President Trump has granted a full pardon to two soldiers who faced murder charges in war zone deaths, and reinstated the chief petty officer rank of a Navy SEAL convicted of posing with a dead detainee.
In a statement released Friday by White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham, Trump announced that former Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance and Maj. Matt Golsteyn would receive Executive Clemency, or a presidential pardon.
Lorance is more than six years into a 19-year sentence received after being found guilty of ordering soldiers to fire on three men on a motorcycle during a 2012 patrol in Afghanistan. Golsteyn faced a February 2020 court-martial, accused of murder in connection with the killing of a suspected Afghan bomb-maker in 2010.
SEAL Eddie Gallagher was acquitted in July of killing a captive ISIS fighter, but found guilty of taking improper war zone photos and demoted to petty officer 1st class. Trump has ordered his reinstatement to chief.
"The President, as Commander-in-Chief, is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the law is enforced and when appropriate, that mercy is granted," Grisham said in the White House statement. "For more than two hundred years, presidents have used their authority to offer second chances to deserving individuals, including those in uniform who have served our country. These actions are in keeping with this long history. As the President has stated, 'when our soldiers have to fight for our country, I want to give them the confidence to fight.'"
Trump's Friday announcement had been expected for more than a week; Fox News personality Pete Hegseth, an Army veteran, announced in early November that Trump planned to intervene on behalf of the men.
Golsteyn's attorney, Phil Stackhouse, said in a statement that Trump had called the major directly and spoken with him for several minutes to share the news of the pardon.
"Our family is profoundly grateful for the President's action," Golsteyn said in a statement. "We have lived in constant fear of this runaway prosecution. Thanks to President Trump, we now have a chance to rebuild our family and lives. With time, I hope to regain my immense pride in having served in our military. In the meantime, we are so thankful for the support of family members, friends and supporters from around the nation, and our legal team."
Gallagher's attorney, Timothy Parlatore, said that both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence had called the SEAL to tell him the news of his promotion. Gallagher, Parlatore said, was excited and grateful for their intervention, although he said some things, like the peace of relative anonymity, could not be restored.
"Eddie Gallagher wasn't one of those SEALs you would expect to come out and write a book," Parlatore said. "He loved doing his job, he loved serving his country."
Parlatore said the restoration of chief's rank made a "tremendous difference" to Gallagher, not only in the value of retirement pension, but also in the prestige that comes with the rank. Gallagher has submitted retirement paperwork, and hopes to complete the retirement process by the end of the month.
"He's very grateful to be able to go into retirement as a chief," Parlatore said.
Lorance, who has been serving his sentence at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, may be a free man as soon as tonight, his attorney, John Maher, told Military.com.
"The Lorance family is jubilant, as you can imagine, as are we," Maher said. "We think the pardon is wonderful. Right now arrangements are being made for the release of Lt. Lorance, and we will receive him in the dark. It’s looking like that."
While Golsteyn and Lorance now face no legal action, pardons do not wipe their records clean. Attorneys for both men had previously said they wanted Trump to assume authority over the cases in order to disapprove sentence and charges, which would allow them to retain military and veteran benefits to which they were entitled.
John Maher said Lorance's record will still reflect his dismissal -- the officer equivalent of a dishonorable discharge. He indicated they planned to petition the U.S. Army Board for Correction of Military Records to upgrade Lorance's discharge status.
"This is uncharted waters, because not too many folks get a presidential pardon," he said.
The statement from the White House noted that many have advocated on behalf of the three men accused of war zone crimes and misbehavior.
Some 124,000 signed a White House petition on behalf of Lorance, and 20 legislators have requested clemency for him, the statement noted. Lorance's sentence was upheld by the Army Court of Criminal Appeals in 2017 despite attorney arguments that one or more of the men on the motorcycle had links to prior attacks on U.S. troops. The case, however, was set to be reviewed once more by a civilian federal court.
Golsteyn's case was originally resolved administratively by the Army as amounting to conduct unbecoming an officer rather than murder. He was recalled to active duty in 2018 by U.S. Army Special Operations Command after it found sufficient evidence existed to charge him. Golsteyn admitted to killing the Afghan man in Marjah, but has maintained it was part of combat operations.
"After nearly a decade-long inquiry and multiple investigations, a swift resolution to the case of Major Golsteyn is in the interests of justice," the White House announcement stated. "Clemency for Major Golsteyn has broad support, including from Representatives Louie Gohmert, Duncan Hunter, Mike Johnson, Ralph Abraham, and Clay Higgins, American author and Marine combat veteran Bing West, and Army combat veteran Pete Hegseth."
While some have called all three of these cases extraordinary -- and government and prosecutorial misconduct has been alleged at various points in each -- others have alleged Trump's intervention in the workings of military justice sets a troubling precedent.
"He is legally allowed to do this; he has the constitutional authority to pardon whomever he wants. So, at the end of the day, this is not a legal issue; this is a moral issue," Rachel VanLandingham, a professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, told Military.com earlier this month.
"Trump is breaking his bond trust with the rest of those military members that have to live by those rules. ... He is destroying the difference between us and ISIS; he is destroying the difference between our troops and al-Qaida, between our troops and all of those extremist, anarchist groups that believe anything goes in war."
-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.