Trump's Tweet Supporting Green Beret Accused Of Murder Was Not Unlawful Command Influence, Experts Say

news
Special Forces Maj. Matthew Golsteyn in Afghanistan.
Photo courtesy of Philip Stackhouse.

Legal experts do not believe that President Donald Trump crossed the line when he tweeted that he was reviewing the case of a Green Beret who is accused of killing a suspected Taliban bomb-maker.


Maj. Matthew Golsteyn has been charged with pre-meditated murder after he admitted during an October 2016 Fox News interview that he killed a detainee after a tribal leader told him the man built a bomb that killed two Marines. Golsteyn was reportedly worried that the suspected bomb-maker would kill the tribal leader in reprisal if released.

In a Sunday tweet, Trump voiced his support for Golsteyn: "At the request of many, I will be reviewing the case of a 'U.S. Military hero,' Major Matt Golsteyn, who is charged with murder. He could face the death penalty from our own government after he admitted to killing a Terrorist bomb maker while overseas."

Task & Purpose asked Defense Department spokesman Army Col. Rob Manning on Monday if the president's tweet rises to the level of unlawful command influence.

"I'm not a lawyer," said Manning, who then repeated an earlier Pentagon statement on the matter. "I put out in that statement that we would respect the integrity of the process. It is a law enforcement matter and we will provide updates when appropriate."

To find out whether the president had illegally interfered with the Golsteyn proceedings, Task & Purpose reached out to several military justice experts, including Daniel Conway, a civilian military lawyer and former Marine captain.

"I don't believe it was unlawful command influence for the commander in chief to state he would review the charging decision in a potential death penalty case," Conway said. "He hasn't expressed an opinion on guilt, innocence, or disposition. He's exercising his rights as commander in chief. His discretion here is particularly important in a case that the Army already resolved years ago."

It would be highly unusual for the prosecution in the Golsteyn to argue that Trump exerted unlawful influence over the legal proceedings, said retired Marine Lt. Col. Guy Womack, a military defense attorney and legal expert based in Houston.

Attorneys normally make an unlawful command influence argument when they feel commanders have made it impossible for their clients to get a fair trial, Womack told Task & Purpose.

"We really never think about it in terms of: Is it going to hurt the government in some way – will we deny them the chance to prosecute someone," Womack said on Monday.

"You can certainly say that, well, someone should be prosecuted; no one should step in the way of that and prevent that. But really, the rule is meant more to protect the accused from an overzealous commander or convening authority. I've never seen it used the other way."

Regardless of the letter of the law, Trump has still undermined the legal proceedings, said retired Air Force Lt. Col. Rachel VanLandingham, a former military attorney who now teaches at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles.

"I do think his tweet puts inappropriate pressure on military decision-makers (like the preliminary hearing officer, and the convening authority) to make a decision not to prosecute," VanLandingham told Task & Purpose.

However, Trump has not gone as far as former President Obama and former Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos, both of whom ran afoul of unlawful command influence, she said.

Obama said troops convicted of sexual assault should be dishonorably discharged and Amos told the convening authority in the case of Marine scout snipers accused of urinating on Taliban corpses that he wanted the Marines "crushed."

VanLandingham argues that President Trump should let the Golsteyn case play out because the legal process is designed to protect Golsteyn's rights and determine what the facts are.

"The major is not being investigated because anyone is out to get this war hero, but because his own statements apparently indicate he killed someone he shouldn't have," she said. "The Army would be failing all service members and the country if it failed to take these steps."

WATCH: Trump Watches Air Assault and Gun Raid Demonstration

Photo illustration by Paul Szoldra

Navy Lt. Jonny Kim went viral last week when NASA announced that he and 10 other candidates (including six other service members) became the newest members of the agency's hallowed astronaut corps. A decorated Navy SEAL and graduate of Harvard Medical School, Kim in particular seems to have a penchant for achieving people's childhood dreams.

However, Kim shared with Task & Purpose that his motivation for living life the way he has stems not so much from starry-eyed ambition, but from the pain and loss he suffered both on the battlefields of Iraq and from childhood instability while growing up in Los Angeles. Kim tells his story in the following Q&A, which was lightly edited for length and clarity:

Read More

You can almost smell the gunpowder in the scene captured by a Marine photographer over the weekend, showing a Marine grunt firing a shotgun during non-lethal weapons training.

Read More

A Marine grunt stationed in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina is being considered for an award after he saved the lives of three people earlier this month from a fiery car crash.

Cpl. Scott McDonell, an infantry assaultman with 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, was driving down Market Street in Wilmington in the early morning hours of Jan. 11 when he saw a car on fire after it had crashed into a tree. Inside were three victims aged 17, 20, and 20.

"It was a pretty mangled wreck," McDonell told ABC 15. "The passenger was hanging out of the window."

Read More

Todd Robinson's upcoming Vietnam War drama, The Last Full Measure, is a story of two battles: One takes place during an ambush in the jungles of Vietnam in 1966, while the other unfolds more than three decades later as the survivors fight to see one pararescueman's valor posthumously recognized.

Read More
Protesters and militia fighters gather to condemn air strikes on bases belonging to Hashd al-Shaabi (paramilitary forces), outside the main gate of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq December 31, 2019. (Reuters/Thaier al-Sudani)

With ISIS trying to reorganize itself into an insurgency, most attacks on U.S. and allied forces in Iraq are being carried out by Shiite militias, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, the deputy commander for operations and intelligence for U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria.

"In the time that I have been in Iraq, we've taken a couple of casualties from ISIS fighting on the ground, but most of the attacks have come from those Shia militia groups, who are launching rockets at our bases and frankly just trying to kill someone to make a point," Grynkewich said Wednesday at an event hosted by the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

Read More