WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump said Friday that he has been considering pardons for several American military members accused of war crimes, including headline-grabbing cases of shooting unarmed civilians and killing an enemy captive.
Trump, leaving the White House for a trip to Japan, said he was "looking" at the pardons after being asked about reports that he was considering clemency for the soldiers around the upcoming Memorial Day holiday.
"Some of these soldiers are people that have fought hard and long," the president said. "You know, we teach them how to be great fighters, and then when they fight, sometimes they get really treated very unfairly."
But, Trump cautioned, "I haven't done anything yet. I haven't made any decisions."
"There's two or three of them right now," the president continued. "It's a little bit controversial. It's very possible that I'll let the trials go on, and I'll make my decision after the trial."
A number of veterans groups have registered opposition to the possible pardons, including one that could reportedly go to Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, a Navy SEAL. Gallagher is charged with killing a wounded Islamic State prisoner under his care in Iraq in 2017.
Dozens of Republican congressmen have championed Gallagher's cause, claiming he's an innocent war hero being unfairly prosecuted. Trump got him moved from the brig to better confinement in a military hospital with access to his lawyers and family.
Prosecutors said Gallagher fatally stabbed a wounded teenage Islamic State fighter, shot two civilians in Iraq and opened fire on crowds. Gallagher has pleaded not guilty to all counts. His lawyers said that he did not murder anyone and that disgruntled SEALs made the accusations because they wanted to get rid of a demanding platoon leader.
Several major veterans groups said they had not been consulted by the White House about the possible pardons and were not provided with information they had requested about who was being considered and why.
Jeremy Butler, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, urged Trump to exercise caution and not rush to act before Memorial Day, expressing concern that pardons could be issued before trials were held or fully adjudicated.
"These are not the types of decisions to be rushed and should be made after long and careful consideration," he said. "We want to hear from the administration as to their rationale — what additional information they have and why they are taking this course."
The Vietnam Veterans of America said it was opposed to the idea of issuing pardons to those accused or convicted of war crimes, which they believe could sidestep justice. Officials there said they saw no reason for the U.S. to deviate from its norm of abiding by the code of conduct and the Nuremberg principles, as embodied in the Universal Code of Military Justice, for more than 70 years.
"It is mind-blowing that these are the persons this administration is considering for pardons," said Kristofer Goldsmith, an associate director for policy and chief investigator at Vietnam Veterans of America.
A number of influential Trump outside advisers have pushed the president to pardon the soldiers. Others believed to be considered for pardons are Mathew Golsteyn, a former U.S. Army commando being charged with murder for killing a suspected Taliban bombmaker in Afghanistan, and Nicholas Slatten, one of four former Blackwater guards who were found guilty at trial in the fatal shooting of unarmed Iraqi civilians in a crowded Baghdad traffic circle.
Prosecutors argued that Slatten, of Sparta, Tennessee, fired the first shots in a massacre that left more than a dozen dead and many others injured. His attorney has said that's not the case and pointed to statements that he says show another member of the Blackwater team initiated the shooting.
The case took a long and winding path over the course of a decade. An appeals court in 2017 overturned the first guilty verdict against Slatten, ruling that he should have been tried separately from his three co-defendants. A second trial ended in a mistrial, and he was found guilty of murder last December in a third trial in federal court in Washington. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Slatten, who joined Blackwater after leaving the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, has long maintained his innocence.
Trump had said in December that he would be "reviewing" the case against Golsteyn, calling him a "U.S. Military hero" who could face the death penalty "from our own government." The former Green Beret could face the death penalty if convicted.
Golsteyn was charged with killing the suspected bombmaker during a 2010 deployment in Afghanistan. Golsteyn was leading a team of Army Special Forces troops at the time and believed that the man was responsible for an explosion that killed two U.S. Marines.
The possible pardons were first reported by The New York Times.
Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writers Jill Colvin, Eric Tucker and Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.