The U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals has rejected Pvt. Bowe Bergdahl’s claim that his convictions for desertion and misbehavior before the enemy should be overturned due to “unlawful command influence” exercised by President Donald Trump in statements he made while a candidate and later while in office.
Bergdahl, who grew up in Blaine County, was captured by the Taliban in 2009, after he left his post while on duty in Afghanistan. He was released in 2014 in a controversial prisoner exchange for five former Taliban commanders. Bergdahl pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy in October 2017. In a court martial, prosecutors sought 14 years imprisonment, but the court instead sentenced him to a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of $10,000 in pay and a reduction in rank from sergeant to private.
While campaigning for president, Trump had called Bergdahl a “dirty, rotten, no-good traitor.” While president, on the day of Bergdahl’s conviction, Trump was asked about Bergdahl’s case. He declined to comment on the grounds that the soldier still had to be sentenced, but added, “But I think people have heard my comments in the past.”
Bergdahl’s attorney contended that those comments could have influenced the military judges, over whom the president had command, to find Bergdahl guilty and impose a punitive sentence. The attorney filed a motion to have Bergdahl’s conviction overturned.
In a 2-1 opinion, the appeals court rejected that motion in a ruling issued July 16.
“Although there was some evidence of unlawful command influence adduced at trial and in the post-trial process, the government met its burden to demonstrate that an objective disinterested observer would not harbor a significant doubt as to the fairness of the proceedings,” the court ruled.
Addressing Trump’s statements made while a candidate, the court noted that “[T]here is no precedent for finding [unlawful command influence] based on the remarks of private citizens, even influential ones.”
Regarding Trump’s later statement, the court concluded that “[a]lthough President Trump ratified the comments, their impact was lessened by the remoteness. Further, the military judge, the [staff judge advocate], and the convening authority credibly explained that they were not and would not be influenced by the President’s statement.”