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The War-Crimes Presidency

Believe what you're seeing: Donald Trump wants a brutal, lawless, loyal military.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Eight years ago, a friend sent me a photograph of Marines in Afghanistan proudly posing with a Nazi SS flag. As a former soldier, Iraq veteran, and historian who focuses on the German military during the Holocaust, I was shocked, and I reported the incident to the Marines’ inspector general. “Some symbols simply have pretty solid meanings,” I wrote then of the SS runes. The Corps, to its credit, responded swiftly, using the incident as a teachable moment to its Marines about the creation and maintenance of positive unit cultures and environments.

In the Donald Trump era, the lessons are different. I could never have predicted the new symbols that the commander-in-chief has endorsed.

Amid his own growing impeachment scandal, the president has spent much of 2019 telegraphing his sympathy for war crimes. In early May, he pardoned Michael Behenna, an Army officer and platoon leader who in 2008 had stripped an Iraqi prisoner named Ali Mansur naked, interrogated him illegally, shot him to death, and then claimed that he was protecting himself. It was rumored that Trump might issue more high-profile pardons around Memorial Day, but the holiday passed without incident, as Fox News and some of its Trump-tied personalities began to campaign on the behalf of several more accused or convicted war criminals. That July, I wrote about the Behenna pardon and the dangers of the president’s apparent inclination “to overlook serious war crimes in favor of a warped notion of patriotism and heroism.”

Since then, Trump has actively sought out immoral servicemembers to represent his red-meat brand of conservatism in the worst possible way. Ahead of Veterans Day, the president tweeted that he was reviewing the case of Matthew Golsteyn, an Army officer who faced court-martial for admitting that in 2010 he had taken a suspected insurgent out of detention, executed him off-base, and buried him in a hasty grave. “We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!” the president tweeted, incorrectly. Rumors swirled that Trump would announce more war-crimes pardons over the Veterans Day holiday. But he didn’t: He waited until the afternoon of November 15, a Friday, just after one of his campaign confidants was convicted of lying to Congress and Marie Yovanovich, a U.S. ambassador removed from her post for perceived disloyalty to Trump, gave damning testimony to congressional impeachment investigators. The message was clear: The president of the United States was constructing a counter-narrative that not only excuses but valorizes criminality in the service of absolute loyalty.

War criminals look loyal to Trump—more loyal, indeed, than career service members and civil servants who cross him. When, on November 19, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman testified to the impeachment committee about his concerns over the White House’s extralegal hold on aid to Ukraine, the 20-year Army veteran was publicly attacked as a traitor by none other than Clint Lorance, a lieutenant sentenced to 19 years in Leavenworth prison for ordering his soldiers to shoot three men on a motorcycle in Afghanistan, killing two of them. Lorance—whose orders amounted to “straight murder,” according to one of his squad leaders—was among the three men Trump pardoned on November 15. Four days later, Lorance tweeted his opinion of Vindman, the superior officer: “This lieutenant colonel is a politician, and is disloyal to his Commander in Chief @realDonaldTrump.” Lorance—who also gave his first post-prison interview last week, to Fox News—and his cohort speak the president’s language. Trump’s other November pardon recipient, Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, has taken to Instagram to call his chain of command “a bunch of morons”—a violation of military law—and to describe naval criminal investigators as “domestic terrorists” and “beta males” with “low T levels.”

Trump is now breaking the moral backbone that prevents war crimes, demolishing America’s military institutions and replacing them with his own cult of personality and bankrupt values system. He is making good on a 2016 campaign promise: “We can’t waterboard, but [our enemies] can chop off heads. I think we’ve got to make some changes, some adjustments.” What adjustments: In less than a week since his pardons of Golsteyn, Lorance, and Gallagher, concerns about Trump’s interference in military justice have roiled the services’ leadership, reordered their priorities, and forced the military’s civilian overseers to choose between their ethical duties and their loyalty to Trump—who has mused privately about inviting his pardoned war criminals to his 2020 reelection campaign. The perils of this path are troubling—and clearest in the case of Gallagher.

Eddie Gallagher joined the Navy in 1999 as a corpsman, trained to administer emergency medical care. He joined the elite SEAL teams and deployed eight times, the last time to Mosul, Iraq, in 2017. It was there that he was accused of a variety of war crimes, including the murders of an Iraqi girl, an old man, and a defenseless teenage prisoner whom he allegedly stabbed “several times in the neck and torso” with a “handmade hunting knife.” It was for this last that he went on trial in June 2019; the military investigation also turned up “evidence that he had engaged in a range of other misconduct, including theft and drug use,” The New York Times reported. A Navy jury acquitted Gallagher of the most serious charges after a team-member who expressed sympathy for him made an odd, unexpected confession on the stand to asphyxiating the prisoner that Gallagher had stabbed. However, the jurors did find Gallagher guilty of posing for a trophy photograph with the prisoner’s corpse and texting it to friends with the comment that he “got him with his hunting knife.” The court-martial ordered that Gallagher be demoted. On November 15, Trump overturned this punishment by executive action.

The sympathetic Navy Times, which had tracked the prosecution’s many missteps, reported Gallagher as guilty “only of appearing in an inappropriate photograph”—linguistic malpractice that vastly understates the criminality of his behavior; undignified “trophy” photos aren’t just a U.S. military crime, but a crime in international law. Multiple military law texts specifically address the “mistreatment of dead bodies.” Posing with the corpse of a human being as if it were a trophy animal is far more than a momentary lapse: It denotes a terrible callousness and moral bankruptcy. Many Americans, myself included, have served in combat and not posed with corpses. On that basis, Admiral Collin Green, the decorated commander of the SEALs’ Naval Special Warfare Command, followed up Trump’s pardon of Gallagher by organizing a review board to consider expelling Gallagher from the SEALs. (Green’s responsibility for the SEALs, according to his spokeswoman, includes “assessing the suitability of any member of his Force via administrative processes.”) It seemed a reasonable action toward a man who posed with dead bodies and whose leadership was so deeply compromised that his own SEALs had repeatedly reported him, even at the risk of their careers.

Yet Trump interfered with that internal process, as well. Under circumstances that are still unclear, he ordered Defense Secretary Mark Esper to fire Richard Spencer, the secretary of the Navy, for his reluctance to interfere in the review board. “I have to protect my war fighters,” Trump told reporters, calling Gallagher “one of our ultimate fighters.”

Now, Gallagher is a “brand ambassador” for a clothing line founded by another veteran, Trevor Merritt. Nine Line Apparel markets itself to right-wing veterans, the Call of Duty crowd, and special operations fanboys. While the company does some admirable charity work, its politics are clear: Merritt calls federal programs that could help his charity for the homeless “socialist.” One t-shirt for sale reads “Killary for Prison”; another, “All Rifles Matter.” They parrot the anti-Kaepernick talking points and remember Benghazi. Their Instagram page is a mix of scantily clad women, muscle dudes, military hardware, and nationalistic messages. They are, in their words, “relentlessly patriotic.” Gallagher, namesake of the company’s “Free Eddie” apparel line, appears frequently on the page, as do Trump and a host of conservative cheerleaders. They are selling the same brand Trump is peddling—a hyper-nationalist form of patriotism that mistakes discretion for weakness, an ethical code for inconvenient constraint, self-policing for tattling, and brutality for leadership. Merritt’s company provided almost $100,000 for Gallagher’s legal battle; Trump’s personal lawyer has also assisted in Gallagher’s fight. This commodification of criminality and toxic patriotism chimes with Trump’s attitudes toward his presidency, after all. It looks like Trump has found his own brand ambassadors.

History warns us that leaders who condone war crimes find themselves in command of criminal militaries. Lessons from the past about war crimes and transgressive military cultures are not just academic: My research shows that subordinates generally read their superiors’ intent with accuracy, for better and for worse. By demonstrating his willingness to intercede in the minutiae of military justice and disciplinary procedures, the president tells those who step over ethical boundaries that they can appeal to a sympathetic ear in the Oval Office. This is exceptionally dangerous. Our military demands that its members be able to recognize and refuse unlawful orders and relies on them to uphold codes of honorable behavior. But this presidential short-circuit can critically undermine this ethos. Military judges and juries may well question their own decisions, wondering whether the president will intervene and pillory them instead of the guilty. The effects of a malfunctioning moral compass extend past our borders. Allies and host nations will be more hesitant to work with the United States if they cannot count on us to effectively punish those who cross ethical boundaries. This can imperil our troops overseas and threaten our strategic safety.

Most importantly, Trump’s actions create a chilling effect for those in uniform who take risks to report bad apples like Gallagher. What are the incentives for risking a career and enduring the stress of reporting a comrade if the president of the United States and his troll army line up in opposition? Why would someone go through all that if they think that all their efforts will be nullified in the end? How many Gallaghers, Behennas, Lorances, and Golsteyns will escape justice now? Even before Trump’s meddling, the Navy SEALs who turned in Gallagher were told by their commanding officer to “stop talking about it” and that doing so would ruin their careers. Ironically, that officer, Commander Robert Breisch, told those SEALs that they risked losing their tridents. Gallagher himself called them “traitors” and obliquely suggested that they might meet retribution from other SEALs.

Trump’s thrashing about in Navy business is yet another instance of his “Damn the professionals, full speed ahead!” mentality. He thrives on bucking the system. He defies experts because he isn’t one and cannot abide that others might know more than him. This attitude plays well with those who think that disregard for knowledge is thinking outside the box. Time and again, we see anti-professionalism at work. According to the president, his intelligence experts, diplomats, and even career military veterans don’t know what they are talking about. He makes policy in 280-character soundbites; sometimes these are rendered irrelevant hours later. But Trump has been sadly consistent in his support for the worst few in our military.

Preventing and prosecuting war crimes requires discernment, nuance, and reliance on experienced professionals. Ethical military decision-making does not make us weak; it makes us strong. The U.S. military strives to do the right thing because it can still be lethal while being legal. Trump and his fans have made it much harder to do that. Where the bonds of ethical and institutional memory are broken, they’re replaced by emotional, knee-jerk policy—and the standard of excellence becomes a standard of loyalty to the leader’s caprices. Trump chooses Gallaghers over Vindmans, and not by accident. He is forcing each of us to choose, too.