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Trump May Pardon Green Beret Suspected Of Killing Taliban Bomb-Maker


President Trump is the commander in chief, so when he tweets about an Army criminal case, as he did this weekend, he's met with criticism by legal experts who say he is unlawfully interfering in the judicial process.


The case involves Major Mathew Golsteyn. He was a Green Beret serving in Afghanistan back in 2010, and he admitted to killing a Taliban bomb-maker. He made the confession on Fox News back in 2016. The Army charged Golsteyn last week with murder, and then Fox re-aired parts of its interview this weekend.


BRET BAIER: Did you kill the Taliban bomb-maker?


BAIER: You willingly offered up these details?


KELLY: Now, President Trump, in a tweet yesterday, called Golsteyn a U.S. military hero and said he would be reviewing the case.

Let's bring in NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Start with what's got legal experts riled up here. They're arguing that the president's tweet amounts to unlawful command influence. What is that?

BOWMAN: That's right.

KELLY: What's unlawful command influence?

BOWMAN: Well, unlawful command influence is a doctrine requiring the chain of command to detach itself from any military legal proceeding, meaning it can't influence the judicial process in any way. Every citizen, of course, has a fundamental right of due process. That's enshrined in the Constitution.

Now, as commander in chief of the Armed Forces, Trump weighed in here, calling Golsteyn a hero. And he - and that could undercut the prosecution...

KELLY: Sure.

BOWMAN: ...Or send the message that he wants this to end. Also, he could take adverse action against any officer - let's say a prosecutor or a judge - involved in this case - maybe someone in line for a promotion. Now, that's why in any military legal case, most secretaries of defense or military officers won't even comment on such matters, so they don't prejudice the case.

And the Pentagon released a statement saying only, this is a law enforcement matter. We'll respect the integrity of the process. That was it.

KELLY: But technically, does the president have this power to step in this case and brush aside the murder charge against Golsteyn?

BOWMAN: No, he does. He could, according to Gary Solis, a former Marine lawyer, now a law professor. He said the president can issue a pre-emptive pardon. But he said he could not recall a presidential pardon in such a serious case as a murder charge.

KELLY: I'm thinking, though, this is not the first time we have seen President Trump weigh in on military criminal cases. And the example I'm thinking of is Bowe Bergdahl.

BOWMAN: Exactly. Last year, he weighed in on the case of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. Of course, he was a soldier who is charged in connection with deserting his post in Afghanistan, was grabbed by the Taliban and spent five years in captivity. He only got out in a prisoner swap with five Taliban prisoners.

Now, candidate Trump indicated Bergdahl should be executed. And President Trump referred to his previous comments at a press conference. So that led to the defense lawyer in the Bergdahl case to ask the judge to dismiss the case because of unlawful command influence.

The military judge refused but later said the president's comments about Bergdahl led him to see this as mitigation evidence in not giving Bergdahl any jail time. So the president's comments did have an influence on that case.

KELLY: Did have an impact, absolutely. Fascinating. Beyond the fate of whatever happens to Major Golsteyn, what are the wider implications at stake here?

BOWMAN: Well, there are some. One question is how does this play in Afghanistan? The New York Times quoted one Afghan Council member saying, if this soldier goes free, how can the Afghans expect Americans to bring wrongdoers to justice? And, of course, this would play well with Taliban propaganda.

But here's another thing, Mary Louise. What message does the president send to Green Berets and other special operators - that killing a prisoner is OK? It's a violation of the laws of war.

Now, interestingly, the Special Operations Command, just next month, is embarking on new ethics training for its operators because of what it says are allegations of serious misconduct.

KELLY: Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

KELLY: NPR's Tom Bowman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.