Donald Trump has indicated he is considering pardons for several US military members accused or convicted of war crimes, including high-profile cases of murder, attempted murder and desecration of a corpse, according to two US officials.
The officials said the Trump administration had made expedited requests this week for paperwork needed to pardon the troops on or around Memorial Day.
One request is for Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher of the Navy SEALs, who is scheduled to stand trial in the coming weeks on charges of shooting unarmed civilians and killing an enemy captive with a knife while deployed in Iraq.
The others are believed to include the case of a former Blackwater security contractor recently found guilty in the deadly 2007 shooting of dozens of unarmed Iraqis; the case of Major Mathew Golsteyn, the Army Green Beret accused of killing an unarmed Afghan in 2010; and the case of a group of Marine Corps snipers charged with urinating on the corpses of dead Taliban fighters.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly, said they had not seen a complete list and did not know if other service members were included in the request for pardon paperwork.
The White House sent requests on Friday to the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, which alerted the military branches, according to one senior military official. Pardon files include background information and details on criminal charges, and in many cases include letters describing how the person in question has made amends.
The official said while assembling pardon files typically takes months, the Justice Department stressed that all files would have to be complete before Memorial Day weekend, because Mr Trump planned to pardon the men then. A second US official confirmed the request concerning Mr Gallagher.
The military branches referred questions to the Justice Department, which declined to comment on the matter.
Mr Trump has often bypassed traditional channels in granting pardons and wielded his power freely, sometimes in politically-charged cases that resonate with him personally, such as the conviction of former Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona.
Earlier this month, the president pardoned former Army 1st Lieutenant Michael Behenna, who had been convicted of killing an Iraqi during an interrogation in 2008.
While the requests for pardon files are a strong sign of the president’s plans, Mr Trump has been known to change his mind, and it is not clear what the impetus was for the requests. But most of the troops who are positioned for a pardon have been championed by conservative lawmakers and media organisations, such as Fox News, which have portrayed them as being unfairly punished for trying to do their job. Many have pushed for the president to intervene. The White House declined to comment.
Pardoning several accused and convicted war criminals at once, including some who have not yet gone to trial, has not been done in recent history, legal experts said. Some worried that it could erode the legitimacy of military law and undercut good order and discipline in the ranks.
“These are all extremely complicated cases that have gone through a careful system of consideration. A freewheeling pardon undermines that whole system,” said Gary Solis, a retired military judge and armour officer who served in Vietnam.
“It raises the prospect in the minds of the troops that says, ‘Whatever we do, if we can get the folks back home behind us, maybe we can get let off.’”
Mr Gallagher’s lawyer, Timothy Parlatore, was surprised by the news that the president could be considering a pardon, and said ideally the chief would be acquitted at trial.
“We want the opportunity to exonerate my client,” Mr Parlatore said in an interview. “At the same time, there is always a risk in going to trial. My primary objective is to get Chief Gallagher home to his family. To that end, Chief Gallagher would welcome any involvement by the president.”
The fact that the requests were sent from the White House to the Justice Department, instead of the other way around, is a reversal of long-established practices, said Margaret Love, who served as the US pardon attorney during the first Bush administration and part of the Clinton administration.
Process aside, Ms Love said that pardoning the men would be an abrupt departure from the past.
“Presidents use pardons to send messages. They recognise when a process wasn’t just or when punishments were too extreme, like for some nonviolent drug cases,” she said.
“If this president is planning to pardon a bunch of people charged with war crimes, he will use the pardon power to send a far darker message.”
The New York Times