-Gallagher content has ballooned, and has led to some troubling practices worth exploring through his upcoming court martial—such as why prosecutors in his case attempted to track press leaks by sending journalists emails laced with a tracking and monitoring code.

Rather than letting a court establish facts and responsibility, Gallagher’s supporters have spoken directly to Trump through his favorite show, seeking to short-circuit the justice system. “I know [the president] is being fed false information,” Tyler Merritt, a friend of Gallagher’s, told Fox News viewers last month.* He was accompanied by Gallagher’s wife; they both wore matching t-shirts supporting Gallagher, provided by the veteran-owned shirt business Nine Line Apparel and available for sale for $26.99, plus shipping. In seeking a presidential pardon, they are supported by Republican Representative Duncan Hunter of California, a Marine veteran who himself is facing federal trial for personal misuse of a quarter of a million dollars in campaign funds.

At least Hunter is consistent: Back in 2012, he also insisted that those Marines who urinated on Afghan corpses were “sons of America” who should not face criminal consequences for their actions. That case quickly became a cause célébre for arch-rightists looking to distance themselves from more staid conservative circles. “Can someone explain to me if there’s supposed to be a scandal that someone pees on the corpse of a Taliban fighter? Someone who, as part of an organization, murdered over 3,000 Americans? I’d drop trou and do it too,” said a then-obscure radio host from St. Louis who had never served in uniform. “That’s me though. I want a million cool points for these guys. Is that harsh to say? Come on people, this is a war. What do you think this is?” The radio host was Dana Loesch, now the paid spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association. When called on her comments, she argued that the “Left is attacking me so they can avoid calling this Obama’s Abu Ghraib.” She was supported by the likes of Islamophobic blogger Pamela Geller, who could barely contain her glee at the desecration. “I love these Marines,” she wrote. “Perhaps this is the infidel interpretation of the Islamic ritual of washing and preparing the body for burial.”

This, in a nutshell, is the war crimes lobby as it now exists, a metastasizing network of amateurish, enraged gawkers, gorging themselves on Fox News emissions, and who feel empowered to speak for the troops, the war, and the whole darn population of “real” United States citizens. “To the people in middle America, who respect the troops and the tough calls they make, they’re going to love this. These are the good guys,” said Fox and Friends cohost, professional Republican veteran, and onetime Trump cabinet hopeful Pete Hegseth on Sunday. “These are the war fighters. And making a move like this by Memorial Day would be—I would be—wow, amazing.”

“These are the good guys.” What of the seven SEALs who bled with Gallagher, who have seen the worst of America’s expeditionary wars, who faced pressure from above not to report what they saw him do, and who are now treated as dismissively as anonymous HuffPost commenters by the Trump-supporting virtual-veteran commissariat? What of the combat platoon leaders who express their disgust in a president overlooking “serious war crimes in favor of a warped notion of patriotism and heroism”? What of every Marine who sings aloud the words of their hymn: “First to fight for right and freedom, and to keep our honor clean”? If the small community of American men who unjustly—and against the consciences of most of their uniformed comrades—kill, maim, or violate brown people can successfully evade judgment thanks to the caprices of a feeble commander-in-chief; if these are decreed to be the good guys without rigorous investigation; “goodness” will have lost all meaning. Perhaps the cruelty of it is the point.

* An earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized Tyler Merritt. He is a friend of Eddie Gallagher, and not a lawyer.