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Trump's pardons in military cases lower standards for U.S. soldiers

Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, a former Army Special Forces

Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, a former Army Special Forces soldier, leaves the Fort Bragg courtroom facility with his civilian lawyer, Phillip Stackhouse, right, after an arraignment hearing on June 27, 2019. President Donald Trump has pardoned a former U.S. Army commando set to stand trial next year in the killing of a suspected Afghan bomb-maker and for a former Army lieutenant who had been convicted of murder after he ordered his men to fire upon three Afghans, killing two, the White House announced late Friday. Credit: AP/Andrew Craft

 On Oct. 12, President Donald Trump tweeted, "We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!"

Trump was referring to Army Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, who was scheduled to be tried starting Dec. 2 at Fort Bragg in North Carolina for killing an Afghan man who was not armed. Trump was wrong.

Our military does not train its fighters to be "killing machines." It trains them to soldier with honor and discretion, killing only when the nation's rules of engagement support it.

Trump pardoned Golsteyn Friday, before the case against the soldier, and his defense, could be heard. Trump also pardoned Clint Lorance, a former Army lieutenant who had served six years of a 19-year sentence for the murders of two Afghan civilians. At the same time, the president restored the rank of Navy Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, acquitted of murder charges in July but convicted of bringing discredit on the armed forces. Gallagher posed for a photo with the corpse of a captive he was accused of killing and sent that photo to a friend with the message, "Good story behind this one. Got him with my hunting knife."

Each of these rejections of the military justice process is problematic, but that of Golsteyn, accused of premeditated murder after admitting in a job interview with the CIA and an interview on Fox News that he killed a suspected Taliban bomb maker who'd been captured and released, is particularly damaging. By pardoning an accused murderer before the trial, something historians say may never have been done in the United States, Trump sent the message that no trial is necessary for U.S. fighters accused of murder in a war zone, that for them no behavior is a crime.

None of these men were "victimized" by soft-hearted civilians or "deep state" intrigues. Lorance, in his second day commanding a platoon during his first deployment, was turned in by his own men after he ordered them to fire on civilians who presented no threat, then faked reports to conceal it. Nine men under his command testified against him.

Gallagher's murder trial went off the rails when a fellow SEAL who had been granted immunity claimed to be the real killer, but the callous act that got Gallagher demoted unequivocally happened.

Trump's top military leaders reportedly fought the pardons. Retired military leaders like former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey condemned the pardons as bad for the nation's standing in the world and military effectiveness. And Trump's timing in issuing the pardons, coming at the end of a long week of highly damaging impeachment testimony, felt like another grab to control the news cycle.

Our fighting men and women can and must live up to a code of conduct that demands they act with honor and not kill indiscriminately. Trump, in signaling that they do not have to meet this bar, is lowering the standards of one of our nation's great institutions, and tragically underestimating the honor of its members. — The editorial board