Back in 2009, Army Private First Class Bowe Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban after walking off his post. He stayed in the Taliban’s clutches for five years, during which he was subjected to brutal torture. He was finally released in a prisoner exchange in 2014. However, amid claims that he had willfully left his post and endangered those trying to rescue him, Bergdahl was ordered to face a court-martial on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.
On Friday, Bergdahl’s odyssey ended, at least for now. A military judge sentenced him to a dishonorable discharge and ordered him to forfeit $1,000 in pay for ten months. He was also demoted to private; he had been promoted to sergeant while in captivity. However, the presiding judge, Colonel Jeffry Nance, did not sentence Bergdahl to serve any prison time. This was a significant break; Bergdahl faced up to life in prison for the misbehavior charge, and prosecutors wanted him sentenced to 14 years in a military prison.
The decision to keep Bergdahl out of jail didn’t sit well with the Commander-in-Chief.
The decision on Sergeant Bergdahl is a complete and total disgrace to our Country and to our Military.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 3, 2017
It also didn’t sit well with other conservatives either.
HERO: Master Sgt Mark Allen shot in the head searching for deserter Bowe Bergdahl. Can no longer walk/speak
Today, Bergdahl walks. Pathetic pic.twitter.com/aFgfvuLXtD
— Chet Cannon (@Chet_Cannon) November 3, 2017
— I'll TAKE, WHO'S A RUSSIAN BOT 4 $10,0OO (@Carolin17951107) November 3, 2017
Deserter and traitor Bowe Bergdahl dishonorably discharged, no jail time. This isn't justice. https://t.co/8Zu0TctAjy
— Nick Short 🇺🇸 (@PoliticalShort) November 3, 2017
The right-wing anger is severely misplaced. After all, it looks like Trump’s own words are at least partly responsible for Bergdahl avoiding jail time. During the campaign, Trump repeatedly called Bergdahl a “dirty rotten traitor” who deserved to be executed. Due in part to Trump’s incendiary remarks on the stump, Bergdahl’s lawyers tried to get the case thrown out after Trump took office. They argued that since everyone involved in the proceeding now ultimately answered to Trump, it was not possible for their client to get a fair trial.
However, Nance twice found that since Trump was merely a candidate at the time, his statements didn’t amount to unlawful command influence. Soon afterward, Bergdahl pleaded guilty on October 16. From the looks of it, this move was prompted not only by Nance’s rulings on Trump’s statements, but news that the prosecution intended to introduce evidence of the grisly injuries suffered by Bergdahl’s rescuers.
The case took a new turn just hours after Bergdahl pleaded guilty, when Trump said that “people have heard my comments in the past” about Bergdahl. To Bergdahl’s lawyers, this meant that Trump still wanted Bergdahl sentenced to death. To their minds, there was no dispute that this was unlawful command influence, and the entire proceeding was tainted.
Ultimately, Nance opted to let the sentencing hearing go forward. He did, however, hint that he would consider Trump’s comments about Bergdahl as a mitigating factor when weighing a sentence. Other mitigating factors included the torture Bergdahl suffered at the hands of the Taliban, as well as a subsequent diagnosis of a severe personality disorder.
From the looks of it, it appeared that the only reason the case went forward was because throwing it out would have carried the appearance that Nance had overlooked the particularly severe injuries suffered by those searching for Bergdahl. One of them, Army National Guard Master Sergeant Mark Allen, was shot in the head while searching for Bergdahl. He suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak or feed himself. His wife, Shannon, said that she can’t hold hands with him unless she pries his hand open.
Retired general Barry McCaffrey, the drug czar under Bill Clinton, told MSNBC’s Katy Tur that this sentence was more than appropriate. Watch here.
McCaffrey, a 32-year Army veteran, believed the sentence was more than appropriate. He said that “most combat soldiers” wanted Bergdahl dishonorably discharged, as it sent the message that a soldier can’t “abandon your buddies in the face of the enemy.” A dishonorable discharge is no small thing; as a result, Bergdahl will be ineligible for veterans’ benefits–including mental health services.
McCaffrey also said that it was “ridiculous” and “beyond inappropriate” for Trump to call for Bergdahl to be executed. He added that if any general officer had said that, he would have been fired on the spot. He believed, though, that at the end of the day, neither a judge nor a jury would have paid Trump’s words any heed.
However, Trump’s words could potentially come back to haunt him once again. If the dishonorable discharge is upheld by General Robert Abrams, the commander of Army Forces Command, it will be automatically appealed to the Army Court of Criminal Appeals. When Rachel VanLandingham, a former Air Force lawyer who now teaches law at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, saw that tweet, she concluded that it could “exponentially” increase the likelihood of the sentence being thrown out. VanLandingham and other military law experts who spoke to The New York Times believe that Trump’s tweet could be construed as an attempt to pressure the officers considering Bergdahl’s fate into not lessening his sentence.
So Trump’s big mouth may very well have kept Bergdahl out of jail. Now his big mouth could be responsible for torpedoing the entire case. So if the right wants to go ballistic on anyone about this matter, it should be at Trump.
(featured image courtesy U. S. Army via The Oregonian, part of public domain)