Defense Secretary Mark Esper met with Donald Trump as president weighs intervention in war crimes cases

Defense Secretary Esper has "full confidence" in the military justice system.

November 6, 2019, 6:09 PM

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he had a "robust discussion" with President Donald Trump on Tuesday following reports that the president could intervene in the criminal cases of several American service members convicted or accused of war crimes.

Fox News contributor Pete Hegseth said earlier this week that the president was considering intervening in the cases of Army Lt. Clint Lorance, Army Green Beret Maj. Matt Golsteyn and Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher in advance of Veteran's Day next Monday. Hegseth indicated that Trump could take "imminent action" in the form of pardons, commutations or dismissal of charges.

Anticipating backlash, the president authorized the Fox News contributor to speak openly about these possible decisions as a way of floating the idea prior to the holiday, a member of Lorance's legal team told ABC News.

Navy Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher celebrates with his wife Andrea after being acquitted of premeditated murder at Naval Base San Diego, July 2, 2019.
Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

Lorance is serving 19 years in prison, convicted on two counts of second-degree murder for ordering a soldier to fire on unarmed Afghan motorcyclists in 2012. Golsteyn is charged with the murder of an alleged Afghan bombmaker in 2010. And Gallagher, while acquitted of killing a wounded Islamic State captive earlier this year, was sentenced to four months of time served and a reduction in rank for posing with a corpse during a 2017 deployment to Iraq.

"I had the chance to have a robust discussion with the president yesterday," Esper told reporters on Wednesday. "And I offered as I do in all matters the facts, the options, my advice, my recommendations. We’ll see how things play out."

Esper would not say if he supported the exoneration of the three service members, but said he has "full confidence" in the military justice system.

"I’m not going to comment any further until decisions are made one way or the other," he said.

Matthew Golsteyn is seen in this undated photo.
Obtained by ABC News

The Fox News report sparked Esper to convene a meeting with Army and Navy leadership on Monday to review the war crimes cases, two defense officials told ABC News.

According to one official, the meeting was to compile information packets about their relevant cases that Esper could provide to the president.

The second official said the theme of that meeting was ensuring that the integrity of the military justice system remained intact, a concern voiced by former military officials when Trump has indicated in the past that he might intervene in military judicial cases. However, that official did not know if that message was passed from Esper to the president on Tuesday.

Lawyers for some of the service members involved in these cases told ABC News that Trump's actions would not jeopardize the military justice system.

PHOTO: Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance is pictured in an undated handout photo.
Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, convicted for the murder and attempted murder of Afghan men in 2013, is appealing his case on the grounds that fingerprint and DNA evidence was not disclosed by the prosecution that would haven proven the Afghan men were terrorist bomb makers, not civilians.
Maher Legal Services PC

Golsteyn's lawyer, Phil Stackhouse, said that the president's "imminent action" is an example of civilian leadership over the U.S. military.

"The men and women of our military, and perhaps especially the warfighters and operators, know by these types of actions that they have a President and Commander in Chief that will step in when necessary and make sure they do not fall victim to a runaway train of injustice," he said in a statement.

Lawyers for Lorance went as far as to send a three-page letter, obtained by ABC News, to Esper on Wednesday, urging him to give an "accurate depiction of the facts" surrounding the case and saying that Trump's willingness to intervene sends "a strong message to our young combat leaders that their country will support them when they are called upon to make split-second, life-or-death decisions to protect the men and women they lead."

In July, Trump tweeted he was "very happy for Eddie Gallagher and his family" after he was acquitted of killing the ISIS captive.

The White House declined to comment on any actions the president could take.

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