President Donald Trump's open support for a former Green Beret facing murder charges in the death of an alleged Afghan bombmaker could jeopardize the Army's case on the grounds that the president was attempting to exert influence over the outcome.
"Could Trump kill the case? Sure, he could," said Yale University professor Eugene Fidell on Monday.
Fidell, who was a member of the defense team for former Pvt. Bowe Bergdahl, told Military.com that Trump's support could be interpreted as exercising "unlawful command influence" in the early stages of a military justice matter.
Commander-in-Chief Trump sent out a tweet Sunday stating, "'At the request of many, I will be reviewing the case of a U.S. Military hero, Maj. Matt Golsteyn, who is charged with murder. He could face the death penalty from our own government after he admitted to killing a Terrorist bomb maker while overseas."
The potential influence issue in the Golsteyn case would be the reverse of the argument made by the defense team in Bergdahl's court-martial, Fidell said.
In Bergdahl's trial on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, the defense played videos of Trump as a candidate calling Bergdahl a "no-good traitor" and a "dirty rotten traitor" who should get the maximum punishment.
The military judge called Trump's statements "disturbing," but Bergdahl eventually was convicted and sentenced in November 2017 to a dishonorable discharge, reduction of rank to private and to pay $1,000 per month for 10 months.
The sentence did not include prison time. At the time, Trump called the lack of jail time a "complete and total disgrace to our country and our military."
The case against Golsteyn dates to 2010, when he was a captain with 3rd Special Forces Group in Afghanistan, taking part in operations against the Taliban around the flashpoint town of Marja in southwestern Helmand province.
During the fighting, an improvised explosive device rigged to a door killed two Marines and wounded three others who were working with Golsteyn's unit.
Golsteyn's valor in the mission earned him the Silver Star.
But in 2011, during a job interview with the Central Intelligence Agency, he allegedly admitted he had killed an Afghan bombmaker who had been taken into custody.
An Army investigation resulted in Golsteyn being stripped of the Silver Star and his Special Forces tab. He also was issued a letter of reprimand and placed on inactive status while awaiting discharge.
There matters stood until 2016, when Golsteyn did an interview with Fox News and again said he had killed the alleged Afghan bombmaker. A second Army investigation began, resulting in the murder charge last week.
If convicted, Golsteyn could face the death penalty.
The officer's supporters include Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, who said in a tweet Monday that "what the Army is doing to Maj. Golsteyn is a travesty." He praised Trump for "heeding my call to review the full facts of this case."
Hunter, who narrowly won re-election in the midterms, was indicted in August, along with his wife, on federal charges of conspiracy, wire fraud, and violating campaign finance laws. The charges are pending.
The issue of a commander-in-chief exercising undue influence arose in 2013 during the administration of former President Barack Obama. At the White House, Obama said that service members who commit sexual assault should be "prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged."
Obama's remarks were later cited by judges and defense lawyers at several courts-martial. In Hawaii, a Navy trial judge ruled that two defendants could not be punitively discharged because of Obama's statement.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.