If the Democrats in the House, where they have a clear majority, cannot do anything at all about anything a Republican president does, no matter how dangerous, or simply absurd, because the Senate is controlled by the Republicans who will not take up anything the Democrats in that other chamber even think of proposing, then the president is free to do anything that occurs to him at any given time – within limits. He cannot declare himself president for life and expel California and New York and Massachusetts from the Union and declare the Nineteenth Amendment null and void so women will never vote again. All of that would keep Republicans in power, but there are rules. The president’s powers are not absolute.
But one of his powers is absolute, and this president, Donald Trump, can exercise that power to sneer at his critics and prove he can do any damned thing he wants:
President Trump gave a full pardon to a longtime friend who last year wrote a glowing book about Trump’s successes.
Conrad Black was convicted in 2007 on fraud charges, including alleged embezzlement, and obstruction of justice. He served more than three years in prison and was deported to his native Canada after he was released in 2012. He was barred from returning to the United States for 30 years.
Of course no one cares about this disgraced onetime Canadian press baron, but Donald Trump does:
The White House said in a statement that Black was “entirely deserving” of the pardon. In listing Black’s accomplishments, it mentions biographies Black wrote about presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, but not his tome on Trump.
On the first page of that book, “Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other,” Black writes: “Like the country he represents, Donald Trump possesses the optimism to persevere and succeed, the confidence to affront tradition and convention, a genius for spectacle, and a firm belief in common sense and the common man.”
Black, whose media company owned the Chicago Sun Times, at one time partnered with Trump to build Trump Tower in Chicago, but Trump later bought him out.
And now, with great fanfare, Donald Trump has granted this convicted felon full pardon for all his crimes. Yes, no one really cares about this guy. Few even know who he is. But that’s not the point. Trump was sending a message – See, look what I can do, and you losers can’t do a thing about it!
This is an in-your-face thing:
Trump also fully pardoned Patrick Nolan, a former Republican state legislative leader who pleaded guilty to public corruption charges in 1994 and served nearly three years in prison.
Yes, this guy didn’t even contest the charges. He admitted it all. Trump didn’t even claim there was any injustice here. He just pardoned the guy, because he could, and he wanted everyone to know he could. He can pardon any convicted and clearly guilty Republican he wants. And there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
This seems to make Donald Trump happy, or smug, or something else that Andrew Sullivan explores here:
When you observe Trump’s use of presidential pardons, you get a glimpse into what he’d do with absolute power. He’d abuse it, of course. It’s what he does. He has an unerring instinct for opportunities for total, independent authority – and he quickly saw how he could use pardons, and the promise of them. He could, for one thing, obstruct justice. The way he publicly toyed with pardoning Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen if they didn’t rat was instructive. Or he could simply reward loyalists and toadies: hence the latest pardon of Conrad Black, his criminal hagiographer, following the pardon of Dinesh D’Souza, a foul right-wing propagandist.
Perhaps that was to be expected. He was rich. He could buy what and who he wanted, and everyone would be in awe of him because of his vast wealth, or be in absolute fear of him. He seemed to be an awful person, but he was rich, and that was that. Now he has his pardon power. That’s now a second way to sneer at anyone who questions him about anything. Think of the Bible. Things went all wrong all the time for Job who complained to God that this just wasn’t fair. God’s reply was a sneer – “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?” People complain about Trump and sometimes to Trump, and the reply is similar – “Are you rich?” That ends the argument. And now he can pardon anyone he wants of any federal crime of any kind. “Can you do that?” If not, shut up.
Sullivan says this about that dynamic:
It’s the war criminals that really showcase Trump’s character. Trump loves any kind of brute power over someone else, which is why he is so attached to the idea of torturing the helpless. He preemptively pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio before his sentencing for criminal contempt – a man who broke federal law for refusing to halt racial profiling and who ran a “tent city” jail which amounted to a concentration camp. In March, Trump intervened in a war crimes trial scheduled for later this month by coming to the defense of the alleged criminal, Eddie Gallagher.
His tweet? “In honor of his past service to our Country, Navy Seal #EddieGallagher will soon be moved to less restrictive confinement while he awaits his day in court. Process should move quickly!”
Gallagher had been turned in by his fellow Navy SEALs.
Mona Charen explains that:
The SEALs allege that Gallagher was an out-of-control killer who shot women and old men as well as combatants. In one case, he is accused of stabbing an already severely wounded 15-year-old to death. He texted photos of the kill and then reportedly held a re-enlistment ceremony with the corpse. In another incident, a sniper said he saw Gallagher shoot a 12-year-old girl in a flower-print hijab who was walking with friends.
These are just two of the incidents involved. The file of his abuses is growing in number. This is someone whose past service his commander-in-chief honored.
But wait, there’s more:
In another, murkier case, in which Major Matt Golsteyn stands accused of murdering an alleged Taliban bomb-maker, burying him in a shallow grave then disinterring and burning his body, Trump jumped in to prejudge the case: “At the request of many, I will be reviewing the case of a ‘U.S. Military hero,’ Major Matt Golsteyn, who is charged with murder. He could face the death penalty from our own government after he admitted to killing a Terrorist bombmaker while overseas.”
Then this week, Trump simply went ahead and pardoned former U.S. Army Lieutenant Michael Behenna. Behenna had lost two fellow soldiers in an IED attack in Iraq, and a suspected accomplice was captured and interrogated. With insufficient evidence to detain the suspect, Behenna was ordered to escort him home. Behenna instead took the opportunity on his journey to strip the prisoner naked, interrogate him personally, and then shoot him. He was convicted and served five years.
Sullivan is not impressed:
It may well have been a moment of complete breakdown. It may have been out of character. But it was a war crime. It was murder. Of all the countless cases of misbegotten justice, Trump chose this one out of ten pardons he has issued, and Fox News reported that he was “taking a broad look at veterans jailed for battlefield crimes and considering granting more of them similar relief.”
And one thing does lead to another:
The one thing we know for sure about crimes like this is that war drives people to unspeakable acts, and without very firm directions against abuse of innocents from the very top, atrocities will proliferate. We now have a commander-in-chief who has long rhapsodized about the torture of human beings and is now sending a signal that abuse under his watch is not that big a deal. I know this precedent was set by the last Republican president, as we saw in the war on terror. But Trump is building on and deepening a disregard for the military rules of combat that violates two centuries of American military decency and discipline. He loves the kind of soldiers good soldiers despise. And increasingly they know it.
But this is not new, as Mona Charen reminds us of the exchange between Trump and one debate moderator a few years ago:
During the March 3, 2016 Republican debate, Donald Trump proudly proclaimed something that he had only hinted at before: He endorsed war crimes. Bret Baier noted that “almost 100 foreign policy experts” had signed a statement saying that they could not support Trump because he had threatened to ask the military to target terrorists’ families and to employ torture techniques worse than waterboarding. Baier asked: “If you were president of United States, and the military declined to carry out an illegal order, what would you do?” In signature style, Trump doubled down:
“They won’t refuse. Believe me. When you look at the Middle East, they’re chopping off heads. They’re chopping off the heads of Christians and anybody else that happens to be in the way and now they’re asking about waterboarding. I said it’s fine, and if they want to go stronger, I’d go stronger. Because that’s the way I feel. I’m a leader. I’m a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say ‘Do it,’ they’re going to do it.”
Charen notes that may have gone too far, but nothing was really settled:
Trump walked back his vow to order the U.S. military to violate the Geneva Conventions the next day, but then flipped toward barbarism again three months later in response to an attack at the Istanbul airport. “We have to be so strong. We have to fight so viciously and violently because we’re dealing with violent people viciously.”
Republicans who had worried about Trump’s commitment to the rule of law were reassured when Trump allowed that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis had talked him out of his fondness for torture. Republicans relaxed.
But they could never really relax. Mattis wasn’t the president, and Max Boot takes it from there:
In 2016, President Trump ran on a war crimes platform. He vowed: “I would bring back waterboarding. And I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” (Japanese soldiers were convicted after World War II in a war crimes tribunal for waterboarding American and Allied prisoners.) He also promised to “take out” the families of terrorists and approvingly recounted a false story about Gen. John J. Pershing executing 49 Muslim rebels in the Philippines, employing bullets dipped in pig fat.
These blood-curdling threats from an armchair general who skipped out on the Vietnam War were very much at odds with the ethos of Trump’s first secretary of defense, retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, who had exhorted his Marines at the start of the Iraq War: “Engage your brain before you engage your weapon. Carry out your mission and keep your honor clean.”
Mattis dissuaded Trump from issuing an unlawful order to torture terrorists, Trump said, by telling him: “I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.”
Cool. But Donald Trump is who he is:
This turned out to be only a temporary reprieve. Just as no amount of evidence can convince Trump that other countries don’t pay tariffs (American consumers do), so no amount of evidence can convince him that brutalizing prisoners and civilians is not a good idea. He said in 2017 that he was still “absolutely” an advocate of waterboarding but was deferring to Mattis.
Well, Mattis isn’t around anymore. He has been replaced by the ineffectual acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan, who has no military experience and no standing to challenge Trump.
Shanahan had been a senior executive at Boeing. Shanahan knows all there is to know about the procurement of multibillion-dollar defense systems. Shanahan knows the politics of that. He really does know nothing else about the military, but Trump will nominate him to be the actual defense secretary, not just the placeholder.
But that’s not what bothers Boot, because this does:
Trump is back to praising war crimes.
He is not, to be sure, ordering the Defense Department to torture suspects or kill their families – any more than he is ordering the military to seize Iraq’s oil, another 2016 campaign brainstorm. Such an order would likely be refused, just as the Department of Homeland Security refused Trump’s instructions to deny refugees an opportunity to apply for asylum. But Trump appears intent on achieving a similar effect through the back door by pardoning soldiers who have been accused of war crimes.
That seems to be the plan:
In early May, Trump pardoned former Army First Lt. Michael Behenna, who was convicted of “unpremeditated murder in a war zone.” In 2008, U.S. troops captured an Iraqi man, Ali Mansur, who was suspected of planting a roadside bomb that had killed two of Behenna’s friends. But the military couldn’t find any conclusive evidence against Mansur, and Behenna was ordered to return him to his village. Instead, Behenna took Mansur to a secluded spot, stripped him naked, interrogated him and then shot him in the head and chest. The court-martial rejected Behenna’s claim of self-defense.
There wasn’t much question of guilt here, but Boot notes that Trump was just getting started:
The New York Times reports that the president may stage a grotesque commemoration of Memorial Day by pardoning a whole slate of accused war criminals…
Navy Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher: Fellow SEALs testified that in Iraq in 2017, Gallagher would routinely fire a heavy machine gun into civilian neighborhoods “with no discernible targets,” that he shot a girl in a flower-print hijab and an unarmed old man with his sniper’s rifle, and that he stabbed to death a captured, wounded Islamic State fighter who appeared to be about 15 years old.
Army Maj. Mathew L. Golsteyn: He is accused of murder for killing an Afghan prisoner who was a suspected bomb maker. According to prosecutors, Golsteyn and two other soldiers then disposed of the body in a burn pit. Golsteyn admitted to the killing on television but claims it was justified.
Nicholas A. Slatten: He is an Army veteran who was found guilty of first-degree murder for his actions as a contractor in Iraq in 2007: He and other Blackwater contractors opened fire in a crowded square in Baghdad, killing 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians, including 10 women and two children.
Four Marines who were found guilty of dereliction of duty after they were videotaped urinating on the corpses of dead Taliban fighters.
That’s the list so far, and Boot is forced to state the obvious:
What all these cases have in common is that the military chain of command thought it was imperative to bring charges to maintain good order and discipline, while right-wing commentators have rallied to the defense of the accused. Guess which side Trump is on.
And that angers Boot:
Having no honor of his own, Trump doesn’t understand the importance of Mattis’ injunction to keep one’s honor clean – to maintain the thin line that separates professional, disciplined soldiers from the Mongol hordes of the 13th century or the German SS. Trump is telling the troops: Don’t listen to your superiors. Ignore the rules of engagement. Feel free to commit atrocities in the expectation of a presidential pardon.
There is no more corrosive message a commander in chief could send, which is why so many veterans who served honorably are so appalled by what Trump is doing.
And here’s an idea:
If Congress had any honor of its own, Trump’s incitement of unlawful behavior by the troops under his command would be yet another count in the articles of impeachment against him.
That’ll never happen because the Senate will do nothing, ever, about their Republican president.
And then there’s this guy:
Waitman Wade Beorn, a combat veteran of Iraq, is a Holocaust and genocide studies historian, a lecturer at the University of Virginia, and the author of “Marching Into Darkness: The Wehrmacht and the Holocaust in Belarus.” He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point.
He’s saying this:
Our commander in chief appears to have preferred to overlook serious war crimes in favor of a warped notion of patriotism and heroism. Trump subscribes to a “bad things happen in war” mentality – odd for a man who actively avoided military service.
This attitude is incredibly dangerous. It doesn’t just undermine the enforcement of military justice; it also sends a message to our armed forces about just what kind of conduct the United States takes seriously.
And he’s also saying this:
In my book Marching Into Darkness I wrote about the German army’s participation in the Holocaust at the small-unit level. One conclusion was that, even given the premeditated, racist and highly ideologized environment of the Wehrmacht, the culture of each unit and the institutional leadership most directly influenced whether war crimes were committed. Murderous leaders led murderous units, I found.
Fortunately, the U.S. military does not exist in this kind of ethical quagmire. Compared with our opponents in the modern age, we have taken much more care to prosecute warfare in accordance with the laws of war. We have systems of military education that highlight our values and the law of armed conflict. And we have a military justice system that, while not perfect, prosecutes and condemns those service members who commit atrocities.
In short, we have a foundation of military ethics that our combat leaders can stand on.
That may not be true much longer, because things are moving right along:
President Donald Trump has requested paperwork allowing him to move forward quickly with pardons for accused US war criminals, The New York Times reported Saturday.
The pardons from a President who on the campaign trail expressed support for “tougher” tactics than waterboarding and going after the families of terrorists could come “on or around Memorial Day,” two US officials told the Times.
One military official told the Times that the White House made its request to the Justice Department on Friday, and that while pardon files typically take months to assemble, the Justice Department had stressed the files needed to be completed before the coming Memorial Day weekend.
John Cole was once a Republican, a long time ago, and now he is a bit unhappy once more:
First things first, the fact that he is doing this on Memorial Day should be your first clue the giant orange talking anus has no idea what the fuck he is doing. Memorial Day is to honor our war dead, those who died in service to our nation. It’s also the day where our jingoistic citizenry run around telling everyone inappropriately “Thank you for your service” and we try to not look disgusted… Regardless, this would be inappropriate on Veteran’s Day, too, but less so than on Memorial Day.
Second, pardoning war criminals doesn’t honor our troops regardless what fucking day of the year it is done. It’s a spit in the face of every man and woman who served honorably in the military. It’s saying “Hey – you’re all murderers anyway.”
Third, those convicted of war crimes by the military are most assuredly guilty. It’s about as easy to convict soldiers of these things as it is to convict a cop of manslaughter. Those convicted are the most egregious cases imaginable. I mean Jesus Tap-Dancing Christ, in the My Lai massacre, 500 unarmed civilians were murdered, gang raped, and had their corpses mutilated, and approximately ONE person, Lt. Calley, a platoon leader which is the lowest unit level in existence, was convicted. And then he even had his sentence commuted.
And he has some words for Donald Trump:
You want to do something to honor soldiers on Memorial Day, Doll Hands? Just shut the fuck up and go away for the weekend.
The language is a little salty. But that may be appropriate. We are all marching into darkness now. And the man is rich. Are you? Who can argue with him? And the president’s pardon power is absolute – the Constitution says so. No one can argue otherwise. So get used to the darkness. America chose that.