Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, recently stepped up his advocacy for a Navy SEAL on trial for war crimes, including contacting military leaders with administrative and supervisory roles in the trial.
Wednesday Hunter also sent a letter to President Donald Trump, calling on him to remove from the Navy's hands the case of Chief Petty Officer Edward R. Gallagher, who is accused of stabbing to death a teen-age Iraqi combatant. Co-signing the letter was Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, a Republican who represents the western panhandle region of that state.
The letter alleges political bias against Gallagher and repeats other claims about his confinement and access to attorneys, claims the Navy has disputed.
The White House has not commented on the request.
Gallagher, a chief special warfare operator based in San Diego, was charged with several war crimes from a 2017 deployment to Mosul, Iraq.
Navy investigators say Gallagher killed a wounded teenage ISIS fighter brought to him for medical treatment. He also faces aggravated assault charges for allegedly shooting an elderly man and a little girl, and charges related to allegedly shooting indiscriminately at civilians during deployment.
Gallagher has denied all the allegations and pleaded not guilty.
Chief Petty Officer Edward R. Gallagher(U.S. Navy)
Hunter recently leaned on Navy officials about the courthouse where Gallagher is being tried. Hunter's office said calls were made to ensure that Gallagher's supporters could attend the Navy SEAL's trial next month.
Gallagher's case has attracted a large number of supporters and more than 30 news media outlets, said Brian O'Rourke, a Navy spokesman.
The largest courtroom on Naval Base San Diego can accommodate only about 30 people. Once seating is reserved for Navy officials and those required by the prosecution and defense, there likely will not be enough seats for the public, he said.
They are planning to use a closed-circuit TV system for an audience in another courtroom, he said.
The issue came to a head at Gallagher's arraignment Jan. 4. Priority was given to 11 members of the news media, leaving only five seats available for the 35 or so Gallagher supporters, O'Rourke said.
That's when someone called Hunter.
"They were upset (the Navy) wasn't using the full capacity of the room," said Michael Harrison, a spokesman for Hunter. "To their credit, they fixed it that day — within 10 to 15 minutes."
Hunter's office called Navy officials, some of whom have a direct supervisory role in the court martial.
Hunter's staff called Capt. Meg Larrea, commanding officer of the region's legal service office, which is prosecuting Gallagher.
Another call went to Rear Adm. Yancy Lindsey, commander of Navy Region Southwest and the convening authority for Gallagher's court martial. The convening authority has the final say in going forward with prosecutions.
O'Rourke, who took that call, said he did not make the admiral available to the congressman's office.
The next business day after the arraignment hearing, Hunter visited Gallagher in the Miramar brig, where the SEAL has been held since Sept. 11. Hunter later sent a letter to Trump, asking for help getting Gallagher released, complaining about the brig's conditions.
A judge then ruled that Gallagher would remain behind bars throughout his trial.
Rep. Duncan Hunter(Associated Press/Carolyn Kaster)
That same day Hunter sent another letter, this time to Rear Adm. Collin Green, commander of Naval Special Warfare in Coronado, questioning why administration of the case was shifted from Naval Special Warfare to Navy Region Southwest.
Hunter, who faces his own felony charges for alleged campaign finance violations and wire fraud, is a Marine combat veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He has issued press releases and appeared on a right-wing cable news channel, One America News, to talk about Gallagher's case.
"U.S. military lawyers have a culture that values collecting scalps from war-fighters," Hunter said on a Jan. 17 show.
Hunter complained that the Miramar brig is for sex offenders.
"You shouldn't put anybody who's not a sex offender in with a bunch of really bad, disgusting people like that," Hunter said.
The Navy said brig conditions are within regulations and that its inmates are facing a variety of charges.
At least one expert in military trials said he is not surprised that Hunter is advocating for Gallagher. William Woodruff, a former Army JAG trial attorney and professor emeritus at the Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law at Campbell University, said Hunter is within his rights to work on behalf of constituents.
"People can argue whether it's appropriate or inappropriate, but I don't see a legal issue," Woodruff said. "(It's) more political theater than anything else."
Gallagher, who previously lived in military housing in Point Loma, did not live in Hunter's district.
It would be different, Woodruff said, if President Trump involves himself in the case. That would introduce issues of undue influence because, as Commander-in-Chief, Trump is at the top of the military chain of command.
"When the president gets involved, you start running into the unlawful command influence," he said. "No good would come of the president getting involved."
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